An Autograph in Ink: The Life and Times of Shashi Kapoor

(Shashi Kapoor breathed his last on 4 December. This story was first published on 18 March 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark his passing)

Just a couple of days away from his 79th birthday (March 18, 2017), he was wheel-chaired into the Khullam Khulla talk show by his nephew Rishi Kapoor. Practically every member of Indian cinema’s first family was there, helmed by the gracious Krishna Raj Kapoor.

The cocktails stopped swirling. The crowd at the elegantly-appointed venue at a five-star hotel, snapped to military attention. Shashi Kapoor looked radiant, he doesn’t speak much except with nods and a sparkle in those forever-expressive eyes. I asked Sanjna, how he was keeping nowadays. The loving daughter replied, “You can see him.”

He was looking far more animated than the last few years, when I’ve seen him at the Prithvi theatre, watching plays in sullen silence.

Sanjna Kapoor with her father Sashi Kapoor at the Khullam Khulla event. (Photo courtesy: Sanjna Kapoor)

During my college days, being Bollywood-‘n’-Shashi struck, I’d mailed him a fan letter, raving about his acts in Jab Jab Phool Khile and the little-known Dil Ne Pukara, in which Rajshree had to choose between him and Sanjay Khan. Now, which girl in her right mind, would think twice before settling on Shashi Kapoor? No contest, I’d wailed.

The letter fetched a response, an autographed picture with a cyclostyled signature. Ah at least the signature could have been in ink, personal. Never mind.

Then the unexpected happened. At the Vigyan Bhavan auditorium, where the New Delhi international film festival was on, someone behind me was chattering away non-stop. “Shut up…or else,” I growled.“Don’t you have any manners?” When the lights came on, the chatter machine turned out to be er…Shashi Kapoor.

“Oh, you’re that critic,” he frowned. “I nearly slapped you. Anyway, chalo jaane do. Come to the party tonight I’m hosting for Jeanne Moreau.” Now that was some comeuppance. Followed a star-journalist bond which even survived negative reviews (“Uff, you’re such a snob,” he’d complain). That occupational hazard apart, he was an interviewer’s delight.

Shashi Kapoor with wife Jennifer Kendal. (Photo courtesy: Twitter/@xkimdircom)

There were so many facets to dissect of the internationally-celebrated actor of the screen, as well as the Shakespearana stage: the youngest of the three sons of the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor. An actor, a film producer and director, Shashi Kapoor after the passing away of his wife, his raison d’etre, maintained a low-profile, spending most of his time with his grandchildren at his Malabar Hill apartment. Next, he shifted to a high-rise, diagonally opposite the Prithvi.

One of the lesser-known roles which Shashi Kapoor had played, was that of the abiding lover of Mumbai city. He could speak volumes about the various nooks, crannies and spots, be it a cluster of shaded trees off Colaba, or the modest restaurant close to the Royal Opera House, where he would lunch on steaming puri bhaaji.

Not surprisingly the James Ivory-directed Bombay Talkie (1970) ranked high among his favourites. And for the birthday boy today, here are some excerpts from a retrieved interview:

Q: How do you look back on the shoot of Bombay Talkie?

Shashi Kapoor: It’s believed to be the only film ever shot at the old Taj Mahal Hotel. We shot there during February-March 1970. Several top film banners like my brother’s RK Films and BRChopra’s had attempted to secure permission, but in vain. I am told that even Mehboob Khan had tried to get an okay for Andaz in 1949… also in vain. Somehow (producer) Ismail Merchant managed to wangle the permissions.

In Bombay Talkie, Jennifer was playing an English novelist inspired by the real life writer Edna O’Brien, who visited us during the shoot. She was considered quite naughty and risque for those days. My role was that of a film star who comes close to the novelist. Aparna Sen played my wife. And you know what? Ismail bamboozled his way into a real life wedding reception. The actual bride and bridegroom became a part of the film.

Q: How much has the city shaped you?

Shashi Kapoor: Mumbai created Shashi Kapoor.

I grew up with the images of the Gateway of India. When I was a kid, papa would bundle all of us kids in a car and take us from Matunga to town, to see the lights on Independence Day. Later, Jennifer and I’d drive to the Gateway in an open-air convertible car and keep up the family tradition of watching the lights. Today of course, kids go to see the lights only at discotheques.

Over weekends, Jennifer and I’d go out for an evening date. She’d like to have a Campari soda, while my favourite was a mug of beer. She’d be a great one for ordering English cuisine, like steaks and mashed potatoes, besides cheese souffle. Today my grandkids persuade me to take them for Chinese cuisine. That’s our city, it is perfect for the Kapoors, who’re all foodies.

Once, the city attracted eminent filmmakers from Hollywood. My brother Shammi Kapoor auditioned for George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction. I’m glad he didn’t get the role, he wasn’t cut out to play a sidey guy. Some years later, I met the great Vivien Leigh, who had breezed into town for a project in which I was to act with her. It didn’t happen, which is one of the lasting regrets of my life.

Jennifer Kendal, Helen and Shashi Kapoor in the good old days. (Photo courtesy: Twitter/@KanchanGupta)

Q: What changes have you noticed in Mumbai?

Shashi Kapoor: The city hasn’t changed really. The sea may have become dirty. Once the sea off Juhu beach was swimmable. Today, one has to swim in the hotel pools of Juhu. Once, the drive from south Bombay to Andheri would take 20 minutes. In 1961, I’d just returned home after a day’s work for Bimal Roy’s Prem Patra. I was required back at the studio and I drove back there rightaway. Today, that would be unthinkable.

There are more people, noise and traffic. I guess those kind of changes are inevitable in any part of the world.

Q: What kind of changes do you perceive in our cinema?

Shashi Kapoor: I’m happy that different kind of films are now securing the finance and distribution, which were denied to them decades ago when I started out in film production with Junoon. Before that in 1962, we had to bully Naronha Films to release The Householder with two prints, one in English at the Eros and the Hindi version at the Maratha Mandir.

Raj Kapoor had found it difficult to get distributors for Boot Polish. When it was released, it went down well with the ticket-buying public.

Of the few films I’ve see off late, I liked Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer, Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa and Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai. I like the work of Mani Ratnam from the south. Among the younger generation, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar have done fantastic work.

Q: If you were younger, which actress would you have liked to work with?

Shashi Kapoor: Madhuri Dixit …she was an all-rounder like Sridevi and Rekha before her.

To wrap, I’d like to bring up a location report I wrote on Utsav. I’d been lodged in a swanky suite of the Windsor Manor in Bangalore, so swank that I began my piece with, “So what’s a boy with a hole in his socks doing in a place like this?”

It was a Sunday edition piece. At the gong of 8 a.m., the doorbell rang. Shashi Kapoor’s valet delivered a shopping bag full of brand-new socks: all engine-fire red and woollen, meant for polar winters. I could never wear them. Like I couldn’t get that autograph, in ink.

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