Art & Culture

Shashi Kapoor’s power lay in fitting into many different roles, yet remaining uniquely himself

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanDec 10, 2017 | 10:43

Shashi Kapoor’s power lay in fitting into many different roles, yet remaining uniquely himself

Shashi Kapoor bid adieu to the world on December 4.

Memories about film stars often turn into a flatland of stereotypes. Actors get stuffed into pigeonholes and certified. Amitabh Bachchan is the angry man, Rajesh Khanna is pure romantic and Dharmendra is the Jat male. Stereotypes add to their shelf life but also narrow it. The narratives become predictable, narrow as if the same stencil is being repeated again and again.


Given this grid of memories, the death of Shashi Kapoor created a minor crisis. Here was the odd man out, who was almost the odd man in. People could not make up their mind whether he was the odd ball or someone who was at home in a world of cross-purposes.

Reading the obituaries, one felt people found it difficult to write about him because he was unclassifiable. I think it is in his unclassifiability or in the fact that “one man in his time played so many parts” that the power of Shashi Kapoor lay.

As one observer complained, he was never singular like an Amitabh or a Raj Kapoor. He was always a hyphen, a part of a larger whole. In fact, his genius lay in the quiet and effective way he completed his various wholes. It is the fact that he could hyphenate, with so many disparate sets of character, and yet remain Shashi, that made him unique.

He was a lesser God but no pantheon was complete without him. Such a narrative of hyphenation marks his entire career. Think of Shashi as a part of the Kapoor family. Prithiviraj is patriarch and founder, Raj his successor, unique for Chaplinesque roles and for much-watcheds film like Sangam. Shammi is the cover boy, a legend of a different kind. The two attract the crowd.


Shashi looks ordinary next to them, an also ran, content to play second fiddle. Yet the ease with which he plays second fiddle makes him a star. The Kapoor story can never be complete without a Shashi. At every stage, he seems to fit comfortably into positions others would find difficult to thrive in.

As third man, or second man, Shashi was legendary. He made otherness or secondariness into a fine art. He was singular in his sheer multiplicity. Shashi, the world discovers, belongs to the world of Shakespeare. He is a part of Geoffrey Kendal’s travelling circus of Shakespeare plays and loves Shakespeare and Jennifer Kendal even more.

Theirs was one of the great love stories of Bollywood. It was almost as if Shashi could only remain the great good looking romantic as long as Jennifer was alive. He began gaining weight after she died and it became a tragic statement of her missingness.

We listen to Shashi next as a part of the other great international hybrid, the Merchant-Ivory Productions. It spells a touch of international class and Shashi brings to it his own style, creating, with the evergreen Leela Naidu – another perennial beauty – a sense of a memorable pair.

There was a mystique to the two of them which few film couples had. Shakespeare Wallah had a touch of warmth and romance, and The Householder a touch of a bicultural confidence which Shashi helped to embody.


By this time, he is one of our great romantic heroes. His smile evoked it all, handsome even with his funny teeth. He was the only one who could play full time hero and the boy next door. He was the first of the Indian stars to be international and even that role sat wryly on him.

He then played a successful complement to Amitabh in a host of films. He was never the add on, but a crucial piece in the legend of Amitabh. Amitabh becomes a flawed jigsaw without Shashi.

Critical lines, whether in Deewaar or Silsila. Amitabh and Shashi made a kaleidoscopic pair and it was as if the films Deewaar, Kabhi Kabhi, Silsila, Trishul recreated different aspects of them.

Meanwhile he continues his international stints in Bombay Talkie and Heat and Dust. By this time, he has a cool, an ease, a presence few Bollywood stars had. By sensing his limits creatively and re-inventing himself endlessly, Shashi became a protean figure across the decades, at home in a variety of places and yet in a very homely way, just Shashi.

The unspoken case, the sophistication and simplicity of the man lay in that. It would be crass to call him a crossover artist.


I think the wonder was he could act as a complement to Hayley Mills and Nanda with equal case, it was as if he enjoyed himself and life so that Bollywood was a cake walk for him. He was a risk taker first as a producer of films, as a pioneer of theatre but in his very zest for life.

In playing different roles, he was playing himself, understanding that a joy in life adds to the sense of entertainment. There is less laughter in the later period after Jennifer dies. She must have been a remarkable woman in the way she sustained the many Shashi Kapoors, keeping him earthed to the ground, egging him to an everyday discipline about his weight, building a world of theatre as a very personal dream.

Their lives together were great theatre while Shashi’s career was in film. “Mere pass Jennifer hai” seems to precede all the other great lines he mouthed. A man who loved life, loved theatre, lived cinema, Shashi spells the real end of an era. The new actors lack his multiplicities, he played kaleidoscope to their simpler lenses. One will miss that.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: December 11, 2017 | 10:28
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