On the late Shammi Kapoor’s 88th birth anniversary revisiting his romance with wives Geeta Bali and Neila Devi.
“Yahoo!”, the animated shoutout from the song Chahe mujhe koi junglee kahen in ‘Junglee’ summed up Shammi Kapoor’s swagger.
Interestingly, when web giant, Yahoo, was launched in India, the band played the same Yahoo! ditty as Shammi Kapoor walked in at the prominent event. It was the company’s ‘unique style of expressing love’ towards their inadvertent mascot.
The heartthrob of millions, Shammi Kapoor was anchored by two remarkable women. One gave him support. The other solace. One was his dream girl. The other dreamt only of him. On his 79th birth anniversary, we chronicle the late star’s unique love stories with his wives… the late Geeta Bali and Neila Devi Kapoor.
Marriage at midnight
Young Shammi Kapoor (full name Shamsher Raj Kapoor) first featured with Geeta Bali, already a superstar then, in Miss Coca Cola (1955), directed by close friend, Hari Valia. It was while filming Rangeen Raaten (released in 1956) in the beautiful valleys of Ranikhet that Cupid ‘roared’ between them! Story goes that Shammi had been anxiously waiting to spot a tiger in the wilderness.
On finally being able to catch a glimpse of one, an excited Geeta started dancing on their jeep’s bonnet. Watching her carefree abandon, Shammi fell in love with her. He earmarked April 2, 1955 as the turning point of his life.
Shortly, he proposed to his perky heroine. Geeta, also smitten by him, declined the offer saying she had a family to support. After months of cajoling, one day on August 23 1955, she suddenly gave in. But on the condition that they get married that very day! With the help of friends Johnny Walker and Hari Valia, the two got married in Banganga Temple, in South Bombay.
The two reached the shrine before the crack of dawn, Geeta in a salwar-kameez and Shammi in kurta-pyjama. The downpour outside resonated their flowing emotions. “Geeta removed a lipstick from her purse and asked me to apply it as sindoor in her maang,” Shammi once recalled the romantic moment.
Marriage over, Shammi was nervous whether the traditionalists Kapoors would accept Geeta. Firstly, she was a year older than him. Also, Geeta had featured opposite Shammi’s father, Prithviraj Kapoor, in Anand Math (1952) and brother Raj Kapoor in Kidar Sharma’s Bawre Nain (1950). But the family, generous in their affection towards Geeta, threw a reception to welcome the new bride.
Shammi and Geeta became parents to son Aditya Raj Kapoor in 1956 and daughter Kanchan in 1961. The couple went on to pair in films Coffee House (1957), Mohar (1959) and Jabse Tumhen Dekha Hai (1963).
Tragedy struck when Geeta contracted smallpox while shooting for Rano, a film based on Rajinder Singh Bedi’s novel Ek Chadar Maili Si.
On January 21, 1965, Geeta passed away at the age of 34. “She was a star and I was a nobody, yet she believed in me. She was a great support to me. After her death, I became reckless and lonely,” revealed Shammi in retrospect.
Neila Devi – A Royal Affair
Young Neila Devi Gohil, from the royal family of Bhavnagar, first saw Shammi Kapoor when she was nine, while he was 19. The actor had visited Bhavanagar as part of his father’s Prithvi Theatres.
A curious Neila Devi watched his play Pathan with her cousins from the side wings. “He came and pulled my pigtails,” revealed she about her first encounter with her future husband. Later, she grew up to be his fangirl, preserving every press cutting about him.
A few years later, Ritu Kapoor (Raj Kapoor’s eldest daughter) was getting married. Neila Devi, who was her friend, was to attend her haldi ceremony. Krishna Raj Kapoor asked Shammi to meet Neila Devi at the event as she believed that she’d prove to be a good wife to her devastated brother-in-law. But the busy actor couldn’t make it for the function. However, that night Shammi called Neila Devi at 1.30 am. Their conversation lasted till dawn.
“He told me all about himself - his marriage, his children, his girlfriends, his mistresses, his wild side, his good side,” shared Neila Devi in an interview. Finally, he said, ‘Come tomorrow for breakfast and stay over for a lifetime’. Shammi and Neila got married the very next day on January 27 in 1969 with the blessings of the family.
Shammi had kept Geeta’s photograph in the temple saying she was his ‘goddess’. To this Neila Devi said that Geeta would be her ‘conscience’, in their journey together.
Neila accepted Geeta’s intrinsic presence in their life wholeheartedly. She had no qualms sporting Geeta’s clothes. She turned her sarees into beautiful salwar kurtis and wore them. She even slipped on Geeta’s wedding ring, a diamond ‘S’ shaped marvel on her finger. She only removed it after Shammi passed away.
Coming back to the first few months of their marriage, they were indeed challenging. Shammi had a weakness for alcohol and a mercurial temper. Also while Shammi was ‘caring and protective’, he was hesitant about taking Neila Devi along with him anywhere. But her silent compliance won him over. Soon she was a constant presence in his life on outdoors or elsewhere.
Incredibly, Neila Devi decided against having children of her own. “It was a bigger challenge for me to make Aditya (12) and Kanchan (7) my own than have my own,” she was quoted saying. Also, she never felt threatened by her husband’s abiding love for his first wife. “I knew I’d always get second billing… He did care for me and couldn’t do without me. But the way he loved Geetaji was different,” she said in a rare interview.
Towards the later years of his life, an ailing Shammi had to undergo dialysis. Yet the two made the most of their time together travelling to Switzerland, Paris and Dubai.
It was daughter Kanchan’s 50th birthday on August 8, 2011. But the party was planned for August 6 instead. An ailing Shammi attended it and cut the cake with Kanchan. At the party, he said ‘goodbye’ to all present.