Charming persona

Rebel Star

He was living by the day, if not the hour, but realising that he was perhaps living on borrowed time, he did not allow his spirits to dampen. Meeting and talking to him was always a pleasure.

A few weeks ago, when he was invited to launch a collection of short stories, An Evening in Lucknow by the late K A Abbas, with whom he had worked in Char Dil Char Rahen (the only film that he and Raj Kapoor worked together in), he responded saying: “How I am in July is to be seen, plus I am on a wheel chair now. Let’s play this by the ear. Love, Shammi.” In response to a suggestion — the idea of doing a book on his cinema — he said: “I wrote a reply to this. Apparently, you did not get it. Look for it. More when meet. Shammi.”

Born different
Sadly, that was not to be. When he did not reply to my calls, I felt upset and punched an SMS, asking him if we could meet on August 9, 2011. Little did I know that there was no way there could be an answer from the indefatigable guy who had a zest for life but was fighting to live it.

Little did even his nephew, Rishi Kapoor, paying a tribute to his career building scriptwriter, K A Abbas, realise why the mettle of launching the book had fallen on his strong shoulders. Only a true Kapoor could have done justice to Abbas, who had even the distinction of directing the patriarch of the Kapoor family, Prithviraj, in a film called Aasman Mahal.

Shammi Kapoor had a string of 19 flops, beginning with Mahesh Kaul’s Jeevan Jyoti (1953) opposite Chand Usmani, followed by others like Rail ka Dibba (1953) with Madhubala, Laila Majnu (1953) with Nutan, Shama Parvana (1954) with Suraiya and Rangeen Raten (1956) with Mala Sinha. He grabbed the opportunity destiny had created for him when Dev Anand quit Nasir Husain’s first directorial venture, Tumsa Nahin Dekha.

Unlike other stars then and now, he had no hesitation in acknowledging the fact. In another email response, he wrote: “It is true the film was designed for Dev as he had already done two films with Filmistan — Munimji and Paying Guest (both written by Nasir Husain). Even the title song, Tumsa nahin dekha, was recorded keeping in mind that he was the hero and it was written by Sahir Ludhianvi.

For whatever reasons, Dev turned down the movie. Sahir left it too and the rest of the songs were penned by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Had I not got the film, I would have, perhaps, landed the job of a manager in some tea estate in Assam, riding a horse with a whip in hand and a flask of scotch in my hip pocket. That is what I had promised Geeta if I did not make it as an actor. Remarkable, she had said yes.”

Speaking about doing another Anand reject, he wrote: “I must thank Dev, for this was not the only film that he turned down that became, sort of, a milestone in my career. Another such film was Teesri Manzil (1965), which also he left after the first schedule.

This time, I insisted that I won’t do the film unless Dev calls me to say he is not doing the movie.” Unfortunately, during the making, Geeta Bali succumbed to an attack of small pox, and Shammi went into depression for over three months (they had also acted together in three films Miss Coca Cola (1955), Coffee House (1957) and Mujrim (1958).

After the S Mukherjee-Nasir Husain turnovers, first Tumsa Nahin Dekha and then Dil Deke Dekho, Shammi never had to look back until post-Brahmchari (1968, for which he won the Filmfare Best Actor trophy) with Rajshree when his knee cartilages began to trouble him (he had injured them when he jumped from a helicopter while shooting for An Evening in Paris and while riding an elephant during the making of Rajkumar).

The first and the only one back then to rise to the popularity of the trio — Dilip-Raj-Dev — Shammi Kapoor was hailed as ‘the rebel star’. Between 1959 (Dil Deke Dekho) and 1969 (Prince), he starred in 17 films, of which 11 were super-hits. He also tried his hand at direction, but both Manoranjan (1974), based on Hollywood hit Irma la duce, and the fantasy Bundalbaaz (1977), were box-office disasters, and he wisely hung in the towel. As a character actor, he worked in films like Andaaz (1971), Shalimar (1978), Vidhata (1982) and Prem Rog (1982).

Unlike most other actors I have heard of, met or spoken to, who bask in the glory of their own persona, Shammi Kapoor was a man with a nuance. Post-retirement, he developed other interests besides cinema, and lived a rather elusive life. He would generally meet visitors in a glass-enclosed cubicle close to the entrance of his elegantly furnished living room. Once, when asked whether he would co-star with grand-nephew Ranbir, he said:

“Maybe, and really maybe.” His answers were really short and to the point, he went on:

“My health raises the big question mark. Ranbir is just superb; he is a great actor. Talented, handsome, and a wonderful dancer. But let’s see.”

And we did (his first and last film with Ranbir is the upcoming Rockstar). It was our last séance in the outskirts of Delhi during a shooting schedule. When reminded of his vague responses, a glimmer shone in his grey-green eyes, hands going up skywards, in prayer or gratitude.  Shammi Kapoor lived life to the fullest and, reportedly, died with a smile on his lips.

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