The handsome Shashi Kapoor who made ladies go bonkers over him at his peak just with his cherubic smile, lives like a retired lion today in an apartment in Mumbai's Juhu, overlooking the dream he and his late wife Jennifer built and nurtured, the Prithvi Theatre, the revived version of his late father Prithviraj Kapoor's institution.
The actor, who has been producer and director (just once, in Ajooba) and even participated in some songs alongside Lata Mangeshkar (Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Vakil Baboo) and Asha Bhosle (Suhaag, Namak Halaal) is a recluse today, physically far from the lithe and fit leading man that his fans knew since his first film Char Diwari (1961) to the early '80s. That was the decade when he serenaded – for the last time – the top names of the time like Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman, Rekha, Raakhee, Parveen Babi, Reena Roy and others.
Even when he started out, like his brothers Raj and Shammi as an artiste in the original Prithvi Theatres' plays (apart from playing child artiste in several films including the blockbusters Awara and Samadhi), Shashi's outlook was way different from his brothers. Much like a lot of today's actors, the adult Shashi started out by assisting directors before he faced the camera, a trait that enhanced his craft and broadened his understanding of cinema.
A rare mix of tradition and modernism, Shashi thus had a broader horizon when he turned actor. Two years into Hindi cinema as hero, the handsome lad went Britain-wards in 1963 to star in The Householder, becoming India's first major actor to go international. Though the credit for this should go largely to Jennifer Kendall, the British actress he met when both were part of their respective traveling theaters in Kolkata in the mid-'50s, and whom he married in 1958, he earned a name for himself in that field, notching up memorable turns in Shakespearewallah, Siddhartha and Heat And Dust all the way to the '80s.
And thereby hangs a tale. His wife Jennifer, he revealed, was his father's favourite daughter-in-law, and the bond was extremely deep on both sides. It became Jennifer's dream to revive Prithvi in a modern way, as a platform for offbeat theater, and after her untimely death, it continued as Shashi's mission, helped by their passionate daughter Sanjana.
One crucial way in which Shashi differed not just from his flamboyant brothers was in his completely professional approach to his career, though he probably had to wait the longest to make it big as a commercially saleable hero.
Not only was Shashi famous for being punctual and disciplined, but thanks to his wife, he was the epitome of physical fitness, with a mental calmness that came from a contented home environment. There were barely any late nights in his disciplined, almost British lifestyle. Shashi was one of the first heroes who could be called fitness freaks, a trend that was to become fashionable from the '90s but was followed at that time only by a few juniors like Jeetendra.
And this career focus, apart from his huge talent, made Shashi sail smoothly through the longest struggle that any actor ever had in Hindi cinema, because he kept getting (solo lead) films even when most of them bombed. Who would not like a truly accomplished actor, effortlessly fitting into any role, who was also a pleasure to work and deal with?
Yes, he did have hits – in Jab Jab Phool Khile, the multi-star Waqt and Pyar Kiye Jaa, Aamne Saamne, Haseena Maan Jayegi and Sharmeelee, and some more successes, like the offbeat Dharamputra, Pyar Ka Mausam and Abhinetri, but it was 12 long years before the actor struck it big, with the consecutive super-hits, Manmohan Desai's Aa Gale Lag Jaa and N.N. Sippy's Chor Machaye Shor.
By that time, when true stardom knocked at his door and received a tumultuous welcome, there was really nothing left for Shashi to prove as an actor. The simple Kashmiri boatman of Jab Jab Phool Khile, the army officer from Sharmeelee, the prince from Raja Saab, the driver from Waqt and the poor boy in love with a rich girl in Pyar Kiye Jaa and the scientist of Abhinetri – besides his English films – had proved Shashi;s prowess as a far more versatile, intense, natural and accomplished actor than his more celebrated and successful brothers.
Thanks especially to the trend of multi-hero films that was established with his Roti Kapada Aur Makaan and Deewaar and later consolidated by Sholay, Shashi became an extremely busy actor from 1974. There were times when he worked on three films (called triple shifts) in a single day, causing his elder brother Raj Kapoor to comment that his brother was like a taxi, flitting from one studio or location to another!
But it was all for a cause: Shashi not only needed to revive Prithvi Theaters but also make the money to produce the arty films he believed in – again something unique for a star of his stature. And if he had to play second fiddle to Amitabh Bachchan in multiple films (Trishul, Suhaag, Shaan, Namak et al) for that, or be a part of other multi-star or solo formulaeic films like Fakira or Kali Ghata, so be it. In 1979, Shashi's banner Filmvalas took off with the Shyam Benegal-directed Junoon, a success. But his later movies financially could not recover money despite the oodles of accolades – Kalyug, Vijayeta, 36 Chowringhee Lane (in English, which introduced his Bombay Talkie co-star Aparna Sen as director) and even the popular Utsav, whose production cost was huge even if it met with mild success.
And after the commercial extravaganza and Indo-Russian co-production Ajooba/The Black Prince, which Shashi wanted Raj Kapoor to direct but for which he took on the responsibility himself, also lost big money, Shashi quit – both production and acting.
Before that, he had made an apt and graceful shift towards more mature roles, beginning with Ghar Ek Mandir and going on to films like Ilzaam, Sindoor and Akayla. And that is when he won his first National award as actor, for the arty political drama New Delhi Times. Later, he clinched a Special Jury award for Muhaffiz too. But it was as the obese charlatan Samsthanak in his own Utsav that Shashi put in his finest work – here was a villain who you just detested right from his physique. However, thanks to the absence of Jennifer (who had passed away) and her supervision on his fitness, Shashi never could lose the weight he had intentionally put on for the role!
In the great volume of work he turned out, Shashi the person became the darling of some of our biggest names – including brother Raj who cast him in his dream project Satyam Shivam Sundaram even in his "taxi phase", Yash Chopra, top writers Salim-Javed (who fought for him in Deewaar when director Chopra wanted Rajesh Khanna) and co-stars Raakhee, Rekha and Zeenat Aman. He had already formed popular teams with Nanda and Sharmila Tagore earlier.
Nanda recalled how Shashi's son Kunal touched her feet when they worked together in Kunal's first film as actor, Ahista Ahista. "It was the Kapoor family values that Jennifer followed," she said. "She told Kunal that it was I who had launched his father as a hero in Char Diwari as one of the leading heroines of that era. I was thus the common point between launching two generations of Kapoors. And Shashi will always remain my favourite co-actor."
Among heroes, besides Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha loved to work with him. Smaller directors like Kalpataru (of the Ghar… movies), Ramesh Talwar or Ashok Roy swore by him and in this phase Shashi also worked as with top names like Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra again, Ramesh Sippy, Raj Khosla, Subhash Ghai and others.
The Shashi Serenades
If Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor had Shankar-Jaikisha n to spin most of their popular chartbusters, Shashi had Kalyanji-Anandji, close friends who gave him a distinct musical identity in his earlier films through a chain of musical hits led by Jab Jab Phool Khile, Aamne Saamne, Haseena Maan Jayegi, Ek Shriman Ek Shrimati and Raja Saab. Their style for him represented Shashi's persona – sober, sophisticated and yet ardent and deep. With evergreens like 'Pardesiyon Se Na Ankhiyan Milana', 'Yahaan Main Ajnabi Hoon', 'Nain Milaakar Chain Churana' and 'Bekhudi Mein Sanam', Shashi got a template that was followed, especially when Mohammed Rafi sang for him, in so many hits by other composers like Shankar-Jaikishan (Kanyadaan, Jahan Pyar Miley), R.D. Burman (Pyar Ka Mausam), Madan Mohan (Neend Hamari Khwab Tumhare), Laxmikant-Pyarelal (Pyar Kiye Jaa, Suhana Safar) and even Ravindra Jain (Chor Machaye Shor). The musical excellence also continued with other singers like Kishore Kumar and Mukesh.
Even today, the name 'Shashi Kapoor' conjures up dreamy visages of a pristine and unspoiled Dal Lake, with a simple boatman in typically Kashmiri garb, placidly singing in his shikara on a sunlit morning.