Shammi Kapoor just isn’t dead. One of Indian cinema’s most sustained flirtation with experimentation is as decidedly interred too.
Shammi was a flexible, uncomplicated Kapoor. Perhaps to counter the intensity of his brother Raj — and the longstanding cerebral image of his theatre-loving father, Prithviraj — this large, younger sibling was chosen, unbeknownst to him, to add to the coffers of the family enterprise and also feed the tryst with the unformulaic by the leading movie moguls of the day. Shammi did his part. And did it obediently well.
His spontaneity, bred by his innocence, became box-office fodder. His limited, but perfected mannerisms, only endeared. His was an uncriticised B-grade status, which he A-graded with his continued success without ever upsetting the applecart of the leading — and conditioned — acting leviathans of the time, a tribe that counted a fledgling Rajesh Khanna, an effete Rajendra Kumar, a still-going-strong Dilip Kumar, and a mysteriously appreciated, gravel-voiced, ultra-stylised Raj Kumar.
Shammi’s created his own niche. And it comprised, apart from a disdain towards losing weight, a fundamental and humble recognition of his status: he was the imperfect movie star. Imperfect enough to be experimented with a new physicality: unaesthetic, yet cute, gyrations accompanied with the promise of disheveling a mop of duly Brylcreemed hair by the third step of a dance number; with a still nascent editing technique of fight sequences: Shammi, therefore, nearly always won the round but not without suffering three slaps or kicks too many.
Shammi wore his black-eye manfully. His persona was an amalgamation of experiments, given the nation’s growing fatigue with leading men who could do no wrong. An everyday guy was the need of the hour.
Elvis Presley, by then, was making his hypnotising entry into our drawing rooms. His foray into cinema was making waves in America by virtue of his songs and swiveling hips and not his abominable acting skills. But he endeared with what seemed like an undeclared fiat: go elsewhere if you are a Paul Newman acolyte. Few went elsewhere.
In India, too, it was time for a break from seeing a male lead wooing his love interest in ways other than winking from afar, peering from behind a convenient tree trunk and catching his excessively demure belle predictably unawares by cooing the first few notes into her unprepared ear.
Shammi broke the mould. He was not intense. He happily made mistakes, readily admitted to them, and initiated the process of reparation without the painful bout of introspection. Shammi did it uninhibitedly. Sporting usually an asphyxiating jacket, he bellowed the first notes of a song from somewhere near a tree (seldom behind it), carrying his affection (never a rose), and leaping a good four-feet shy of the heroine’s stilettos in a show of more than undying love for her.
Shows of fitness and strength on the part of leading men in Bollywood till then were relegated to amateur editing when nervous fists attempted to injure while being a good half a yard from the target.
But Shammi jumped on to a running convertible down a hilly road with what surprisingly appeared as consummate ease. In the wake of the industry’s initial unease with fight sequences, he was compelled to pack a sloppy punch against the baddies but with a believable aim to maim, teaching a lesson to those who dared heckle his over-coiffured love-interest.
And Bollywood picnicked with its one and only hero with whom you would feel at ease wearing your frayed casuals at the dining — and, of course, tippling — table.
Jayatsen Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based advertising professional
The views expressed by the author are personal