How strange it seems to remember that Shashi Kapoor was born Balbir Raj Kapoor. That’s too stentorian, too imposing, too dramatic a name for an actor we know as a gentle charmer on-screen. But that was the essence of Shashi Kapoor’s mainstream Hindi-cinema career. The pitch of those films was Balbir Raj Kapoor, and he kept infusing a Shashi Kapoor-ness into them. Almost every line of dialogue seemed to say, with that sheepish, crooked-teeth grin, “You know, I’m not really Balbir Raj Kapoor. I’m just… Shashi.”
Shashi Kapoor’s recessive (as opposed to Amitabh Bachchan’s dominant) screen persona would have been a better fit in today’s Hindi cinema, guided by today’s more Westernised directors. You can imagine him smouldering as the young graduate of Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, as the mysterious hockey coach of Chak De! India, as the inwardly seething scion in Dil Dhadakne Do, or even as the empathetic shrink of Dear Zindagi. Still, Shashi Kapoor soldiered on, through good films and (many, many) bad films — along the way, becoming one of our earliest international stars, one of our most high-profile promoters of art cinema, and, quite simply, one of our most beloved stars.
To whittle down Shashi Kapoor’s career to five memorable films (or performances) isn’t easy for a seventies-born like me, for nostalgia often comes in the way of “quality” — life would be too tragic if our memories of cinema were defined only by award-worthiness. Shashi Kapoor is as much about his much-decorated turn as a journalist in New Delhi Times as the lover-boy in Aa Gale Lag Jaa, pursuing a petulant Sharmila Tagore through the snow, singing Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle, a ridiculous maroon scarf draped around his head. So here, a list that’s far from definitive, but which I think honours the man’s memory.
PYAR KA MAUSAM (1969)
Nasir Husain was peerless at making family entertainers with ultra-sadistic beginnings. Here, the father (Bharat Bhushan) goes blind, the mother (Nirupa Roy, playing Shashi Kapoor’s mother long before Deewar) goes mad, and the son (Sundar, played by Shashi) goes missing. What sounds like material for a Balbir Raj Kapoor angst-a-thon becomes a blithe Shashi Kapoor musical, with the actor at his most exuberant. He makes his entry announcing to his “Mummy” and “Daddy” (the ones who have adopted him) that he has aced his BA exams — Shashi makes this announcement sound like something from an excited emcee introducing the Beatles, and the energy level seldom drops, the high point being his rendition of RD Burman’s Tum bin jaoon kahan.
I’ve always preferred the Rafi version to Kishore’s, because of the difference in the way the singers sing the first line of the antara. Kishore does a virtuosic loop-de-loop, while Rafi sings it flatter, as though he’s so choked by emotion that he has no bandwidth for vocal fireworks. Maybe it’s also that the Kishore version is picturised on a dour Bharat Bhushan, while the Rafi version goes to Shashi, who transforms the song into the dictionary definition of a moonlit serenade.
A friend sent me this message when he heard of Shashi Kapoor’s demise: “The wingman has passed away!” The reference, of course, was to the actor’s list of films where he played reliable foil to Amitabh Bachchan, but even in the non-Bachchan films, Shashi was often a wingman. In Sharmilee, directed by Samir Ganguly, the actor played second fiddle to Raakhee, who filled the screen in a flashy double role as the outspoken Kamini and the introverted Kanchan. Shashi is Captain Ajit — and if you have trouble reconciling the actor’s “soft” image with the macho requirements of a Hindi-film hero serving in the army, there’s little cause for concern. Ajit is a pacifist, more at home with Urdu poetry and a copy of Life magazine. (Chew on that for a second. Is there another Hindi-film hero of the era who’d seem so utterly at home with an American magazine?)
While the two faces of Raakhee vacillate wildly between tradition and modernity, Shashi is the story’s emotional anchor – puzzled when he falls for Kamini and finds himself with Kanchan, and smiling through tears in SD Burman’s exquisite Kaise kahen hum. He looks so forlorn in this song sequence, you just want him to be happy again, even if that entails battling for his love in a ludicrous mid-air action sequence that proves why action-hero roles rarely came his way. This stretch sees Shashi gritting his teeth and going through the motions, the exact opposite of the Shashi we find singing Khilte hain gul yahan, waving about a rose in one hand, executing his characteristic wrist-toss with the other. The two Shashis are as much a study in contrasts as Kanchan and Kamini.
My favourite Amitabh-Shashi pairing. This gloriously, dementedly, hammily over-the-top entertainer from Ramesh Sippy paled before the director’s earlier outing, Sholay – but today, this mashup of Salim-Javed and James Bond is ripe for a reappraisal. The scene in which we meet the characters played by Amitabh and Shashi plays like a tongue-in-cheek nod to Deewar. Not only do they play brothers, carrying over their names (Vijay and Ravi) from the iconic drama, we see them in those very roles, as smuggler and cop – at least, until we learn Ravi is a conman too. The scene that follows is funnier. Vijay and Ravi are at a restaurant, when they see Bindiya Goswami alighting from a car. “Ooh, fantastic,” drools Vijay. “What a beauty,” exclaims Ravi. A little later, we see Vijay is talking about the car, Ravi about the girl.
In the heavier scenes, too, this combination works brilliantly. When their brother (Sunil Dutt) is killed and they see the corpse at the morgue, Amitabh plays it straight, his emotions masked, while Shashi winces with pain – not too much, though; just enough to express what he’s feeling. The scene is a perfect illustration of the duo’s masculine-feminine chemistry. Between their differing styles, they make the solo violin on the soundtrack redundant.
The less nostalgically inclined might argue that Shashi Kapoor’s contribution to cinema came more by way of the films he produced (Junoon, 36 Chowringhee Lane) rather than acted in – but Vijeta, directed by Govind Nihalani, is a fine showcase for both producer and actor. Behind the scenes, Shashi was a benevolent father, handing a rather complex lead role to son Kunal. (The coming-of-age story is about the latter’s arc from aimless youth to fighter pilot; it was the Lakshya of its era.) On-screen, Shashi tore into one of his most complex, unsympathetic roles. (Another one would follow in a couple of years; the lecherous royal of Utsav, whom Shashi played as a menacing buffoon).
Watching Shashi in Vijeta is like watching one of his zany leading-man characters reaching middle age and finding themselves cowed down by life. He’s rarely been as angry on-screen. He’s angry that his wife won’t forgive him for his infidelity. He’s angry because his son has no focus. The performance isn’t deep – it’s a cocktail of casually summoned-up masala-era mannerisms. (Shashi was probably too mild-mannered to summon up real rage, the kind of rage you sensed when Amitabh simply walked into a room). But a subdued, dignified Rekha (as Shashi’s wife) balances out his filmy fulminations. Vijeta is a terrific example of how Shashi vibes and melds with an in-sync co-star not named Amitabh Bachchan. His scenes with Rekha give you the sense of watching two people who have lived a complicated life together. This prickly togetherness is important because we witness the son’s journey as much through his actions as his parents’ reactions.
This isn’t a Shashi Kapoor movie at all. And yet, it wouldn’t have worked without him, without his innate… Shashi-ness. The story is about a photographer (Mahinder, played by Naseeruddin Shah) who is in love with Maya (Anuradha Patel), but marries Sudha (Rekha). At the beginning, Mahinder and Sudha meet in the waiting room of a railway station – they are, at this point, separated. The narrative flashes back to their times together, surrounded by Maya’s ghost-like presence. These are messy people. Maya is practically inhuman, a wraithlike poet incapable of conversing in “normal” language. Sudha, understandably, is a bundle of insecurities — as she puts it, nothing in the house she lives in with Mahinder seems hers, everything seems to be someone else’s. And Mahinder is a man torn between the past and the present.
This is what makes Shashi Kapoor’s brief appearance at the end so welcome. He’s the man Sudha has remarried. He bursts into the waiting room, relieved at finding Sudha – his externalised energy is a rebuke to Naseeruddin Shah, who internalises everything. He pierces through the film’s cloudy mood like a sun, and you’re pleased for Sudha. Shashi is just being Shashi (in the sense that he isn’t “acting” like Naseeruddin Shah), but that Shashi-ness is just what the film needs at this point. We sense a man who is fun, simple, caring, a man who loves his wife beyond reason. The character is reminiscent of the one Shashi played in Kabhi Kabhie, the large-voiced, large-hearted charmer in the midst of a bunch of brooders. The public persona of an actor is no indication of how he or she is in real life, but one gets the sense that this was the real Shashi Kapoor, someone who (the rare Vijeta apart) left the angst to others and concentrated on making the most of every moment. He wasn’t a Balbir Raj at all. He was simply Shashi.