My love of 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. As she described the Hindi film tropes, 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 about 2000. But once I found 1970s masala, I was utterly hooked on the creative, complex stories.
Other fans I knew 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 did. In mainstream Hindi films, where the bulk of his 150+ film 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 actually 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 diversifies his career so much that no one type could take hold.
There is remarkable humanity in his roles. If brothers Raj and Shammi are memorialized as the auteur and Elvis through their masala texts, then Shashi is actually 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). The child bristling under Maa’s preference for a sibling who doesn’t deserve it (Deewaar). That’s who most of us are.
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, Shaan, Kabhi Kabhie, and Sharmeeleeand writing about them extensively on my blog, discovering he was a star many people loved but had slipped a bit from the forefront of the collective public memory of the era.
Then along came Shakespeare-Wallah.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 centerpiece 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 plays in the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory films is traditionally heroic. In some of the films he produces, like Junoon andUtsav, he plays dangerous people who threaten even sympathetic characters. His non-masala roles are men of pride, lust, and sloth who tend to move only falteringly, if at all, to redemption. And yet we can see ourselves in some of these films too: the hesitant teacher inThe Householder who can’t inspire his students; the vain movie star inBombay Talkie who flits wherever he is flattered; the worker in Kalyug who quietly pines for lost love until destiny runs him over.
What I love most about Shashi Kapoor 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 several decades.
In recent years, it’s been relatively easy to find Shashi Kapoor 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!” and “Lots of people like your movies on the internet!”
I’ll forever be grateful that I got to express some deranged-sounding appreciation to him—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 Shashi 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 Shashi Kapoor. 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 honor someone who was so much more than we realize. Films—and fans—need more Shashi Kapoors.