THE GENTLEMAN STAR
If you happen to visit Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai to watch a play, chances are you might spot an old man sitting on a wheelchair in a corner of the Theatre's cafe or under the banyan tree. Get closer and you will realise he isn't just any old man but a heartbreaking shadow of one of Hindi cinema's most good-looking heroes of yesteryear. The man who fulfilled his father's dream of setting up a dedicated space for the performing arts, which, 34 years later, continues to live up to its promise of providing an affordable, intimate venue for theatre in a relatively quiet nook in Juhu.
If you try speaking to him, he will shake your hand and strain to catch your words. He may even respond with a kind syllable or two before going back to staring into the distance. They carry him inside the theatre, he watches a performance, they bring him out, he cries out in hoarse pain––the strain of being lifted from the chair is enough to distress his ravaged body.
I met this man just over a decade ago at his home on Napean Sea Road. He'd called me over at 9 a.m. sharp (he has always been a stickler for time) one day for a nostalgia piece I was putting together about his old comedy Pyar Kiye Jaa in which Mehmood had a memorable role as an aspiring film director and a priceless scene where he narrates a ghost story to his father, Om Prakash. It was time for his shave. "You don't mind talking while my barber does his job, do you?" he asked flashing the legendary toothy smile. It was a strange request, but I'd already melted the minute this oversized version of my childhood hero entered the room.
Shashi Kapoor remembered everything like it happened yesterday. Those days I was doing a lot of these interviews with people associated with old hits for a television channel. Many had trouble recalling anecdotes about their most famous films and I came away with precious little. But he regaled me with memories about the schedule in Madras and the hardships involved in shooting the opening song, for instance, where he had to dance barefoot on concrete in the blazing sun and returned home with ugly blisters. "My wife Jennifer had come to the airport to pick me up and when she saw my feet, she burst out crying and was inconsolable."
I realised that Shashi liked to talk about his wife a lot. Often the conversation veered towards her and how he was devastated on her passing in 1984 and let himself go. But he also asked about Sridhar, the director of Pyar Kiye Jaa, who was bed-ridden in Chennai following a paralytic stroke and wanted his number to enquire after his health.
In between the mindless B-movies of the '70s (the Chori Mera Kaam, Fakira, Imaan Dharam, Heeralal Pannalal types––there's a veritable feast of notes on Shashi's cheesy films on a blog run by a Bollywood-crazy American) which sadly came to define much of his acting career, he happily played second fiddle to Amitabh Bachchan in several films––prompting Jaya Bhaduri to refer to him as her 'souten', because he spent more time with her husband than she did. He may have lived in Amitabh's shadow in Deewar, but still walked away with the best line in the film––"mere paas maa hai".
Those days he was so busy working multiple shifts, older brother Raj Kapoor (with whom he was shooting Satyam Shivam Sundaram) famously likened him to a taxi with its meter perennially down!
Shashi managed to channel his suave, urbane charm into his mainstream work despite a seemingly casual approach to acting––Pyar Ka Mausam, Abhinetri and Sharmilee were all hits. Jab Jab Phool Khile came a little earlier and rescued his floundering career, for which he remained indebted to Nanda; she was the only heroine who agreed to work with him despite his dismal success ratio.
His inherent goodness permeated through the screen. In Yash Chopra's Kabhi Kabhie he played Rakhee's husband, and there's a scene where he overhears his wife speaking to her former lover. She comes home and tries to explain herself, but he simply smiles and tells her she's his wife of 20 years and owes him no justification. He had a similar walk-on part in Gulzar's Ijaazat. Even in a tearjerker like Baseraa, where he is torn between his two wives (Rakhee and Rekha), he looked dignified and subdued.
Only a handful of films showcased Shashi Kapoor as the artist he could have been––a theatre actor, he had honed his skills in father Prithviraj Kapoor's repertory from the ripe old age of seven and faced the film camera not long after in Raj Kapoor's Aag––notably Romesh Sharma's New Delhi Times where he played a newspaper editor trapped in a corrupt environment and in Ismail Merchant's In Custody as the decadent poet, practitioner of a dying language, languishing in the ruins of his life. It would be his greatest screen performance, one that perhaps cut close home as he embodied the pathos of a delusional, ranting old drunk who was once a talented young man.
Incidentally, Shashi was India's first legitimate movie export––thanks to his extensive association with Merchant-Ivory, though not always with exciting results, one must add. The Householder, for instance, I couldn't endure, despite he and Leela Naidu looking unfairly gorgeous.
He was the rare popular star who plowed back his earnings from commercial cinema into better cinema and into theatre. He signed up the best names of the New Wave of the '70s such as Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Aparna Sen to direct films for his company––notably Junoon, Kalyug, Vijeta and 36 Chowringhee Lane. His own directorial debut, Ajooba, was a box office disaster, but really, if you saw it as an Arabian Nights fantasy, it wasn't half bad (I remember sitting patiently in a single-screen hall when the electricity went out halfway through for the film to restart).
Watching him at Prithvi Theatre the other day brought a lump to the throat and the realisation, yet again, that old age is cruel and unforgiving to the best of us. But that sadness can't dull the exhilaration of watching Shashi on screen, arms stretched wide, killer smile and romantic song on his lips, wooing the prettiest heroines of his time.