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The thinking woman’s crumpet: Shashi Kapoor was the sort of gentleman we don’t have in films anymore

Shashi would have made a perfect English gentleman but he could also have been a Hollywood gentleman like Cary Grant, James Stewart or George Clooney.Shashi was not at all foreign himself, though he was cosmopolitan, at home in the world.

opinion Updated: Dec 20, 2017 08:39 IST
Shashi Kapoor,Shah Rukh Khan,Bollywood
A still from Gharbar (1963). Shashi worked in the mainstream but he also acted with art film makers and in theatre both of which showed his intellectual sophistication and his interest in art even at the expense of money(The Picture Desk/ Merchant Ivory - The Kobal Collection)

The many obituaries of Shashi Kapoor published recently all drew attention to his quality of being a gentleman. It’s hard to think of a star for whom that would be the defining characteristic today and reflects a changing idea of the ideal male both off and on screen.

Shashi was amazingly handsome. He had the good looks of the Kapoors, being the one who looked the most like his father Prithviraj, that went with a style and an elegant figure. His impossibly handsome face was made less daunting by his goofy grin which made him seem less of a ‘Greek god’. So why, among the many words that have been written about him, particularly since his death, was ‘gentleman’ found so often?

The idea of the gentleman has a complex history in Western and global history, yet Shashi Kapoor himself defined the word. He was a gentleman not by birth but by conduct. Being a Kapoor was akin to being cinema royalty but Shashi, although appearing as a child actor in Raj’s films and in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), worked mostly apart from the rest of the family.

Shashi was restrained. He did not throw his weight around. Tributes to Shashi Kapoor’s modesty, considerate acknowledgement of what made other people tick and their difference was reflected on screen where he allowed ample time and space to his fellow actors. He was not afraid to act with Amitabh Bachchan at the height of the latter’s superstardom. Between them the two actors created a dynamic of the broody, disturbed male who had been wronged and was seeking vengeance, balanced by Shashi’s warm but gentle masculinity which was unthreatened by other men, or indeed by women. In real life, the two were great friends, and Amitabh is, of course, a total gentleman, in every sense of the word.

Shashi worked in the mainstream but he also acted with art film makers and in theatre both of which showed his intellectual sophistication and his interest in art even at the expense of money. He also appeared in many quite silly films but always added a dash of style to them rather than demeaning himself.

Shashi exuded charm on- and off-screen, being amusing and engaging with others, courteous, trustworthy and honourable. He was also pleasing on the eye through his own good looks and his ability to wear fashion in a stylish and sophisticate manner.

As Shashi married an English woman, it might imply that being a gentleman means being westernised. Not so. Shashi would have made a perfect English gentleman but he could also have been a Hollywood gentleman like Cary Grant, James Stewart or George Clooney.Shashi was not at all foreign himself, though he was cosmopolitan, at home in the world.

There were many gentlemen in Indian cinema. Two obvious examples are Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. They both have/had a refined grace and manner, never uncouth . One a Bengali, one a Pathan, yet both showing an air of considered restraint and stylish yet respectable dress.

The stars and their star personae today are not gentleman. This is not a criticism of the stars but in today’s world a gentleman wouldn’t be a star. Shahrukh Khan is well-mannered, intelligent and educated, as are other male stars, but, although Raju ban gaya gentleman, he is youthful and exuberant, boyish and dresses casually. His screen persona is usually of a nice guy, often a goofball, who is friends with everyone, especially children. Salman Khan, well-mannered and respectful, and Aamir engaged and polite, as too is Ranveer, but they don’t have the sophisticated relaxed polish of the gentleman. Few of the male stars look relaxed in casual smart or can convincingly carry a jacket or bandhgala suit, let alone model for Bombay’s most sophisticated tailor. They all display an inclusive formality, with an emphasis on the cult of youth, displaying their bodies to draw attention to their sexual attractiveness. Shashi Kapoor, though tall and slim, knew how to use his eyes and his smile to make us all melt.

The male film star is often an ideal of masculinity but although the gentleman may have disappeared in cinema, he has not gone from India. There are many gentlemen in India, in the film industry, in politics, the media and in other walks of life.

Shashi Kapoor was the ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’, to use an unladylike term. The idea of a man who is admirable, kind, soft-spoken and elegant has far more appeal to most women than a display of muscle. With his death we mourn not just only this wonderful man himself but also the kind of measured masculinity he embodied. His gentlemanly qualities lasted him through his life, into old age and ill health. Is this not an appropriate moment to reflect on and remember what a singular form of masculinity is represented by the gentleman? However much we like today’s stars, surely we can all long to see the return of such an archetype. They won’t be Shashi, but they will have much to learn from him.

Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian cultures and cinema, SOAS, University of London

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 19, 2017 17:06 IST