I first saw Shashi Kapoor perform with Shakespearewallahs, his father-in-law’s itinerant theatre group in the early 1960s. I saw some of his early films like Dharamputra and later his first hit Jab Jab Phool Khile in 1965. I first met him in Mumbai in 1972 while he was shooting for Aa Gale Lag Ja. Since then we have been more than mere acquaintances. We met regularly in studios or small get-togethers. I wrote a story for a film starring him in the seventies and songs for a couple of his other films. What attracted me to him was his suave, gentlemanly behaviour which allowed him to be a part of the south Bombay sophisticates yet be on back-slapping terms with mainstream filmmakers like Yash Chopra, Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai.
|In Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965)|
Shashi comes from Bollywood’s most distinguished families; yet he took time and effort over decades to build his own little niche. I have often said that he is the most underrated actor of his generation and the sheer diversity of his 120 odd films stands testimony to this. He began as a child actor in brother Raj Kapoor’s Aag (and a couple more) and then after a hiatus started acting in his father’s drama repertory, Prithvi Theatre. However, the most significant turning point of his career was his involvement with father-in law’s theatre group Shakespearewallahs. It was here that Shashi not merely honed his acting talent but found his wife, the utterly charming Jennifer.
It would not be incorrect to say that while his older brothers Raj and Shammi, especially the latter, were his early influencers, it was Geoffrey Kendal and his daughter Jennifer who were his great inspirers. In fact, till until her last breath, it was Jennifer who kept Shashi firmly moored whether it was his famous Kapoor appetite for food or drink or his getting into production of artistic cinema.
|In Householder (1963)|
There was a time in the 1970s when Shashi Kapoor was acting in 60 films which led Raj Kapoor to remark that Shashi Kapoor is a taxi for hire. In spite of his crazy work schedule, often doing three-to-four shifts on different sets, no film maker ever complained about him and all his co-stars were and are very fond of him. Actresses like Nanda, Rakhee, Sharmila Tagore and Hema Malini did several films with him. His early films Dharamputra, Chaar Diwari, Prem Patra and Jab Jab Phool Khile were all soft roles which he sincerely portrayed. By the early sixties he was appearing in films of Merchant-Ivory like Householder and Shakespeare Wallah. With Yash Chopra’s Waqt, he became a popular choice for multi starrers and was part of some huge hits of the seventies and early eighties: Deewar, Roti Kapda Aur Makan, Suhaag, Kranti, Kabhie Kabhie, Namak Halal, Silsila. He did have solo hits too like Pyar Ka Mausam, Kanyadaan, Hasina Maan Jayegi, Suhana Safar, Aa Gale Lag Ja and Chor Machaye Shor.
|In Namak Halal (1982)|
In 1978, he set up his production house Filmwalas and produced some of Indian cinema's much acclaimed films of the time. Shyam Benegal’s Junoon and Kalyug, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane, Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta and Girish Karnad’s Utsav. Unfortunately his production odyssey came to an end with his ambitious directorial debut Ajooba with Amitabh Bachchan which sank him into debt. To overcome this financial crunch, Shashi Kapoor did a string of forgettable films.
Meanwhile, Jennifer and he had set up what continues to be the mecca of theatre lovers - Prithvi Theatre - in Juhu. This was the time I ran into him the most as I hung around Prithvi a lot, especially for dinner at the Prithvi Café, then run by ad film maker Prahlad Kakkar. Jennifer and children Karan, Kunal and Sanjana could be seen helping their mother run the this cultural hub even as Shashi sat with a group of friends like Prayag Raaj, Satyadev Dubey, Govind Nihalani and others.
Jennifer died of cancer in 1984 and Shashi Kapoor was completely shattered, withdrawing to the solitude of his Malabar Hill home. I remember talking to him at the NCPA 10-15 years ago. He had put on a lot of weight and was rarely seen at Prithvi. He warmly embraced me and said why don’t you come home for a meal. I have the largest collection of take away menus in town and promise you a hearty meal.
One can still occasionally see Shashi sitting in a wheel chair looking far away into the distance. Alzheimer’s and other illnesses have left him debilitated but somewhere I can still see the innocent sparkle in his eyes, his silvery mop of wavy hair and an utterly charming demeanour which has delighted audiences the world over for five decades.
Shashi Kapoor is arguably his generation's most underrated actor. Congratulations, Shashi, on the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
Catch up soon.