In 1975 came Deewar, a film that changed Hindi cinema. Writers Salim-Javed astutely and brilliantly captured the zeitgeist, giving us a brand new hero who channelled the anger and the discontent India was seething under, toplining a plot we still reference. The film released in January 1975. The Emergency was declared in June, and there was a clamp-down on all unrest. But in the intervening six months, the landscape of Hindi cinema changed irrevocably: The Angry Young Man replaced, once and for all, the Eternal Charmer, and angst became the dominant leitmotif of the decade.
Amitabh Bachchan shot to the top of the heap, and stayed there all the way up to the mid-’80s, sweeping all opposition out of the way, including his co-star Shashi Kapoor. More than anything else, Deewar typified the divide between Then and Now. Kapoor, the impossibly good-looking star who had sung and danced his way through a series of hits all through the ‘60s, was reduced to playing second fiddle to the ‘ubharta sitara’.
Deewar was exceedingly well-written, stuffed with memorable dialogue. By owning a line that became as well known as the film, and which has since become immortal, Kapoor managed to stay on. “Mere paas maa hai,” Kapoor’s straight-arrow cop Ravi tells the conflicted smuggler Vijay: that one line, spoken by the very earnest, very likeable Kapoor, turned into cinema gold. But clearly, Kapoor was the past. Bachchan was the future.
In a way, it was wholly apt, because Kapoor belonged to a gentler, kinder era, when Hindi cinema was moving away from the nation-building stories of the ‘50s. It was beginning to embrace entertainment as the chief USP of a film, where it was perfectly acceptable for leading men to do nothing but romance a lovely in picturesque locations. He spoke to us as the modern Indian male, who was as comfortable in English as he was in Hindi, and who could shunt between town and village with ease.
For those who loved the techni-colour cinema of the ‘60s, which transported its heroes and heroines to the undulating slopes of popular hill stations and made them hum their way through even more popular ditties, there was no one better than Kapoor. He had the crinkly-eye look pat much before Rajesh Khanna came on the scene. He was tall, slim, handsome, the perfect boy next door. He was the non-threatening, civilised respectful lover who could be introduced to mummyji as a perfectly suitable boy, as opposed to his brash “chahe koi mujhe jungle kahe” older brother Shammi, who was the other star who reigned in the ‘60s.
They came from the same stock, and they had similar Kapoor genes, but as actors, they were wildly different. Shammi was determinedly in-your-face, who shimmied and shook, and yahooed his way into the movies. Shashi was gentle, debonair, and the ultimate sophisticate: even when he plays a penniless teacher in the Ivory-Merchant The Householder (1962), one of his earliest films, you knew he was destined for better things.
He romanced Babita (Haseena Maan Jayegi), Nanda (Jab Jab Phool Khile), Sharmila Tagore (Aa Gale Lag Ja, New Delhi Times), Asha Parekh (Pyar Ka Mausam), Rakhee (Sharmeelee), Zeenat Aman (Satyam Shivam Sundaram), Rekha (Kalyug, Vijeta), Hema Malini (Abhinetri). What’s interesting in this varied swathe, which took him from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, is that Kapoor created a fit with all of them. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not insecure, sharing space and screen time with his leading ladies.
It was not just in this that Kapoor was visibly cut from a different cloth. His marriage to the very British Jennifer Kendal, his experience in theatre, and his love for cinema of all kinds led him down untrodden paths. He may have acted in soppy melodramas, but on a parallel track, he produced a clutch of very different films, from 1978 to 1984: Junoon, Kalyug, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Vijeta, Utsav. Not one of these films made him any money (in fact, it was said that he lost a bundle on his productions), but these films gave him the creative satisfaction he craved.
Shashi Kapoor wore his looks, and his understated acting ability lightly, sometimes so lightly that you often overlooked his skills. In Kabhie Kabhie, yet another of the films in which he played alongside Bachchan, his presence, dignified, calm, added immense flavour to the Yash Chopra classic. He did in that one what he did best: came on, smiled that inimitable smile, and nestled in a corner of our hearts.