What could he be, if not an actor? For Balbir Raj Kapoor, the youngest son of Prithvi Raj Kapoor and Ramsarni Devi, there was never any other option. As Shashi (christened so by his mother who thought he was as beauteous as the full moon), said to me once, “I had far too many examples to follow. The worry was not so much about what career to have, but how to even imagine I could match up to the likes of Papaji, Rajji, Shammiji!”
His life was chronicled in a book by Aseem Chhabra, called Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star. Indeed, it has been a strange and chequered journey for the actor who has straddled both worlds – of commercial success and theatrical struggles – and yet emerged eventually victorious.
His initiation into acting began at a very young age when he toured the country with his father Prithviraj Kapoor, and the hitherto unnamed Prithvi Theatres troupe. And it was these playing grounds of theatre that became his karmabhoomi even when he became a film actor. Even films happened to him quite by accident. Young Shashi made his screen debut as a child actor in a clutch of mythological, but his best-remembered roles as child actor are in his older brother’s Aag (1948) and Awara (1951). He continued acting on stage, and by 1956, he was both actor and assistant stage manager for Prithvi, his father’s theatre group.
Shashi Kapoor entered films as a lead hero with Chaar Deewari, but was noticed as an actor to reckon with in Dharmputra – which was also Yash Chopra’s directorial debut; a film way ahead of its times, it flopped. Box-office success continued to elude Shashi. While Shashi had pedigree – he was the son of the pioneering Prithviraj Kapoor, and the brother of two already illustrious actors, Shammi Kapoor and Raj Kapoor – he had limited film experience. Like the thousands in Bombay looking for film work, Shashi had to spend hours visiting directors and studios, distributing portfolio pictures, and hanging outside coffee shops to get noticed by busy producers. It didn’t help that the then reigning heroines who had their favourites and didn’t quite want to risk acting opposite a rank newcomer, so what if he carried the famous Kapoor tag? Producers who had cast the likes of Nargis, Suraiya, Meena Kumari and Madhubala in their films and didn’t want “somewhat of a firangi hero” paired opposite them. His initial films sunk into oblivion – almost in a row. He was married with a kid (actor Kunal Kapoor). Shashi Kapoor had once told me, “Only Nanda, who was a huge star stood by me signing a whole bunch of films opposite me – a newcomer.” Soon after, Shashi went on to act in two more films with Nanda – Mehndi Lagi Mere Haath and Mohabbat Isko Kahete Hain. 1965 brought with it Jab Jab Phool Khile – a love story set in Kashmir – which went on to become a surprise hit, and suddenly, Shashi was an actor in demand along with Nanda! While Shashi considers Nanda the saviour of his career, it was, in fact, he, who saved Nanda’s life when the climax of Jab Jab Phool Khile was being shot. In the climactic scene that was being shot in Bombay Central Train Station, when Raja (Shashi Kapoor) pulls Rita (Nanda) onto the train, director Suraj Prakash gave explicit instructions on how and when to pull Nanda into the train. But when the time came, there were only a few feet left for the platform to end when he pulled her in. Prakash has gone on record to say that the incident was so hair-raising that he’d shut his eyes, convinced that Nanda’s end had come. “It was a deep friendship with Nanda – I just couldn’t let her down, in any way,” is all the chivalrous star said while he brushed off his real life respect for women.
His Theatre – His Stage
The stage was an integral part of Shashi Kapoor’s life. It was when he was honing his theatrical craft that Shashi Kapoor met the woman who would be his wife. Jennifer Kendal had gone to the Royal Opera House in Bombay to catch a performance of Deewaar (the play, not the film) by Prithvi Theatres. Shashi was backstage, and as he peeped out, he caught a glimpse of Jennifer. He recalled to me, his love story a decade ago, and mind you, the glint was still there in his eyes, even though he lost his wife to cancer in 1984. “I still remember she was sitting there fanning herself with a programme brochure in a black and white dress. I think I was instantly in love enough to take her backstage and introduce myself after the show. I was also a stagehand, you see – so I could take that risk…it was a”most unusual courtship. It was my first romance, and it came with all the trappings that any nervous man must endure. And the fact that I was not very conversant in English meant I was in a constant state of being tongue-tied and shy. Geeta Bhabhi (Shammi Kapoor’s wife) was my guiding angel – lending me her car and even money to take Jennifer out. I joined Shakespeareana to be able to convince Jennifer’s father.”
The World Becomes A Stage
From flop to star to India’s crossover star, Shashi tasted international success long before any actor from Mumbai did. Having done theatre, his sensibilities made him veer towards serious cinema as he, along with his wife, collaborated with Merchant Ivory productions on a number of film projects like The Householder, Shakespeare-Wallah. The desire to move away from the rut and do meaningful films was so strong in him that subsequently, he decided to turn producer with films like Junoon (1978), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Kalyug (1981), Vijeta (1982), Utsav (1984) and even directed the fantasy-filled Ajooba (1991).
Coming Into His Own
The late 1970s — the decade that defined Shashi’s career in India — saw him taking on a vast number of projects, hopping from studio to studio and playing a range of characters. In fact, Samir Ganguli, the director of Sharmilee credited Shashi with starting the shift system in Hindi cinema. A harried Shashi could barely keep pace with his film commitments. Here was my family, and his most treasured dream – Prithvi theatre.
Most of the money he earned doing various inane roles was ploughed back into the industry, as he began producing the sort of films that he wanted to make. He partnered with the likes of Shyam Benegal (Junoon), Girish Karnad (Utsav), Govind Nihalani (Vijeta) and Aparna Sen (36 Chowringhee Lane). Or it went into making Prithvi Theatre the torchbearer of stage art in India.
The highest honour of Indian Cinema – the Dadasaheb Phalke Award – perhaps because despite being a commercial actor, Shashi Kapoor refused to get trapped in the rut. Even as a film producer, he looked ignored market diktats and made the films he believed in. His journey into the world of production was as shaky as his first tentative steps in acting. In the early 1970s, Shashi acquired the Indian distribution rights for an odd adults-only Japanese anime film, A Thousand and One Nights, directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and released as an X-rated movie in the US. The psychedelic, erotically-charged movie, while a success in Japan, did poor business in India. After two failures, Shashi’s next big step as a film distributor was when he bought rights, within the territories of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, for Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (and later, Satyam Shivam Sundaram). But Shashi was not one to give up after a few setbacks. The real businessman in him came to the fore, once more, with the iconic Junoon. Soon after, in 1976, Shashi formed his company, Film-Valas that produced some of the best-known ‘parallel cinema’ of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Success, like the awards he has been bestowed with only recently, took their sweet time. But Shashi Kapoor, who straddled three distinct worlds – films, theatre, crossover films, probably has the awards of his audiences already. The ones who swooned when they saw him as a hero, both solo and in multi-starrers, and later, when his star began to dim, those that were enthralled by his character roles.
- Of the three brothers, Shashi had the longest innings as a believable leading man, all the way from the start of the 60s to the early 80s.
- Shashi Kapoor started as a child star in his brother Raj Kapoor’s films – Aag and Aawara – portraying the childhoods of Raj Kapoor’s characters.
- Shashi Kapoor was almost cast as Bhootnath in the classic Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. He lost on the role only because he was three hours late for a meeting with producer Guru Dutt and director Abrar Alvi.
- His breakthrough film was Jab Jab Phool Khile, opposite Nanda, already an established star at the time. To prepare for his role as Raja, Shashi Kapoor spent days on end with the boatmen in Dal Lake, to study their lifestyle and would often have meals with them.
- Shashi Kapoor did a lot of films with Amitabh Bachchan – mostly portraying his younger brother in Deewar, Trishul, Shaan and only played his older brother once, in Silsila.
- Shashi Kapoor appeared as a nautch girl in the film Shankar Dada.
- Kapoor worked with Bimal Roy in only one film – Prem Patra (1962). His daughter Rinki was in such awe of the actor that she did her only hairdo of her life during the premiere of this movie, just to impress Shashi Kapoor.
Awards & Accolades
In 2011, he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India for his contributions to Art-Cinema.
In 2015, he was awarded the 2014 Dadasaheb Phalke Award, making him the third member of his family to receive the highest award in Indian Cinema after Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor.
He was honoured by Walk of the Stars as his handprint was preserved for posterity at Bandra Bandstand in Mumbai in November 2013.
I was privy to a poignant moment of reflection when Shashi Kapoor said, “I have got more from life than I deserved or wished for,” after winning the DadaSaheb Phalke Award in 2014.
But we, Sir, wanted much more of you! Hope you are charming the angels in heaven!
Text and images by Aarti Kapur Singh