Art & Culture

Goodbye Shashi Kapoor, you changed Indian cinema for us

Vinayak Chakravorty
Vinayak ChakravortyDec 05, 2017 | 17:21

Goodbye Shashi Kapoor, you changed Indian cinema for us

The actor struck a balance between Indian mainstream's relish for the larger-than-life with finer aesthetics of world cinema.

Bollywood often deemed him the odd one out in his generation. In the commercial Hindi cinema of the sixties and seventies, where all-out hamming was regarded as "great acting", Shashi Kapoor could project anger without raising his voice.

In today's context, the skill would fashionably be termed with the oxymoronic label of "realistic acting". The trait, however, was not the only thing that made Kapoor a trailblazer. Quietly, without ever gunning for the top spot, he did redefine a few rules of the B-Town game.


Back in the psychedelic seventies, when loud and flashy were hallmarks of everything that made an impact on-screen, Kapoor knew how to set up the swagger with understated style. He was the nice guy to the staple angry young man in sundry multi-starrers, often essayed by Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra or Shatrughan Sinha with aplomb.


That trademark screen image lives on in the mind, whether you loved Shashi Kapoor for his mainstream contribution, his impressive body of art-house work that existed side by side, or the defining forays to the West that he kept making, notably with those unforgettable Merchant-Ivory films. Kapoor's understated charm in films cutting across genres cannot be replicated.

Kapoor was honoured with the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2015 for his contribution to the art of cinema. The trophy was a reiteration of what his Padma Bhushan win in 2011 had already established: Shashi Kapoor was a rare Indian actor-filmmaker, who had mastered the art of balancing Indian mainstream's relish for the larger than life with finer aesthetics of world cinema.


Through the seventies and eighties, Kapoor became a mandatory part of several multi-starrer superhits - the definitive box-office genre of the day - even as he continued carving his niche in art-house gems of Shyam Benegal such as Kalyug and Junoon.


As producer, he crafted some of the finest art-house films of his time, notably Utsav, 36 Chowringhee Lane and Junoon. His odd foray as a commercial Bollywood director was the fantasy adventure Ajooba, which flopped despite starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor.

Kapoor's refined sense of cinema was perhaps shaped by his love for theatre. He ceaselessly worked at promoting the world of stage with Prithvi Theatre, which he set up in November 1978 along with wife Jennifer Kendal. Theatre in fact played an important role in their romance. They met during the years when both were active in theatre work.


While Kapoor blazed the Bollywood box-office in his time, working with the top producers and heroines, his career graph was taking a very different shape in the West. In many of his English films, particularly the ones directed by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Shashi and Jennifer lived out an authentic play of emotions and savoured rare chemistry.

Some of Kapoor's most unforgettable performances have also come in Merchant-Ivory films such as The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust, Bombay Talkie and In Custody. Merchant and Ivory's exalted yet understated storytelling seemed to give Kapoor the space for his unique restrained acting.


Kapoor leaves behind his bereaved daughter Sanjana, and sons Kunal and Karan. He also leaves behind a legacy of rich cinematic content and that charming smile that will stay in our mind's eye forever.

Last updated: December 05, 2017 | 17:22
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