Shashi Kapoor was India’s first crossover star but few remember his great contribution to serious cinema in the 1980s. It’s an injustice that his biographer Aseem Chhabra addresses in Shashi Kapoor; The Householder, the Star. An excerpt.
…In the 1970s, Shashi launched a company, Vidushak Arts, which would rent out equipment and cameras. Shashi’s venture provided a lifeline to several filmmakers—for, as things stood, they had to import most tools from overseas, but could do so only if they could show they were earning foreign exchange. ‘One forgets how extraordinarily difficult it was to make films back then,’ filmmaker Dev Benegal says. ‘It’s almost as though the state did not want you to make movies. There was a licence on importing negative film, sound editing equipment, cameras and lights. It was an impoverished state of affairs.’
Shashi was one of the early few to get a licence to import a flatbed editing machine—a Steenbeck—which Dev was fortunate to use. The Steenbeck was housed in the Bombay Film Laboratories—now an apartment building in Prabhadevi, Bombay—and a lot of talent would pass through, including Shyam Benegal (who used Vidushak Arts’ equipment for some of his films) and Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer, Subrata Mitra (who, as we know, shot a few of the early Merchant–Ivory movies).
Shashi—never a man to pursue just one dream—also hoped to bring the films he made directly to the audience, without having to depend on a nexus of distributors—who, in his view, were business-people first, with little appreciation for cinema as an art form. ‘What do diamond merchants know about films?’ Shashi asks. ‘[If I take over], instead of making a film and waiting for a distributor, I could do both at the same time.’
The idea took root, and in the late 1960s, when he had to bail Ismail Merchant out of a cash crunch, he did it in exchange for the right to distribute Bombay Talkies in India. Unfortunately, the Merchant–Ivory film did not do any remarkable business at the box office, and Shashi failed to make money.
After two failures, Shashi’s next big step as a film distributor was when he bought rights, within the territories of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh (UP), for Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (and later, Satyam Shivam Sundaram). For Raj, his brother’s intervention was a welcome relief. After the box office failure of Mera Naam Joker, he had a tough time convincing distributors to buy the rights for Bobby—a film that seemed to have nothing going for it, with two newcomers as protagonists—twenty-one-year-old Rishi Kapoor (in his first lead role after a cameo in Mera Naam Joker) and sixteen-year-old Dimple Kapadia.
For Shashi, the move to distribute this film was part-strategic, part-instinctive. ‘He wanted to make money,’ Rishi says. ‘Shashi Uncle was confident that Bobby would be a big hit. He restored confidence in his brother by saying, “I know this picture will be a blockbuster!”’
Shashi’s conviction may have sprung from the fact that Bobby relates a story that never seems to tire—a rich boy (Rishi as Raj) falls in love with a poor girl (Dimple as Bobby) and surmounts all odds, from parental opposition to abduction attempts, to emerge triumphant. Besides, it’s hard to remain impervious to the onscreen chemistry between the lead actors, and the catchy songs by Laxmikant–Pyarelal—for the first time, Raj happened to work with composers other than Shankar–Jaikishan.
Shashi’s predictions proved to be spot on. Bobby was a huge hit. Overnight, the film made stars of Rishi and Dimple. When Rishi’s plane landed in Delhi, Shashi arranged for nearly 500 young girls on the tarmac to welcome his nephew, who screamed the young actor’s name while holding posters of Bobby. ‘It was such a big thing for me,’ Rishi tells me. ‘Of course, I was Shashi Uncle’s nephew and I was hogging all the limelight—what with Dimple being preoccupied post-marriage (she had wedded superstar, Rajesh Khanna, soon after the film’s shoot). The newspapers were full of stories that Rishi Kapoor was in town. And the Escorts bike in the film—I rode a similar bike from the airport, and it created quite a stir.’
Unfortunately, Bobby’s box office success and the young stars’ popularity did not translate into big returns for Shashi. Rishi says: ‘As with all the Kapoors, Shashi Uncle didn’t get much. He should have made a lot more. But the money got siphoned off here and there.’…
Shashi was not one to give up after a few setbacks. The real businessman in him came to the fore, once more, with the iconic Junoon… Soon after, in 1976, Shashi formed his company, Film-Valas—clearly inspired by the title of the Merchant–Ivory film he acted in, Shakespeare Wallah. Film-Valas would go on to produce some of the best-known art-house films of the late 1970s and 1980s. ‘Dad was getting a bit frustrated with the kind of cinema he was working for,’ Kunal says, while acknowledging that Shashi was making good money as a Hindi movie actor. Film-Valas and its productions, then, satisfied Shashi’s creative hunger.
…The question that is often raised is whether Shashi Kapoor was a good producer. There are those—especially the directors he hired— who endlessly talk about how generous he was. Madhu Jain, not just a critic and a journalist but also Shashi’s friend, echoes these sentiments: ‘I think Shashi was a real showman because he did everything dil se (from his heart). For Bobby, he threw a big party, gave radios to each technician and then took care of everybody on the set, not just the stars. Shashi was a lot like his dad—you see, both, in their childhoods, got khana that was leftover.’
… What we see emerging is a fairly complex portrait—Shashi was undoubtedly a director’s/actor’s producer. But this did not make him a good producer. His son, Kunal, agrees: ‘My dad was a bad businessman. Even in a film like Junoon where he should have made money—it was his own company—he hardly made anything.’ Elsewhere, he writes, even more vehemently, ‘My dad was the world’s worst producer! He never said no […] He wasn’t doing it for the money. He wouldn’t even know how much money he had in his pocket.’
Yet, surely, this made Shashi a rare financier—one who held on to his ideals and risked backing the cinema he loved, despite being involved with the business of filmmaking. Dev Benegal tells me that Shashi was the only producer who was using his own money, or what he borrowed, to fund new, art-house films in India. The others, who were part of India’s new wave, parallel cinema movement in the 1970s and 1980s, were funded by the government-run FFC—later known as the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). ‘The films Shashi produced were passion projects—he’d take on directors who were not commercial and fund them to make their films,’ Dev says. ‘It pre-dates what The Weinstein Company or Sony Pictures Classics now do or what David Putnam was attempting in England.’
Yet, Govind Nihalani tells me that it is precisely this childlike zeal for filmmaking that interfered with Shashi’s ability to make judicious decisions: ‘He would get carried away by the art or the creative part of producing films. Over time, people began saying, “Shashiji bade dilwale hain, bahut alag kisam ki filmein banate hain.” (“Shashiji has a big heart. He makes unusual films.”) But then, they’d add, he should be careful about the deals he signs with financiers. I would hear things like, “Shashiji business main zyada dhayan dette to aur bhi achcha hota.” (“It would be great if Shashiji could have paid more attention to business.”) It was a polite way of saying that people took advantage of his goodness.’
…Dharker says, ‘I remember Shashi telling me one day about a director—I won’t mention his name, but he was part of a film that Shashi had produced. He said, “Jab FFC ke liye film banate hain (when they make films for FFC), directors work with a small budget. Lekin ab Shashi Kapoor producer ban gaya (but the moment Shashi Kapoor is producer), they suddenly loosen the purse strings and have no control over expenses!” It was a rare show of bitterness.’
Like so many others who love Shashi, the human being, Anil maintains that Shashi, the film businessman, was a failure—‘He had a big heart and a healthy dose of good intentions in his system. But his spirit of generosity prevailed over the kind of discipline a producer should have on the budget.’
One can’t help but ask: would the fate of Shashi’s films have been different had he been a more circumspect producer? Would they have been box office successes? Possibly not—given that each of them was treading new ground. But at the very least, they would not have been mighty commercial failures. Anil, though, remains a voice of optimism: ‘Why, if Shashi’s films had been made with a tight budget, I actually think they would have made a profit!’
Today, all is conjecture.