Who is the real Shashi Kapoor, arguably India’s first international star? There are no simple answers to this seemingly simple question. A dashing dimpled hero, who emerged in the Sixties to serenade beautiful ladies in charming hill stations, Kapoor managed to survive the Angry Young Man phase of Bollywood in the Seventies by standing out as the voice of reason. He then went on to produce independent films, which no mainstream producer would have touched at that time—a case in point being Aparna Sen’s acclaimed 36 Chowringhee Lane.
A theatre enthusiast, he built Prithvi with his wife Jennifer Kendal Kapoor on the same plot of land that his father Prithviraj Kapoor had leased years earlier for the theatre. As daughter Sanjna Kapoor tells the author: “This (Prithvi) is what we grew up with, what my father taught me and what his father taught him.” By the time Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star was planned, as Aseem Chhabra writes in the introduction, the actor’s health was on the decline, so the author couldn’t talk to him. But as he pieced together the interviews for the book, Chhabra realised that many people had forgotten Kapoor—even his Dadasaheb Phalke Award came in 2015, much later than most of his contemporaries. And yet, there was much to remember the actor—and star—for. He was clearly the most handsome Hindi film actor of his time and everyone—from Sharmila Tagore and James Ivory to Shabana Azmi—corroborates this fact. In fact, Azmi goes a step further by saying that Kapoor’s acting skills were overlooked because he was so good looking.
It’s to Kapoor’s credit that he could traverse the diverse worlds of arthouse films, American productions and mainstream Hindi movies. Think Deewaar (1975), the Hindi blockbuster, National Award-winning Junoon (1978) or Heat and Dust (1983), which made it to the Cannes Film Festival. He had earlier charmed the world with his dashing turns in Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Pyar Ka Mausam (1969) and Sharmeelee (1971).
Kapoor was born in Calcutta in 1938 to Prithviraj and Ramsarni Kapoor. His mother began calling him Shashi instead of Balbir Raj, his given name, because the baby loved the moon. He grew up to love cinema as well, often skipping school to watch movies. His father set up Prithvi Theatre when Kapoor was six years old and that’s where his education began when he joined the group full time after quitting school at the age of 15 years.
By the time Prithvi was forced to shut down in 1960 due to Prithviraj’s ill health, Kapoor had learnt every aspect of theatre production and also met his future wife Jennifer, the daughter of Geoffrey Kendal, who ran Shakespeare Theatre Company. Kapoor and Jennifer together revived Prithvi—they would be together till he lost her to cancer in 1984. Two years later, he would star in debutant director Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times, a film on investigative journalism, which won Kapoor a National Award. The actor liked the story of New Delhi Times—which looked at the nexus between corrupt politicians and media barons—so much that he agreed to be a part of it for just R1 lakh. The film flopped at the box office, but gained cult status and is a must-watch for film buffs today.
A walk through his cinematic journey tells us that Kapoor was one of the least competitive actors of his time. As his son Kunal fondly remembers, Kapoor “strongly believed in his father’s romantic, socialistic ideas. He never stepped on people’s toes. He never axed an actor. He never played politics to get a role.” And, most of all, he was open to new ideas. Perhaps that’s why he is our first international star, having worked with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant as far back as 1963.
If only this book had come a decade earlier, we would have had Kapoor in person, delighting us with his wit and humour. But this is as good a time as any to celebrate an actor who never took his stardom seriously—when told that he had won the Dadasaheb Phalke award, he retorted, “Who me?” and chuckled—and dared to take risks, making it easier for the Priyanka Chopras and Irrfan Khans of today to blaze a trail.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer