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I AM an other

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I AM an other

Shashi Kapoor is difficult to pin. For most legends of cinema, one can place the personae, define a certain style, one overarching characteristic of the cinematic craft or one sustained strain of gold that is more accentuated than the others. Not Shashi Kapoor. For him, Rimbaud’s saying ‘Je est un autre’ holds true. His ‘I’ is elusive; each time one fixes it, it becomes the ‘other’

There was a certain fluidity to Shashi Kapoor’s engagement with the world and cinema; such that one can find as many reasons to fit him in an iconic mould as one can find to displace him from it. Unlike a Dilip Kumar who carried the sobriquet of ‘Tragedy King’ or Rajesh Khanna of ‘King of Romance’ or Amitabh of ‘Angry Young Man’ and ‘Superstar of Hindi cinema’, Shashi Kapoor’s waltz through the industry was such that he played his own opposite too. He was the foil to all things outside him and all things inside.

As soon as one speaks of him as ‘breezy’, one remembers his ‘intense’. To call him primarily an actor would do injustice to his splendid craft behind the camera. He mastered flops, but he was also one of the earliest comeback men too. He played the archetypal ‘good man’ too often, too earnest, but he was also the brooding, silent, complex Pathan of Junoon, whose lurking presence and eyeing of a Lolita-like Nafisa Ali is haunting for its fierceness and moral ambivalence.

He, the black sheep of the Kapoor brothers, once the first family of Hindi cinema, was also the keeper and nurturer of Prithvi Theatre — that jewel in the crown of the essential Kapoor world, which predates their betrothal to cinema. Here’s looking at the man who was more than the sum of his parts, a real do aur do paanch.

BEGINNINGS AND SUCH

Shashi Kapoor was to the manor born, the youngest of the three from the second generation of Kapoors (Raj and Shammi being the older brothers), with looks that could almost always overshadow talent.

He chose to work in his father’s travelling theatre troupe, Prithvi Theatres, and even though he had made his acting debut as a child artiste in the late 40s, his first role only happened in 1961 with Dharamputra directed by Yash Chopra.

It wasn’t an easy movie for a career beginning. Dharamputra was the first film to depict the Partition of India and the religious, sectarian violence that followed it. Here he plays a Hindu fundamentalist — a risky choice for a debutant for whom looks and pedigree could have landed a smoother launch vehicle.

A slew of flops later, the world woke up to Shashi Kapoor in 1965 with Jab Jab Phool Khile, which made him and his co-star Nanda overnight stars. Here he plays the regular good guy. “It is not about being rich or poor. It is about being charming with certain purity and kindness. Acting aside, his mannerisms made his character believable,” says Pankaj Shukla, film analyst and creative director.

The 60s saw Shashi Kapoor bewitch his audiences with mainstream commercial successes and garner his share of fan following in a decade now defined by Rajesh Khanna. If Khanna dominated the 60s, Bachchan’s ‘Angry Young Man’ has come to underline the 70s.  Nevertheless, Kapoor’s career opened a new innings and he was one of the busiest stars of 1970s.

“Shashi Kapoor was an unbelievably good looking man who possessed no starry airs. His training under his father made him believe that no role is small or big. He could seldom say no. He was working back to back in the 70s, so much so that he is credited with introducing the shift system in Bollywood,” says Aseem Chhabra, film journalist and author of the biography, Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star, speaking with me over phone from Macao.

The sustaining image of Kapoor as an actor for most people is that of a man who immortalised the second lead in mainstream Hindi cinema. The significance this role has acquired today owes a lot to him, for there is no other actor who with such constancy starred in two-hero films or multi-starrers and left his mark in the roles he played, so much so that it is hard to imagine those films without him.

“The term ‘second lead’ is a new-age coinage. In my opinion, he pioneered the trend of two-hero films and became what came to be called the ‘parallel lead’ or ‘parallel hero’,” opines Shukla, who met and interacted with Kapoor several times during his career.

“Sitting today in the 21st century and looking back at the time when Amitabh was not a superstar, we cannot call the roles Shashi Kapoor essayed as second lead because there was no such thing back then. He was a parallel lead in all Amitabh Bachchan films and even others. He was never approached by any director for a second lead. Directors initially approached both of them separately with their roles until the films they starred in together became successful. The word ‘bromance’ aptly epitomises the Shashi-Amitabh pairing,” adds Shukla.

This pairing came to define the time in Hindi cinema as the era of ‘Shashitabh’ and the duo worked together in some 12-odd memorable movies, with Deewaar capturing popular imagination across generations.

Yet something even more revealing dawned on me as I sat watching some of Shashi Kapoor’s films back to back recently. Scenes from Deewaar in which Kapoor is shown battling his inner conflict of understanding right or wrong in a world full of inequities made me realise that the film is not about Amitabh Bachchan alone.

Similarly in Kala Patthar, there is a scene where his character, Ravi Malhotra, coolly averts a potential altercation between the macho Shatrughan Sinha and brooding Amitabh Bachchan. Then there are movies like Kabhi Kabhie where he plays this humorous but wise and progressive husband and some of the best scenes are where he subverts his emotions. “It is a very complex role and one of my favourites,” says Shukla.

Movies such as these reveal how he came to carve out this soft, gracious, quiet yet firm type of masculinity in an age when cinema was riddled with angry, brooding, revenge-seeking characters. He is not just a foil as a parallel hero but a creator of new-age masculinity which has long-term value and would perhaps find more takers today than it would have during his time. “He continued to project his own solid moral centre in a quiet way,” says Chhabra as I seek his opinion.

Awards eluded him for a long time and both Shukla and Chhabra feel that the National Award for Best Actor that he received for New Delhi Times in 1986 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2015 came in too late. Bollywood aside, destiny had other plans for Shashi Kapoor — plans and projects that would make him the first recognisable star outside India.

FIRST INTERNATIONAL STAR

A cursory look at Shashi Kapoor’s filmography can surprise any average Hindi movie fan. Right from the early 1960s, he started his life-long tryst with small, independent, international, alternative cinema that would continue right until the end of his career in 1998. Beginning with The Householder, he would star in several Merchant-Ivory productions, including Heat and Dust, Bombay Talkie, Shakespeare Wallah, to name a few.

With Conrad Rooks’Siddhartha, Shashi Kapoor would take a huge risk as the film would come under fire for its nudity and love-making scenes which were a tad too bold for the conservative Indian audiences at that time. Shashi Kapoor, however, would ease into each of these roles with élan just as he was able to essay some over-the-top characters of mainstream Hindi films with panache.

“We cannot ever forget that he was the first actor who truly crossed over to the West long before the present-day actors. The New York Times reviewed his films and mentioned him. He was our first international star,” states Chhabra.

BUT NO GREEN THUMB

It is an irony of nature that those who think and do things ahead of their times, generally do not find appreciation in the times they live in. Shashi Kapoor’s remarkable and courageous story as a producer is a testimony to this. His avatar as a producer is truly my favourite one, for he never played on the spectacle to create a Mughal-e-Azam or a Razia Sultan; he played entirely on real arts, performance, story and aesthetics.

He gave Shyam Benegal two amazing films in Junoon, based on Ruskin Bond’s short story, ‘A flight of pigeons’, and Kalyug, a modern-day version of the epic Mahabharata in which Shashi himself played the role of Karna, now touted as one of his best performances. Benegal describes him as the “best producer he had ever worked with” to Chhabra.

He invited Girish Karnad to direct Utsav, a period film set in classical times; gave her first directorial break to Aparna Sen in the critically acclaimed 36 Chowringhee Lane

Chhabra almost pre-empts my question and says “people like him are not made these days. There are many actors today who are producing films, but Shashi Kapoor’s contribution to parallel cinema of the 80s as a producer is remarkable and inspiring. He put his own money behind high art and created movies which could not make money at that time but are considered classics today”.

It is in these movies that most people who understand cinema and dabble in arts cite their favourites, though everyone has a Shashi Kapoor favourite, each one’s different from the other.

Junoon, Kalyug, and New Delhi Times were films that shifted my axis of being by many degrees. Many years later, it was a humbling experience to perform on the Prithvi Theatre stage with Shashi Kapoor saheb in the audience,” says Danish Husain, actor, poet, and theatre director.

All these movies, along with Vijeta and his most ambitious project, Ajooba, (also his only directorial venture) did not set the box office on fire and even put Shashi under debt.

One wonders if things would have been different had he been more prudent with money as a producer. “Most of these films were clearly ahead of their time. They belong to the mood, genre, ethos of today’s indie cinema. The problem was that India didn’t have multiplexes that time, so a film like 36 Chowringhee Lane, which is a mini masterpiece in English language films, found no audiences and it was impossible to fill up 1,200-seat screens. So, the films just died completely,” notes Chhabra while naming Junoon, Kalyug, New Delhi Times, and Muhafiz as his personal favourites.

Never mind the box office results, Shashi Kapoor’s story behind the scenes as one of the greatest and generous producers is indeed moving and incredible. Usually a man with money in his pocket looks for more money, but the kind of gamble he played film after film is something only Shashi Kapoor could have done.

He put his money where his heart was and almost all those who know him feel it had a lot to do with his relationship with Jennifer Kendal — his beloved, his wife.

HOUSEHOLDER OFF-SCREEN

How they met during their stint with theatre and eventually married despite opposition from her father is perhaps now stuff of folklore, yet Shashi Kapoor’s life story cannot be told without talking about his wife and actor Jennifer Kendal. If one looks at the personal lives of filmstars, his stands out because Kapoor is probably one of the few actors in whom you can clearly see the hand of the partner/lover/wife in shaping the person’s mind, career and life.

“Jennifer indeed had a lot of influence on his choices and sensibilities. Influence not just in terms of the food he ate or the discipline he maintained in his diet and drinking but also in terms of his thinking,” points out Chhabra. “The kind of value system, ethos and what he eventually believed in as an actor came from his father and wife — two people he loved dearly,” he adds.

Jennifer was his anchor, catalyst and affected almost all aspects of the actor’s personality and existence. “The meeting and marriage with Jennifer completely changed his thought process. His role as a producer and the contribution he made to parallel cinema of the 80s has a lot, in my opinion, to do with Jennifer’s impact on his life,” says Shukla.

Post Jennifer’s tragic demise in 1984 from cancer, Shashi was shattered. Even his fans could see he was drifting. While interviewing Chhabra, I point to him that Jennifer died in 1984, New Delhi Times was released in 1986, and as I sat watching it, I could not help but notice that the change in Kapoor’s appearance and demeanour was very much visible.

“His wife’s death completely devastated him. He started eating and drinking a lot and degenerated slowly. Yes, with New Delhi Times, the dramatic turn his health would take had set in,” notes Chhabra.

Amitabh Bachchan, too, in his tribute to the star on his blog upon hearing the news of his death, mentions: “Somewhere, he had let himself go after the passing away of his dear wife Jennifer.”

Shashi’s eldest son Kunal and daughter Sanjana, family friend Anil Dharker also echoed similar sentiments to Chhabra in interviews he did for the book. Without Jennifer, Shashi single-handedly brought up Karan and Sanjana, but he was never the same. However, with Jennifer by his side for 25 years, they created a legacy so grand that it has and will outlive them.

“Prithviraj Kapoor started his career on stage and was a pioneer in professional theatre. Prithvi Theatre is like the Taj Mahal of Mumbai. The place is an institution in itself and truly Shashi Kapoor and his wife’s biggest gift to the city,” says Shukla.

KEEPER OF KAPOOR LEGACY

The book, The Prithviwallahs, released in 2004, which Shashi Kapoor co-authored with journalist Deepa Gahlot, mentions a letter that Jennifer wrote to her sister, Felicity Kendal, stating that “Shashi is mad, he wants to build a theatre.” In 1974, two years after his father’s demise, Shashi bought the two plots of land of Janki Kutir in Juhu, and along with Jennifer began giving shape to his father’s dream. The Prithviwallahs quotes him as telling Jennifer that she would have to “look after it, create it, nurse it”.

“The theatre is built on the same plot of land where Prithviraj Kapoor lived sometimes besides his homes and dreamt of giving a permanent address to his travelling theatre troupe,” says Chhabra.

In Prithvi Theatre, Shashi and Jennifer’s love for performing arts found a shared passion. While Shashi was mostly away since he kept busy in the 70s, it was Jennifer who began to give shape to their vision. Prithvi Theatre was inaugurated in 1978 and is today identified as the cultural landmark of the city.

“Besides enriching our cinema, it’s the theatre that Shashi and Jennifer bequeathed to Mumbai that scores of actors and theatre practitioners like me will thank them for generations to come,” says Danish.

Of the three second-generation Kapoor brothers, Raj Kapoor is known as the ‘genius showman’, Shammi Kapoor earned the sobriquet of ‘Elvis Presley of India’, but it is Shashi Kapoor who actually stood behind the legacy of Prithviraj Kapoor by building Prithvi Theatre and supporting art and artistes on merit through it.

“Both Shashi and Jennifer put in not just the money he earned from films but also their heart and soul to build Prithvi Theatre. There was no place in Mumbai like that for Hindi theatre. No individual has made this kind of contribution to arts in India,” sums up Chhabra.

SIMPLY SPLENDID SHASHI

When in August this year, I picked up Hermann Hesse’s classic novel Siddhartha to read again, and from a friend’s social media posts on his film, The Householder, I embarked on a journey to rediscover Shashi Kapoor. Little did I know that serendipity would strike at the most ill-timed moment and I would be penning a piece on him, his life and works after his death. By the time this article goes to press, Kapoor’s demise would have spawned several obituaries and I would be left with little new to say except for how Shashi Kapoor has moved my world, personally.

As I read, researched, and interacted with some wonderful people (who agreed to give their precious time at short notice), I could not help but think that in the numerous roles he played — that of an actor, filmstar, producer, theatre person — Shashi Kapoor created his own universe, his own orbit. I have come to appreciate him as a

self-assured person, who didn’t make much of his Adonis-like looks, who not only gave opportunities to young, aspiring talent but was also unafraid to work with them, holding his own on screen with each new generation. Above all, in life, he loved well — whatever and whoever he loved.

The writer is a freelance journalist, new media pro, teacher, arts and culture aficionado based out of Delhi

 
 
 
 
 

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