When WH Smith offered me the liberty to pick a title from its well-stacked bookstore at an airport terminal in Delhi, I unhesitatingly reached out for Aseem Chhabra’s biography of actor Shashi Kapoor. Far from forgetting the lover boy of yesteryear, as Chhabra observes in his opening remarks, memories of the actor’s numerous screen exploits replayed in quick succession in my mind. From the submissive chauffeur n the timeless classic Waqt to the gauche boatman in the ever-romantic Jab Jab Phool Khile , and from the incriminate husband in Mukti to the smouldering policeman in Deewaar , the debonair son of Prithviraj Kapoor lived through all this and more in his illustrious career spanning a little over five decades.
For someone whose body of work eventually spanned commercial and arthouse cinema, both in Bollywood and Hollywood, building a career initially proved to be a thorny affair for Kapoor. Like innumerable others who throng tinseltown, Shashi, too, had to hop from one studio to another in search of that elusive break. Even his Kapoor tag proved insufficient with the reigning heroines of the time, who didn’t want to risk acting opposite a rank newcomer. Kapoor remained undeterred, as he had to support his family: acting was the craft he was most conversant with. Cast in scatterbrained but harmless films during the ’70s, Kapoor established himself as a clean-hearted romantic, his charm slowly but surely getting cemented.
Slight of build, Kapoor could carry, in parts, the on-screen intensity of Raj and the fluid agility of Shammi, his elder siblings. He became the busiest actor in the ’70s, sleeping in his car to accommodate four to five shifts in a day. Be it an eternal romantic or a troubled husband or just a likeable bloke, Kapoor had the ability to get under the skin of his character. Yet, he remained an underrated actor. Ramesh Sippy said, in the context of Shashi’s memorable four-word retort (to Amitabh Bachchan’s long monologue) “ mere paas maa hai ” (I have my mother) in Deewaar : “(…) to be sincere to the role, at times one has to underplay it.” This reflects Kapoor’s enduring sensitivity as an actor.
Chhabra, a journalist and film festival programmer, searches for the real Kapoor among a gamut of selves: a theatre enthusiast who was also a devout family man, a handsome actor belonging to a famous film clan, an eminent international star who produced quality films. Acting was in his genes, yet he dared to think differently and pursue multiple careers, making an everlasting contribution, earning a well-deserved Dadasaheb Phalke Award last year.
His commitment to cinema may have been borne out of his love for theatre, which guided him to take risks even if it meant plunging into debt. His oldest son Kunal confirms that his father “(...) would actually complain about other actors who would become stars, make money, secure a good life, but then, never contribute to the place that nurtured them.” Kapoor wanted to support the world that he was part of. Though this biography is missing the strong voice of its central character (the actor has been ailing), it offers a nuanced understanding of the man, the versatile actor and the visionary producer.
Chhabra has looked at the actor’s work in chronological order, capturing the seemingly divergent worlds the actor was involved in. Kapoor’s endearing relationship with the unflappable Ismail Merchant and the resilient James Ivory is part of celluloid history. Notable exceptions are the references to little-known projects such as the political drama New Delhi Times (1986) and the poignant story of a fading star, Side Effects (1998): even connoisseurs may not be familiar with these forgotten gems. Touches like these make this biography readable and engaging.
Every fan has his or her personal reasons to remember Kapoor. Aparna Sen remembers him for her first-ever onscreen kiss in Bombay Talkie. Simi Grewal talks about how he helped her overcome her shyness to go topless in Siddhartha . Sharmila Tagore fondly remembers his sparkling sense of humour through good times and bad.
For the millions of others, Kapoor remains the lover boy with a toothy grin who gave us incredibly romantic and memorable songs like ‘Bekhudi mein sanam’ and ‘Chale the saath milke’.
Sudhirender Sharma is director, The Eco-logical Foundation, New Delhi
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