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The risk-taking Kapoor

Shashi Kapoor never let his stardom stop him from taking up unlikely projects

Actor Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘Shakespeare Wallah’.
Actor Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘Shakespeare Wallah’.

Shashi Kapoor, who died on the evening of 4 December at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, was a star from the moment he decided to step in front of the camera. It could scarcely have panned out any other way: his was a face meant to be blown up and projected on a giant screen for audiences to sigh at.

Like so many others in the Kapoor family, he was a popular commercial actor, appearing in films such as Jab Jab Phool Khile, Waqt, Deewar, Kabhie Kabhie, Trishul and Namak Halaal. Yet, in an era when actors were supposed to find a popular image and stick with it, Kapoor showed a rare willingness to experiment—with directors, genres and parts. Few Hindi film stars have been as restless and wide-ranging in their choices. Here are a few instances when Kapoor strayed off the beaten path.

Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘Dharmputra’.

Dharmputra (1961)

This 1961 film by Yash Chopra about religious fundamentalism during Partition would be radioactive material for any actor, let alone one just starting his career and belonging to one of the most prominent film families in India. Yet, the first time viewers saw an adult Shashi (he made several appearances as a child actor), it was as the Muslim-hating fundamentalist Dilip in Dharmputra. It was a challenging start for both actor and audience, and an early indication that Kapoor was ready to toss out the rulebook when he felt like it.

Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘Shakespeare Wallah’.

Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

One could just as easily have had The Householder, Kapoor’s first film in English and his first of many with Merchant-Ivory, on this list. But he’s still raw in that 1963 film, whereas by 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah he has a surer grip on how to use that face and that voice to singularly devastating effect. He’s almost callously sexy in Ivory’s elegiac black-and-white film about a British touring theatre company in post-independence India, accepting and then lightly shrugging off the advances of Madhur Jaffrey and Felicity Kendall (his real-life sister-in-law).

Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘New Delhi Times’.

New Delhi Times (1986)

Despite being notoriously difficult to source in a decent print, the reputation of Ramesh Sharma’s 1986 film has grown steadily over the years. It had a remarkable crew—Renu Saluja as editor, Subrata Mitra as cinematographer, Gulzar as screenwriter—and a cast that included Sharmila Tagore, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Om Puri. Kapoor anchors the film as the upright Vikas Pande, a newspaper editor who investigates a politician’s murder and finds wheels within greased wheels. With its focus on political corruption and media complicity, the film—a paranoid political thriller in the vein of All the President’s Men—was always going to attract trouble, which came in the form of a lawsuit and a cancelled Doordarshan screening (a big deal in 1986). But time has been kind to both the film and Kapoor’s fine, restrained performance, which won him his only National Award for best actor.

Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’.

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)

As anyone who’s cringed through the perfumed parables and meta-religious nonsense of Siddhartha will testify, not all of Shashi Kapoor’s foreign outings were essential viewing. Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, though, is one of his best outside of Hindi cinema: a hilarious, provocative, energetic slice of Thatcher-era Britain. Kapoor plays Rafi, a Pakistani politician who returns to London after a murky, possibly fascist stint back home and resumes his courtship of the woman he used to love while trying to adjust to his son’s open marriage.

Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘In Custody’.

In Custody (1993)

One of Kapoor’s great late-career performances was this Falstaffian turn as Nur, an Urdu poet who’s revered but whom time has passed by. Om Puri plays a professor who attempts to interview Nur, who, with his set ways, his drinking and his two wives, proves more than a handful. Kapoor looms large in every sense, even in the scenes which don’t feature him. Ismail Merchant’s film is a bittersweet elegy for the Urdu tongue; it’s also the perfect film to bid a fond farewell to Kapoor with.

Shashi Kapoor in a still from ‘Junoon’.

“His charm wasn’t put on": Remembrances by two of Shashi Kapoor’s collaborators

Govind Nihalani

“I directed Vijeta (1982) for him and he was what you’d call a “dream producer". I can’t recall a single incident when he denied me anything I wanted for production. He was very supportive and totally trusting of the director, even when I worked as the cinematographer on Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979). He acted in both the films.

As an actor he was very charming, sensitive and full of empathy. It was impossible to make him less good-looking, but he never thought (about) how he was going to look or sound. His charm wasn’t put on, it wasn’t designed and applied to the character. As far his approach to cinema as an actor is concerned, he had no prejudices. He had the same kind of dedication to mainstream as he did to non-mainstream cinema. It was his duty—he was very inclusive when it came to cinema and nothing was barred.

I think his biggest contribution was Prithvi Theatre, which he started with his wife, Jennifer. They both have their roots in theatre and that’s how they met. It started with a small vision of doing something interesting in theatre. Today, it is one of the most wonderful, iconic institutions. His children, Sanjana, Kunal and Karan, have taken their father’s legacy forward in a very admirable way and Prithvi is a model to emulate."

Tinnu Anand

“I have worked with Shashi Kapoor in multiple capacities. I have acted in Ajooba (1991), which he directed. And he acted in the first film I directed, Duniya Meri Jeb Mein (1979). We both acted in In Custody (1993).

He was a professional. When I directed him he was one of the busiest actors around, doing five shifts a day. I learnt a lot about filmmaking then, because when you have an actor coming for two hours, you have no choice but to get the maximum out of the minimum.

When the tables turned and he approached me to act in Ajooba, I remember him saying, “Don’t take revenge on me". In my free time, he would tell me to direct some scenes. He was a lot of fun when he would be on the set as an actor. As a director, he would become serious.

We loved each other very much. I knew him since childhood and I called him Shashi bhaiyya. Our families were close and knew each other from the Peshawar days. Raj Kapoor’s first film, Aag (1948), was written by my father, Inder Raj Anand. One of my memories is attending the Christmas dinner hosted by his wife, Jennifer. Fast forward from there to Ajooba, where the lunch spread would be so elaborate that the unit would be given two hours to rest after it. I remember the tandoori fish and mutton paya at Chandivali Studio, where the only odd man out would be Amitabh Bachchan, a vegetarian."

-With inputs from Sankhayan Ghosh

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