When Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal fell apart: An excerpt from his biography

An excerpt from the book Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star, which offers glimpses into Shashi Kapoor’s life of being a star and a family man — son of Prithviraj Kapoor, husband of Jennifer Kendal, and father to Kunal, Karan and Sanjna.
Shashi Kapoor in a passionate moment with the British writer, played by his wife, Jennifer Kendal Kapoor in Bombay Talkie (1970).(Merchant–Ivory Productions)
Shashi Kapoor in a passionate moment with the British writer, played by his wife, Jennifer Kendal Kapoor in Bombay Talkie (1970).(Merchant–Ivory Productions)
Updated on Dec 05, 2017 05:30 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByAseem Chhabra, New Delhi

In Jennifer Kendal Kapoor’s life, the domestic, at least for a while, superseded all else. Even as Shashi got increasingly busy with his career as an actor–producer, Jennifer abandoned her vocation as an actress to keep home and raise her three children.

Perhaps, ‘abandoned’ is a poor choice of word, since, in an interview, Jennifer says that there was never a point when she wasn’t committed to the life of a theatre actor:

I never quit theatre as such. Had I known then that I was going to be away from the stage for so long, I would’ve reacted very badly. I would’ve been very disturbed. I’ve still got my hand towel, in which we used to have liquid paraffin to wipe off our make-up. It’s still in my make-up case. It’s just as I left it after the last show I did. I’ve always had this superstition: I felt that if I washed it, I would never act again.

It was Jennifer’s love for theatre that propelled her to start Prithvi and look into its day-to-day management and functioning. And it was her love for acting that drew her back to cinema after a long break with 36 Chowringhee Lane. Following the critical acclaim the film received, Jennifer was suddenly in the limelight, her career as an actress resurrected. Offers began pouring in, and soon, she found herself playing Mrs Saunders—that cheerless woman in perpetual fear of being molested by an Indian servant — in Heat and Dust. But now, when she had the time to act, her health refused to support her.

It was 1983. Cannes. Jennifer—who, until then, was thought to be suffering from amoebic dysentery—was diagnosed with cancer. Geoffrey Kendal writes in his autobiography that when he learnt of his daughter’s malady, he could not utter the word ‘cancer’ for the longest time; he called it ‘the illness’ or ‘this thing’.

In the meantime, Jennifer, in her own way, slowly came to terms with the diagnosis, and began informing those close to her, including friends like Anil Dharker. ‘She started telling me about how they had tried to brighten up a room with wallpaper at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Bombay,’ Anil says. ‘And I asked, well, why did you go there? And she replied, “Anil, don’t you see? I’ve got the Big C.” That was it. That was how I came to know.’

Cover of the book Shashi Kapoor: The Household, the Star.
Cover of the book Shashi Kapoor: The Household, the Star.

After her diagnosis, Jennifer had surgery in India and seemed to be recovering. But later, during a trip to London and after more check-ups, it appeared that the cancer had spread. Jennifer spent her last months in the British capital in the hospital and at her parents’ home.

Geoffrey was devastated when she died. Jennifer was his firstborn, his favourite, his almost-all. A grieving Geoffrey mentions: ‘The appalling loss is something I cannot talk or write about. It seemed as if the whole Land of Promise had frozen.’

Along with him, his wife, Laura Liddell Kendal, suffered. Felicity Kendal says, ‘My mother was never quite the same afterwards. She was very religious before, but lost her faith. The light went out a bit.’ The family, as a whole, found itself teetering, without a mainstay. ‘My parents used to spend half the year in India with my sister,’ Felicity states, ‘but when she died, they felt going back was too painful, so they lost their home as well as Jennifer.’

Felicity, in the meanwhile—who says, ‘towards the end, Jennifer’s only concern was for her children’—recalls being overwhelmed with grief; in a newspaper interview, she says of her sister: ‘Our closeness came because we were nomads growing up, so didn’t really have local friends. When [Jennifer] died, it wasn’t just the tragedy of her death, it was also that selfish thing of, “Who am I going to say this to?” I couldn’t make any decisions.’

And then, there was Shashi. After Jennifer’s demise, Dev Benegal says that he met Kunal Kapoor at a memorial at Prithvi Theatre: ‘The family had just come back from Goa and Kunal said to me, “Dad took this boat out in the middle of the sea. When he got there, that was the first time he cried. Really, he wept.”’ Like Dev, I’m stunned by the rawness of that moment—of Shashi, alone in the vast open seas, sorrowing. ‘He was really shaken by her death.’

Condolences poured in and there were press reports about Jennifer, the fine actress and grand woman. ‘But few had seen what we had seen or had our memories,’ Geoffrey writes. ‘People’s memories are over such a short period, and no one seems to imagine that anything really happens before their own time.’

Shashi Kapoor continued to work after Jennifer Kendal Kapoor’s passing, and some of his best work emerged during a time of loss. But something inside him did break. ‘I think the death of Jennifer was a big blow to him,’ Hanif Kureishi says, who worked with Shashi on Sammy and Rosie Get Laid two years after his wife’s demise. ‘It really destroyed him.’

Jennifer had been the love of Shashi’s life, his true anchor. With her death, he became rudderless. Simi Garewal tells me, ‘Jennifer occupied—or Shashi surrendered to her—a large part of his personality. And they merged. With Jennifer gone, Shashi struggled, but couldn’t find himself. That vast area of his personality that was Jennifer—now it lay empty. A void. I met him in London over dinner with Ismail Merchant and could see that he was floundering. He was different—not himself.’

Anil Dharker, always a friend, bore witness to Shashi’s emotional collapse. Sometimes, the actor would depend on him—the way he must have, once, on Jennifer—to help him muddle through awkward social situations—such as, when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting would request him to invite a foreign dignitary to dinner. ‘And then he would ring me up,’ Anil says, ‘and implore: “Look, I have this very boring dinner guest, do you mind keeping me company?” And I would do that. But when the dignitary would leave, Shashi would actually push me out.’

Then, Anil, and those close to Shashi, bore witness to the actor’s physical breakdown. Without the strict discipline Jennifer imposed on his existence, the star began indulging in his two chief weaknesses—food and drink. Anil remembers dropping by for lunch on occasion, and asking for a glass of beer, only to learn that Shashi had been drinking vodka since the morning. ‘His domestic staff would bring refills as soon as his glass emptied out,’ Anil says. ‘He wouldn’t even have to ask. They knew exactly how long it took him to finish his drink and they would be ready with the next. By the end of lunch, he would be quite sozzled.’

‘I tried, quite often, to talk him out of it,’ Anil continues. ‘In fact, Sanjna and Kunal would say, “Come on, do something, he listens to you!” And I would respond, “This is one area where he doesn’t listen to me at all.” Then, they would say, “Visit more often because when you are here, at least he walks around. Otherwise, he just sits.” So I did.’

As Shashi found himself caught in a loop of grief and consumption, he fell victim to that infamous Kapoor syndrome— of putting on too much weight, too soon. His health rapidly deteriorated. He was forced to leave Atlas Apartments and moved to Juhu, where he could be looked after by his son, Kunal. ‘With that, his whole life changed,’ Madhu Jain tells me. ‘He was a South Bombay person,’ and the move, she claims, added to the star’s loneliness, his growing depression. ‘I went to Juhu a few times,’ Anil adds, ‘but really, he stopped saying very much.’ Simi, with characteristic insight, tells me, ‘It’s as though Shashi had given up the inner struggle. He almost became a recluse.’

Then came the year 2005. Ismail Merchant was dead; he was only sixty-eight. ‘Ismail was just one of those characters who was supposed to live forever,’ Sanjna says of the man who had become part of her family. ‘He was not meant to die. It was just wrong. I am glad that I was physically with my dad when he heard the news.’

Shashi, when he found out about his beloved producer’s demise, was shaken; his grief became even more profound, loss piling on loss. When James Ivory came to India a year later, paid his respects at Ismail’s grave, and then visited Shashi—the first leading man of the Merchant–Ivory banner—he saw he was no longer the star he had known, but a ghost of a former self, emotionally withdrawn. ‘I can’t tell if it was a form of ongoing grieving about Jennifer,’ James says. ‘But Shashi’s youth had dimmed, he was beginning to be an old man. We just didn’t connect.’

Later, Simi saw Shashi at an award function at the Yash Raj Films Studios — the star, wheelchair-bound, his daughter by his side. As Simi approached her one-time co-star, Sanjna Kapoor cautioned her. ‘She said to me, “He’s had a stroke, so one side is paralyzed. He has also had a heart attack and lots of other problems. He doesn’t remember people. So don’t be upset. I’m just warning you.”’ Simi recalls.

Then she adds, ‘To me, it didn’t matter if Shashi remembered me, or if he didn’t. I still had to go to him. I bent low, looked into his tired face. His eyes lifted slowly and focussed on me. He said, “Hello, Simi!” I felt like laughing…and crying. Then, I just wanted to hug him.’

As Simi speaks, it’s as though I can hear echoes from Shashi’s penultimate film,the poetry of Hafeez Jalandhari:

Tarab-fizaa, alam-rubaa, asar sadaa-e-saaz kaa, Jigar mein aag de lagaa. Har ik lab pe ho sadaa, na haath rok saaqiyaa; Pilaaye jaa, pilaaye jaa, pilaaye jaa— Abhi to main jawaan hoon. (Maker of song, sing through the night, Kindle that fire in my life. Maker of wine, ah, don’t take flight; Pour on, pour on, pour on— For I’m still young tonight.

Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications India.

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