Very good, even classy, when good. And very ordinary and pedestrian when bad. That is what Shashi Kapoor has been in the seven decades that he has been part of showbiz. The Dadasaheb Phalke award may have taken far too long in coming, but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer man, acknowledged as a quintessential gentleman even by the most exacting of critics. When he decided to make films, and that was in the late 1970s, Shashi ensured that he would eschew the crass values of commercial cinema he himself was unwittingly part of. And no wonder there is a certain sophistication and sense of values associated with this representative of the famous Kapoor clan. Women of all ages found him ever so adorable and vulnerable, while the men were almost universal in the belief that he was so different from most of them.
An abiding tale about his generosity and sense of fairplay goes back to 1977-78 when Shyam Benegal’s Junoon was being made. The handsome actor, who turned producer with this venture, had arranged for everyone — from the technicians to the stars — to stay for two full months at what was then known as the best hotel in Lucknow! A leading financial daily quotes Govind Nihalani’s observation: “He (Shashi Kapoor) got rid of the hierarchy we were used to in mainstream cinema and made it democratic. It felt like a family.”
Pitchforked into acting, Shashi was groomed in the theatre starting from the age of four by his father, the imposing and magnificent Prithviraj. Shashi followed his brother Raj in pictures in the late 1940s. Most famously, he was the child actor who played a younger Raj in Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951). His first full-fledged roles as the lead were in the 1961 films Char Diwari and Dharmputra. He followed this up with more than 150 films until the late 1990s. Here too, his approach was novel and different as he chose films in Hindi and English, took on big and small parts, and shuffled comfortably between the mainstream and arthouse genres.
For a long time, Shashi was the only actor to consistently appear in international films. In 1963, he starred in The Householder, a partnership between director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. He went on to work for their Merchant Ivory Productions in films such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and In Custody (1993). Other directors such as Guy Green and Conrad Rooks signed him on too. It is common knowledge that the Illinois-based Beth Watkins, author of the ‘Beth Loves Bollywood’ blog, is a self-confessed mega-fan of the actor because he can be “funny, romantic, authoritative, or vulnerable equally believably”. When Kapoor finally retired from acting in 1998, it was with another international production, Tony Gerber’s Side Streets.
In India, these achievements were overshadowed by the roles he played in loud Hindi films. He did projects both as the lead — take Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) and Sharmilee (1971) and as supporting lead, for instance, in Kaala Patthar (1979). Kapoor often appeared alongside Amitabh Bachchan, most memorably in the 1975 blockbuster Deewar.
Shashi realised one thing soon enough. He had to strike a balance between his two lives in theatre and cinema. The Prithviraj clan ran travelling stage shows in the 1950s when Geoffrey Kendal from the UK and his Shakespeareana Company were also touring India. Shashi joined the Kendals when they needed male cast members and soon fell in love with the elder daughter, Jennifer. As a write-up in the wake of the Phalke award recalls, the idea of their marriage met with opposition from both families. Jennifer soon left the company and an outraged father, moving to Mumbai with her young husband, who was known there as a rising movie actor. The couple had three children. The eldest, Kunal, heads Prithvi Theatre. Karan, next in line, started out as a model before turning to photography. Shashi’s daughter, Sanjna, is an active theatre personality.
Unlike the other Kapoors, Shashi had a slender frame for most of his acting life; in Benegal’s opinion, he is the best-looking actor of his time and, perhaps, all time in Indian cinema. Shabana Azmi thinks that he strode above the pettiness and conceit that have so often been the worst aspect of the Mumbai industry.
When Jennifer died from cancer in 1984, she left a heartbroken Shashi whose health began to decline and he began gaining weight. His distinguished father once wrote to Jennifer: “You are damn good, but Shashi is wasted. The only shot worth seeing is the shot of him by himself, when everyone else has gone to bed, a real winner. He should go into films in English with foreign directors who know how to exploit him.” Kapoor would, of course, go on to do just that.
As the roles in Hindi films failed to satisfy him, Kapoor launched a production company called Film Valas. He wanted to replicate brother Raj’s success in making cinema that appealed to a variety of viewers.
In 1981, Shashi joined hands with Benegal for what indeed has been his most significant and riveting contribution Kalyug. He not only showed a penchant for encouraging talent but also happily subsumed his own identity in the company of people more talented. He introduced Aparna Sen as a director with 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) and invited Nihalani to make Vijeta (1982). After Utsav, the 1984 period film directed by Girish Karnad, overshot the budget, Shashi found it difficult to continue producing films.
He will be the third in the family to receive the Phalke award, following his father Prithviraj and brother Raj. “He belongs to the last breed of great cinema people who put their money where their mouth was and where their beliefs were,” says filmmaker Sudhir Mishra, comparing him to Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor. Indeed, quite like Raj, the younger Kapoor put all his earnings from acting jobs back into making films and keeping Prithvi Theatre alive. Mishra observes further that the theatre and arthouse cinema have been a mission with Shashi Kapoor. “If that is not philanthropy, I don’t know what is,” he says. The sophistication and impeccable pedigree that Shashi exemplifies are ever so rare in the annals of the madness called Bollywood.