There have been male actors on the Mumbai film firmament who ruled the roost on the sheer strength of their versatile acting talent (Ashok Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Dilip Kumar) or because Lady Luck smiled at them (Biswajeet, Joy Mukherjee). Some remained in the periphery and never quite tasted great success (Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan). And them amidst several actors-some trained and mostly untrained- there was Shashi Kapoor, the debonair good-looking son of Prithviraj Kapoor, who apart from inheriting acting in his genes, also stood out because he dared to think differently.
For starters, he was rejected by the then reigning heroines who had their own favourites and didn’t quite want to risk acting opposite a rank newcomer, so what if he carried the famous Kapoor tag? This charming Kapoor who worked as a child actor in his elder brother Raj Kapoor’s films initially, was later an assistant stage manager as well as an actor for his father’s theatre group, Prithvi. When he grew up acting was something that he thought he knew. But rejected by producers who had cast the likes of Nargis, Meena Kumari and Madhubala in their films and didn’t want "somewhat of a phirangi hero" paired opposite them, Kapoor didn’t allow dejection to deter him and decided to play small roles in his brother Raj Kapoor’s films.
Had it not been for actor director V Shantaram’s niece Nanda, by then a successful actor, who agreed to work with him, he would have continued acting on stage. It was perhaps because of his boyish charm that this non-controversial actor who was known for being a good samaritan in the industry, was mostly cast as a romantic lead. But having done stage under the guidance of his father Prithviraj Kapoor his sensibilities made him veer towards serious cinema as he, along with his wife, collaborated with Merchant Ivory productions on a number of film projects like The Householder, Shakespeare-Wallah. The desire to move away from the rut and do meaningful films was so strong in him that subsequently he decided to turn producer with films like Junoon (1978), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Kalyug (1981), Vijeta (1982), Utsav (1984) and even directed the fantasy filled Ajooba (1991). By his own admission, "These were the kind of films that I wanted to do, but since they didn’t do well at the box office, I decided to call it quits," he says with a deep sense of regret.
The fate of these films may have disheartened him, and left him in debt, but Kapoor’s passion for good cinema earned him many friends in the industry and he has had "a great relationship with nearly all of them."
Some of the people he was closely associated with swear by his dedication towards work and his complete surrender to the demands of the directors.
1. The quiet and dignified Nanda
A still from the song Ye Sama.
After the initial negative response he received, the 'good looking, cultured Kapoor', as he was then known as, endeared himself to all his co-stars. His senior Nanda found him ‘culturally different’ from the many actors she had been working with then, and they hit it off right from the word go. They went on to do some eight films together. ChaarDiwari (1961), Mehendi Rang Layegi (1962), Mohabbat Isko Kahete Hain (1965), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Neend Hamari Khwab Tumhare (1966), Juari (1968), Raja Saab (1969) and Rootha Na Karo (1970). Nanda, who passed away last year in 2014, often remembered him fondly in a few of the rare interviews that she chose to do with film magazines, and Kapoor too, always cherished working with his favourite heroine.
2. The la-di-dah Bengal queen- Sharmila Tagore
He and Sharmila Tagore too had a great on screen chemistry. Having started their screen pairing in Waqt (1965), the two also did Aamne Samne (1967), Suhana Safar (1970), Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973), Paap Aur Punya (1974), Swati (1986), the critically acclaimed New Delhi Times (1985) (which fetched Kapoor a National Film Award for Best Actor in 1986), My Love (1970) and Anari (1975). Though not all their films were super successes, the two felt most comfortable doing films with each other.
Sharmila Tagore and Shashi Kapoor.
While shooting together, they often complemented each other with both having done hardcore mainstream masala films and some critically acclaimed art house films. When Aa gale Lag Jaa released, it created a storm with a bold theme of a young medical student (Tagore) getting cosy with an unknown man (Kapoor) and becoming pregnant. While the purists shunned it, the masses loved it and the critics felt that it was the sophistication and class act by the both the stars that didn’t reduce the scene to a cheap thrill act.
3. The other Bengal Tigress -Rakhee
If Sharmila oozed intelligence and sex appeal, Rakhee was somewhat of a mismatch for this ‘stylish Kapoor. But S Mukherjee’s film Sharmilee that brought them together for the first time, became a blockbuster hit and thus started a great on screen pair that went on to do films such as Jaanwar Aur Insaan (1972), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Baseraa (1981), Pighalta Aasman (1985), the critically acclaimed Trishna (1978), Doosara Aadmi (1977), Bandhan Kuchchey Daghon Ka, Bandh Honth (1984), and Zameen Aasman.
A still from Kabhie Kabhie.
The two made their roles in the Yash Chopra directed Kabhie Kabhie so believable that even today everyone remembers them for their perfect casting- Rakhee playing wife to a man she had not known before and Kapoor gradually coming to terms with his wife’s shady past.
4. Bromance and bonding with the Big B
Amitabh Bachchan in many of his interviews has often said that the reason why he and Kapoor could do so many films together was because "Shashiji was absolutely hassle-free as a co-star and was only interested in his work," something probably what Bachchan found in common with him. Strangely, Kapoor who is six to seven years older always played the younger brother to Bachchan in quite a few of their twelve films they acted in. Their personal bonding reflects in many of the bromance films they have done together. Besides the Salim-Javed scripted Deewaar that had the two playing two brothers on the opposite side of the law and where the confrontation scenes continue to be copied till date even after 40 years of the film’s release, the other Yash Chopra directed film Silsila had the two having a whale of time as two fun-loving brothers. In both, one needed perfect understanding between actors to be able to pull off either comic or dramatic scenes with equal ease.
Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in a still from Deewar.
The 12 films they acted in are : Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974), Deewaar (1975), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Immaan Dharam (1977), Trishul (1978), Kaala Patthar (1979), Suhaag (1979), Do Aur Do Paanch (1980), Shaan (1980), Silsila (1981), Namak Halaal (1982), and Akayla (1991).
5. His close relationship with Ismail Merchant- James Ivory
Having lost his appetite for the run-of-the-mill romantic comedies early on, Kapoor would often rue that he "didn’t quite enjoy running around trees" all the time on celluloid. And so, he made a determined foray into English films made by Merchant-Ivory productions. And while he starred in some international British and American films – which was much before the hyped inroads of some of today’s Bollywood stars - run by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, he was clearly getting immense satisfaction as an actor in films such as The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965) (opposite his sister-in-law Felicity Kendal), The Guru (1969), Bombay Talkie (with Aparna Sen, 1970) and Heat and Dust (1982) in which he co-starred with his wife Jennifer Kendal, The Deceivers (1988) and Side Streets (1998).
A still from The Householder.
He also starred in other British and American films such as Pretty Polly (also called A Matter of Innocence (1967)) opposite Hayley Mills, Siddhartha (1972), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), and Muhafiz (1994). James Ivory directed Kapoor in the first Merchant Ivory production The Householder with Leela Naidu in the lead opposite Kapoor, then in Shakespeare-Wallah, Bombay Talkie and Heat and Dust while Ismail Merchant directed him in Muhafiz (1994).
With the exception of Indian actors Persis Khambata and Saeed Jaffrey, and later Kabir Bedi, he was the first Indian actor to work extensively in Hollywood and British films. Alas…in the day and age of no television hype and an even non-existent Bollywood fixation among fans across the Indian diaspora, his name does not even get a passing mention when some names are bandied about with much propaganda.
The National Award winner as well as the Padma Bhushan and now the Dada Saab Phalke awardee Kapoor also did ten films with Hema Malini and another 9 with Zeenat Aman, some of which were multi starrers and mostly formula ridden pot boilers that were the order of the day. Along such commercial and some average hits came some of his powerful performances that will find a place among the best in Hindi cinema. What we would remember him for will be Kapoor playing the feudal chieftain Javed Khan in Junoon or as Punjabi father Nihal Singh in Vijeta , to name just a few.