“Handsome” was perhaps the most repeated adjective when obituaries to Shashi Kapoor rolled out in media, social and otherwise. And this was to an extent understandable, for the man, during his acting career in India, was mainly known for playing the charming, often vulnerable romantic hero. Shashi did try his hand at a few macho rules, but he for the most part remained the slightly dreamy Prince Charming rather than a swashbuckling pirate figure.
What not too many people however realise is that Shashi Kapoor was much more than that. Balbir Prithivraj Kapoor (yes, that was his real name) was perhaps the only mainstream Bollywood film star to seriously work on the “art” side of cinema even when he was doing well commercially – he worked in films like Junoon, Kalyug, New Delhi Times and Utsav. And while most of the Hindi film world remembers him as Deewar’s Ravi Varma who memorably told his brother Vijay, “Mere paas Ma hai,” not too many know that he won the National Award for being the producer of the best film in 1978 (Junoon) and also a Filmfare Award for best film in 1980, Kalyug. He was also the first Indian actor to make his presence felt on the international scene with films like Siddharth, Shakespeare Wallah, the Householder and Heart and Dust.
Yes, Shashi Kapoor was a romantic hero (and occasionally an action-oriented one), but he also did not shy away from playing other roles – he played the villain in Utsav and a middle-aged father in Vijeeta, at a time when he was still playing the dashing hero in other films. He played a middle-aged editor in New Delhi Times and won a National Award for acting. And even towards the end of his career, he was still capable to producing stunning performances, perhaps most noticeably in Muhafiz/ In Custody (1993), where he plays an ageing poet. He was also the producer of films like Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav, Junoon and 36 Chowringhee Lane, each of which can hold its own as a masterpiece. He was one of those rare personalities who dabbled in both commercial and art cinema, Indian and international cinema, and acting and cinema production with equal ease.
And at the end of it all, most people seemed to just remember him as “Handsome.” Yes, he was very good looking, but remembering Shashi Kapoor as Handsome is akin to remembering the Taj Mahal as a fancy tomb. The surface was handsome indeed, but what lay behind it and the foundations on which it was built were about more than just skin-deep beauty.
Mind you, he was partly to blame for the other side of his remaining unknown. For whatever he was, Shashi Kapoor was not tainted by conceit or arrogance. Whatever he did beyond his ‘normal’ Bollywood commercial roles, he did so without creating an undue fuss. This was, after all, the man who had once said that if his family had not gone into theatre, he would have probably working at a clothes shop as a ‘Darbaan’ (door keeper).
So, it is perhaps apt that my abiding memory of Shashi Kapoor is not that of a Bollywood hero, but of the man who came to attend a party at a Defence Officers’ Mess and then disappeared from the middle of it. A frantic search for him was launched but he did not seem to be on the premises. Even while some people wondered if he had run off with some young lady (“these Bollywood types are all womanisers, you know”), he was ultimately discovered, sitting happily in the kitchen, chatting with the cooks and waiters.
Shashi Kapoor was indeed handsome.
But not because he was just good looking.
He was handsome as in handsome does.