I discovered Shammi Kapoor the actor when I was about nine or 10 years old. I watched all my grandfather’s (Nasir Hussain’s) films on VHS, and was completely blown away by this vibrant, energetic and witty guy.
Dil Deke Dekho was one of my favourites, because of how funny he is in it, and how brilliantly he played off Rajendranath (another brilliant actor, and also a part of the ‘gang’… more on that later).
I don’t really remember meeting Shammi uncle during my childhood… perhaps he didn’t leave the house much because of his health, but whatever the case, the first time I clearly remember meeting him was at my grandfather’s funeral.
Shammi uncle was one of the first people to arrive, and he stayed for a very long time. I remember being very moved by that.
In his last few years, my grandfather wasn't much of a storyteller, so I never got to hear about his friendship with Shammiji. I heard more stories from my mother, and later from the man himself. He told me about how they were forced to work together for their first film, Tumsa Nahin Dekha.
My grandfather didn't want to work with a hero who had only failures to his credit until that point, and Shammi uncle didn't want to work with this 'arrogant fool'.
But when they actually met one another, they found that they got on like a house on fire. He told me about supporting the budding romance between Nana, a struggling director with no money, and Nani, a choreographer's assistant at the time.
When they wanted to get married, but couldn't afford to, it was Shammi uncle who got them married in his own house, even dressing my grandmother in his wife's clothes and jewelry. This was a man with a heart of pure gold.
We've all seen Teesri Manzil, danced to the songs (daringly original music by Panchamda), and been thrilled by the razor-sharp writing… but there are so many stories that happened behind the scenes. The film was originally supposed to be directed by my grandfather, starring Dev Anand, and Vijay Anand (who finally directed it) was supposed to direct a film called Baharon ke Sapne.
The screenplays were written, songs were recorded, and the films were ready to roll. One night, at a party, a few too many drinks were consumed, angry words were exchanged, and to cut a long story short, Nana ended up swapping films with Vijay Anand, and replacing Dev saab with his best friend Shammi Kapoor! The film went on to become a classic of Indian cinema, but there's one more story to tell…
Halfway into the shooting of the film, Shammi uncle's first wife, Geeta Bali, passed away. He was destroyed, and told my grandfather that he couldn't come to shoot. Nana didn't blink; he told Shammi uncle to take as much time as he needed, that the sets would remain standing until he came back.
Two months later, when they resumed shooting, the first thing to be shot was the song Tumne Mujhe Dekha… maybe it's just in my head, but I swear, the pain on his face in that song brings me to tears every time I see it. That's more than just acting.
Flash forward many years… My first film, Jaane Tu… was ready to release, and the first CD was opened by the hero I grew up admiring. He hugged me with surprising strength and wished me luck. He told me never to forget what's really important… friends and family. Everything else is temporary.
The last time I saw him was at my wedding reception. He could no longer walk, but he'd travelled an hour-and-a-half across the city to be there. I was floored. His body was failing him, but his mind was as sharp as ever.
That twinkle in his eye hadn't faded even a bit. I guess human bodies aren't built to handle spirits such as his.
There are any number of things to be learned from Shamsher Raj Kapoor… the original Indian rockstar. The actor. The dancer. He created a style that was all his own, and 50 years down the line, none can touch him in that space.
But the lesson I shall take away is from Shammi the man; the witty, happy, intelligent man who knew what was most important in life: his friends and his family.
Here's to you, Shammi uncle. With all our love, and all our respect.