By Rimli Bhattacharya
“I am not someone who will vanish…from wherever I pass I show my talent…not only friends, even my enemies remember me” – Shashi Kapoor, Silsila (1981)
Balbir Raj Kapoor, who was fabled as Shashi Kpoor, was born on 18 March, 1938, to veteran actor Prithviraj Kapoor and Ramsarni Kapoor. He was the youngest brother of Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor. A part of the legendary Kapoor clan in Bollywood, he was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) during the colonial British era. He studied at Don Bosco High School, Matunga, Mumbai.
Given to their heritage in the film industry, Shashi started featuring as a child artist during late 1940s. He acted in commercial films, Sangram (1950) and Dana Paani (1953), under screen name Shashiraj, which later became his trade name Shashi.
In the 60s, Shashi worked as an assistant director for Sunil Dutt’s kick-off film, Post Box 999, and also in Guest House, Dulha Dulhan, and Shriman Satyawadi, where his elder brother Raj Kapoor was the lead protagonist.
He made his debut in the movie Dharmputra (1961) as the lead hero. Since then he featured in 116 films: 61 movies as the lead character, 55 multi star-cast motion pictures, 21 films as underpin cast, and 7 films as special appearances. From the 1960s to the mid 80s, he was the much needed actor in the Hindi film industry. He paired well with actress Nanda, who was in her peak, when Shashi was a novice. They made a romantic pair in films such as Mohabbat Isko Kahete Hein (1965), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), and many more. He considered Nanda his favorite heroine and also his mentor and Nanda called him her favorite hero. He also paired with Rakhee Gulzar, Sharmila Tagore, Zeenat Aman, Parbeen Babi, Hema Malini and Mousumi Chatterjee. His movie, Sharmelee, with Rakhee was a megahit and the producers started featuring the pair in other movies such as Kabhie Kabhie, Basera, and Pighalta Aasman.
Shashi did not keep himself confined only to Hindi films but also ventured in the English language films. He starred for British and American films and worked with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory for their company, Merchant Ivory Productions. Some of his international films include Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), and Heat and Dust (1982).
With his waggish fair complexioned playboy looks, he also paired with the angry young man, Amitabh Bachchan in films such as Deewar, Trishul, Shaan, and the burlesque movie, Do aur Do Paanch. While Bachchan was portrayed as a tetchy character, Shashi played the role of a benevolent and cheerful personality.
Shashi Kapoor could easily maneuver genres as he successfully navigated between commercial and art films. Pointing out the control of wealthy diamond merchants in the industry, Shashi went on to making his own films and distributing them. He spouted boldly that not all rich people have the intellect to understand movies. People take chances; so did Shashi. In the 60s, he bailed Ismail Merchant out of a financial crisis in exchange for the right to distribute Bombay Talkie in India. The idea failed as Merchant Ivory Productions did not make any sensational hits in the box office and Shashi could not make any bucks out of it.
Suffering two major setbacks, Shashi still barged ahead. His dreams to be a film distributor materialized when he bought the rights for Raj Kapoor’s Bobby and Satyam Shivam Sundaram in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
During the 70s, Shashi took a plunge and started his own production house, Vidushak Arts, which initially rented equipment and cameras to other production companies. This bailed out many aspiring filmmakers at a time when importing equipments was not easy because of strict government control. As Hindustan Times writes:
Shashi’s venture provided a lifeline to several filmmakers—for, as things stood, they had to import most tools from overseas, but could do so only if they could show they were earning foreign exchange. ‘One forgets how extraordinarily difficult it was to make films back then,’ filmmaker Dev Benegal says. ‘It’s almost as though the state did not want you to make movies. There was a licence on importing negative film, sound editing equipment, cameras and lights. It was an impoverished state of affairs.’Shashi was one of the early few to get a licence to import a flatbed editing machine—a Steenbeck—which Dev was fortunate to use. The Steenbeck was housed in the Bombay Film Laboratories—now an apartment building in Prabhadevi, Bombay—and a lot of talent would pass through, including Shyam Benegal (who used Vidushak Arts’ equipment for some of his films) and Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer, Subrata Mitra (who, as we know, shot a few of the early Merchant–Ivory movies).
His production company produced many highly appreciated films such as Junoon, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Utsav, and many more. In 1991, he produced Ajooba, co-starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor in the lead.
In the late eighties, he accepted very few character roles. He last appeared in Jinnah (1998), which was based on the life of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Side Street (1998) by Merchant Ivory Productions. He was not to be seen in films after that anymore.
He married the English actress, Jenifer Kendal, in 1956. They met when they were working for their respective theatre groups, Shashi for Prithvi theatre and Jenifer for the Shakespearean group run by her father, Geoffrey Kendal. It was art which connected the East and the West. The couple has three children, Kunal Kapoor, Karan Kapoor, and Sanjana Kapoor.
Shashi won several accolades, the most prominent being the Padma Bhushan in 2011 and Dadasaheb Phalke award in 2015.
Shashi was wheelchair-bound for several years as he suffered from chronic kidney ailment, which made him undergo dialysis for years together. He was 79 when he breathed his last on 4 December, 2017. His last rites will be performed this Tuesday. The President of India and other political leaders grieved his demise.
A dimple, no matter how cute, is a birth defect. It is a growth disorder in the subcutaneous connective tissue during embryonic development. However, Shashi’s dimples made him so attractive, charismatic, and evergreen.
Shashiji, you will remain in our hearts forever. May your soul rest in peace.
Rimli Bhattacharya completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. After obtaining an MBA, she worked in the corporate sector. Rimli is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76
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