Updated: December 10, 2017 6:30:44 am
My love for Bollywood can be credited to British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha. When Bride and Prejudice released in 2004, I eagerly read the director’s plan for mixing masala elements into her Jane Austen adaptation. I knew I had to see what she was talking about. For several years, I made my way through whatever new releases I could find, naively assuming I would like those better than anything made before 2000. But once I found 1970s masala, I was hooked on the creative, complex stories.
Other fans predicted that I would be blown away by Amitabh Bachchan or Rajesh Khanna. But neither of these heroes lodged in my heart the way Shashi Kapoor has. In mainstream Hindi films, where the bulk of his over 150 movies-strong career lies, he is often a sunny, ethically-centered lead, carefully sharing space with the other performers. He creates dreamy romances by playing the kind of hero you’d want to know in real life: confident, open, and respectful.
But there’s more, because Shashi Kapoor has never played just one character. He is willing to be quiet, elegant and complicated in a film industry that tends to put its energies in the bombastic and glamorous. He does not present a larger-than-life persona, maybe because he diversified his career so much that no one type could take hold.
There is remarkable humanity in his roles. If brothers Raj and Shammi are memorialised as the auteur and Elvis through their masala texts, then Shashi is the relateable persona. Best friend or brother to the towering, booming guy who bashes people up and gets the big laughs (most of his films with Bachchan). A single parent sacrificing in order to support their kid (Aa Gale Lag Jaa, 1973). The child bristling under Maa’s preference for a sibling who doesn’t deserve it (Deewaar, 1975). That’s who most of us are.
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I first watched the Merchant Ivory arc of his filmography during a phase of mopey heartbreak about a decade ago. I’d been binging on his prime era of masala turns like Do aur Do Paanch (1980), Shaan (1980), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), and Sharmeelee (1971) and writing about them extensively on my blog. Then along came Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Here was a story that put an utterly tempting yet horribly flawed man in the path of a woman who had absolutely no idea what to do with him. He is indecisive, possessive, and unwilling to live up to whatever he feels for her, yet he’s magnetic and their affection is definitely real. They are the centrepiece in a swirl of questions about cultural differences, personal effort, and understanding other people. In my sorry state, that was very relatable cinema. We invest in the surprising attraction between the leads even as we know it’s not enough to support them.
Not one of the leads he played in the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory films was traditionally heroic. In some of the films he produced, like Junoon (1978) and Utsav (1984), he played dangerous people who threatened even sympathetic characters. In his non-masala roles, he played men of pride, lust and sloth, who tended to move only falteringly, if at all, to redemption. And yet, we can see ourselves in some of these films, too: the hesitant teacher in The Householder (1963) who can’t inspire his students; the vain movie star in Bombay Talkie (1970) who flits wherever he is flattered; the worker in Kalyug (1981) who quietly pines for lost love until destiny runs him over.
What I love most about him is that I never know when I’ll discover yet another excellent performance. His career is made of “and also,” with significant work across genres. He built a rich career by devoting talent, finances and his name to a staggering variety of projects across decades.
In recent years, it’s been relatively easy to find him quietly sitting in the courtyard of Prithvi Theatre in Juhu. A friend and I approached him there one evening, managing to blurt out some version of “We love you!” and “Thank you for making great films!” Truly, no other individual in the Hindi film industry is responsible for more joy in my cinema-watching, and only Soumitra Chatterjee’s equally varied Bengali career comes close — but the most magical moment came when we caught a flash of that famous smile. You know the one: generous, golden, and very movie-star. It’s unfair to call him a matinee idol because he is so much more than that, but there’s also no denying the power of celebrity.
There’s never been another Hindi film actor like him. He balanced and made considerable contributions to three distinct cinematic careers across three decades. By all accounts, he was professional, kind and dedicated. In a year when celebrities keep turning out to be worse than we feared, it’s meaningful to honour someone who was so much more than we realise.
Beth Watkins lives in the US and writes about Hindi cinema at http://www.bethlovesbollywood.com.
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