In his breakthrough film, the 1965 blockbuster Jab Jab Phool Khile, Dadasaheb Phalke award laureate and Padma Bhushan Shashi Kapoor, born Balbir Raj Kapoor to screen and stage doyen Prithviraj Kapoor, played a Kashmiri boatman warbling the cult song 'Pardesiyon Se Na Ankhiyan Milana', which meant, 'Don't fall in love with those from another country'.
Almost a decade before that, however, Shashi had done exactly that, when it was love at first sight with British stage actor Jennifer Kendal, also travelling like him in her father Geoffrey Kendal's theatre group Shakespearana, while Shashi was touring with his father's drama company Prithvi Theatres. The couple married in 1958, bore three children, Kunal, Karan and Sanjana, all of whom tried to be actors but failed in a more conservative era where their half-British features and a bit of accent came in the way of stardom. Today, Kunal and Sanjana manage the new Prithvi Theatres, while Karan is a photographer living overseas.
When I called up the actor in the late 90s, he politely declined an interview stating that he was no longer an actor. But he gave me 90 solid minutes for his father's centenary in 2006! Striding like a tiger in his satin gown, he presented his book The Prithviwallahs, and in the context of Jennifer, said, "Jennifer was an extraordinary woman, who was beautiful both to look at and as a person. She struck an instant rapport with my father. We moved out of his Matunga home only after my first child was born, and the immense love my father inspired in Jennifer made her put in her all to set up and establish Prithvi Theatres in his memory, when I mentioned the idea."
Shashi's attraction towards foreigners did not end there - he even worked with his in-laws (including sister-in-law Felicity), with James Ivory (and Indian partner Ismail Merchant), Conrad Rooks, and many other film-makers and actors. With a plethora of crossover and international films spanning four decades, Shashi Kapoor became the first-ever Indian actor to act in leading roles in their films. He even ended his film career (which technically began as a child actor in brother Raj Kapoor's 1948 Aag) as a narrator in the UK-based production Jinnah 50 years later, alongside another foreign film as an actor, Bruce Weiss's Side Streets in 1998.
His impressive filmography overseas includes Shakespeare Wallah, The Householder, A Matter Of Innocence, The Deceivers, In Custody and the TV mini-series Gulliver's Travels. His last film as a producer, which he wanted brother Raj Kapoor to direct, was Ajooba, an Indo-Russian co-production, and a bi-lingual titled Vozvrashcheniye Bagdadskogo Vora aka The Black Prince in Russian. This 1991 film had his elder brother Shammi Kapoor, nephew Rishi Kapoor, and Amitabh Bachchan heading the cast. Shashi made his directorial debut with this movie.
Like his brothers, Shashi rose through the ranks with no special treatment as the Prithvi Theatres's supremo's son. He had told me, "My first ever conscious memory of my father was when I got to see his film Sikander, and his play, Prithvi Theatres's classic Shakuntala, in which he played Dushyant. I remember being completely fascinated and amazed. Even at that age, I could not help but marvel at the difference between the humble giant who was my father at home and the powerful persona I was watching on screen and stage."
Shashi recalled, "I went home, completely fascinated by his art as well as the storytelling, and somewhere, this was the beginning of my inclination and inspiration to become an actor. Soon, with his consent, I began doing small roles in my father's plays. I was six then."
He goes on, "Prithviraj had a gentle, unique technique for teaching anything. It was a tradition at Prithvi Theatres that four to five hours of talking sessions were held daily with my father. We would all listen as he spoke - about everything, including life." Later, Shashi graduated to playing juvenile leads in his plays.
Prithviraj's general outlook led to Shashi's own foundation of dedicated professionalism. Shashi found that his father never took work home, worked with people of all conceivable religions, and treated everyone with complete respect and on par with himself. "He was like a monarch who never gave the impression that he was lowering his status in treating you at par - his principle was to raise you to his level and look at you as someone equal to Prithviraj Kapoor!" he said.
For Shashi, this was the base that helped him survived flops galore (despite rare successes like Dharamputra, Aamne Saamne, Pyar Ka Mausam and Abhinetri and rarer hits in Jab Jab Phool Khile, Haseena Maan Jayegi and Sharmeelee) until he broke through. Punctual to the hilt, humble and immensely talented, he was also the first big star to declare that he would never work on Sundays.
Taste of success
Big success finally happened between December 1973 and April 1974 with Aa Gale Lag Jaa and Chor Machaye Shor. From late 1974, his films Roti Kapada Aur Makaan and Deewaar set the multi-star trend, and Shashi not only became a compulsion as Bachchan's fave co-star but worked in the biggest and best setups, with the cream of directors too numerous to mention here. Sanjeev Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha were his other frequent co-stars.
Among heroines, he had an array of co-stars who loved him enough to pair in many films - Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Raakhee, Rekha (who also did three of his productions Kalyug, Vijeta and Utsav), Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman. But Shashi had a special regard for veteran Nanda, who as a top star was his heroine in his 1961 lead debut Char Diwari and did six more films with him. When son Kunal signed his first film Ahista Ahista two decades down, and Nanda was making a comeback in it as the heroine's mother, Shashi told his son to touch her feet as "she is the woman who launched your father."
The main reason why Shashi cashed in on his newfound saleability in the 70s to do films by the dozen in multiple shifts was to finance two key passions: his dream of restarting Prithvi Theatres in memory of his father (which was achieved in 1978), and his being able to produce films with an offbeat and usually literary bent. His first dream has been a resounding success, giving Indian theatre and cinema some fabulous talents and brilliant plays, and becoming an iconic Mumbai hub for artistes as well as audiences. Seen sitting outside the auditorium on most days until recently, legend has it that Shashi was earlier known to pay for his ticket to watch plays in his own theatre!
As a producer, he could only make two successes: Junoon and Utsav. For the rest, he had to contend only with critical acclaim, including for the classic that was Jennifer's swan song as an actor: 36 Chowringhee Lane.
Rest in peace, Shashi Kapoor. The film world and the stage will miss you terribly.