As any film buff will tell you, acting can either be a method or spontaneous. Dilip Kumar personifies the first example while Dev Anand can be called a spontaneous actor. And then you have the Shammi Kapoor style of acting, which defies easy categorisation. At best, you can describe it as freestyle. When you watch Vijay Anand’s Teesri Manzil (1966), hailed by many cineastes as Shammi’s finest film, it is hard to miss the star’s contrasting, changing-by-the-second reflexes as if he’s summoning all the facial muscles in the service of ‘performing.’ In the early train station sequences with Asha Parekh, he’s smiling compulsively and all whacky one moment. Seconds later, he turns serious. Then, mock-angry. It looks like he’s miming. Or is he simply naughtily flirting with Asha Parekh? For all of ‘lover boy’ Shammi’s attempts at romance and comedy, the fact is that Teesri Manzil is a gripping thriller that begins with shots of a car moving at breakneck speed. A woman gets off and the camera follows her, revealing the front of a building’s window shot against a dark backdrop inspired by Hollywood noir. Bam! With a loud thud, the woman’s body lands on the ground from the third floor. Curious bystanders throng the corpse in no time. The camera later surveys the lurking, shadowy figures that populate the frame, stopping – and lingering awhile – at Shammi Kapoor’s character Rocky, perhaps dropping an accusing finger at him.
So, what exactly is the debonair Shammi Kapoor doing in this crime thriller full of pulpy intrigue, murder and dark shadows? For one, there are the dames and there are songs – a terra firma where no Lothario worth his salt can dare take on Shammi Kapoor. And how differently Dev Anand, the original choice for the role, would have done it? To be sure, Dev Anand did have the adequate noir experience having acted in a number of what came to be known as Bombay noirs of the 1950s. Films like C.I.D, Baazi, and Taxi Driver spring quickly to mind. As Vijay or ‘Goldie’ was his younger brother, they had worked together in the past. We can only speculate that the character of band drummer Rocky would have been relatively easy for Dev Anand. The plot is typical of noir. Rocky’s friend has committed suicide. Enter her sister (played by Asha Parekh) who wants to solve the puzzle and is immediately suspicious of Rocky.
Frankly, seeing the film today, it’s hard to envisage anyone else in the shoes of Rocky. Shammi does full justice to the character who the audience, till the very end, cannot a put a finger on. Watch him in the Helen murder scene. He gives it his all. When Shammi wanted to be serious, he could do it efficiently. Teesri Manzil has many instances where you see him at the top of his game. With his background in theatre, the 60s generation’s least appreciated actor often displayed the ability to be versatile, appearing silly and whimsical one minute and emotional and solemn the very next.
Hailing from a family of performers, he had no pretensions about acting. In fact, he never gave himself enough credit for his success. Because of his commercial leanings, he is seen by the intelligentsia as the King of Ham. But just as he was a picture of Buddha in the high points of his success he was equally Zen-like when faced with criticism.
Funnily, as is the case with all Shammi Kapoor films, he packs more ‘acting’ into his songs than an average actor would reserve for a scene. And as with most Shammi starrers, Teesri Manzil’s songs were a rage. It was RD Burman’s big break and he lived up to the faith reposed in him. One song from Teesri Manzil that has painful personal resonance for Shammi was Tumne Mujhe Dekha. Actress Geeta Bali, Shammi’s wife, had died during the filming of Teesri Manzil causing Shammi to slide into depression. After three months, he got up one morning and told producer and close friend Nasir Hussain, “Let’s resume work.” The first song he shot after Geeta’s death was Tumne Mujhe Dekha. Watching it today, you cannot miss the suffering and pathos on his face.
Few Hindi cinema stars carried off a song like Shammi did. Music was crucial to his success. A trained classical singer, he often sat with Mohammed Rafi on playback and music settings. When Rafi howled, ‘Yahoo’, it looked like it was Shammi’s voice. So inseparable were the two that when Rafi died Shammi was in a Vrindavan ashram. A man came running towards him and said, “Shammiji, you have lost your voice.” It took a while before Shammi realised that Rafi had passed away.
Part of Shammi’s charm is that there’s nobody in Hindi cinema you can compare him to. The least you can do is try and analyse his influences. Long perceived as a dancing romantic star with macho sexuality and urbane image, you could call him an intoxicating cocktail of Dev Anand, James Dean and Elvis Presley and yet, he was very much an original. (It’s interesting to note that in the early part of his career, a phase when he famously gave 19 flops at a stretch, the press damned him as a “Raj Kapoor copy.” But he was to quickly make his own style.) During the Swinging Sixties, he embodied the changing India with hits starting from Tumsa Nahin Dekha in 1957 all the way to Junglee, China Town, Bluffmaster, Kashmir Ki Kali and An Evening in Paris in the 1960s. While his elder brother Raj Kapoor was a Nehruvian hero, projecting the moral and dreamy-eyed qualities of a young, virtuous, independent and hopeful India, Shammi was the opposite. Raj Kapoor’s simpleton characters arrive into the big city and find themselves tainted and corrupted by urban vice whereas Shammi preferred picturesque hills over the big city, particularly Kashmir. He wrapped himself in Western clothing that he personally shopped from vacations abroad and introduced cool new ways of glamour and romance to the socialist India of the 1960s. His energetic, highly Westernised style, exuberant dance and mischievous romance forever changed the idiom of a Hindi film hero.
Shammi gave birth to a generation of dancing stars – from Jeetendra to Govinda and Joy Mukherjee to Rishi Kapoor. If Shah Rukh Khan reminds one of Dilip Kumar you could say there are feral streaks of the Junglee star in Salman Khan and to an extent, Aamir Khan. The rebel Kapoor also has an unlikely fan in Naseeruddin Shah! “My films weren’t topical or had any message for anyone. It was mostly boy-meets-girl and in the process, the hero sings songs to woo her. Into this mix, in pops someone like Pran who had to be overcome for a happy ending,” that’s how the star himself once summed up his films.
Today is Shammi Kapoor’s birth anniversary. He passed away in 2011 after being on dialysis for much of his later life. Incidentally, Teesri Manzil also turned 50 earlier this year. What better day to celebrate the freewheeling, jumping, somersaulting, gliding, Yahooing, rebellious star who, along with Dev Anand, set the tone for the modern Bollywood hero?
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He also paints.)