THE LAST ROMANTIC
An entire generation of women saw in Shashi Kapoor their dream guy. Yet he had to wait long to get his due
Shashi Kapoor’s crooked canines saved him. Without them he would have been too perfect—and boring, like the impossibly handsome heroes of the silver screen. Despite this tiny imperfection, he was never quite given his due as an actor in Indian cinema until much later in his career: the Padma Bhushan in 2011 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2015 when he was so ill and could only smile feebly. (Strangely, when his elder brother Raj Kapoor was being presented the Phalke award in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital, where he breathed his last some weeks later.)
Women lusted after Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna, penned fan letters with their own blood for Rajesh Khanna and admired the histrionics of Amitabh Bachchan. But Shashi Kapoor was the one they fell in love with—mothers and daughters alike, and yes, secretly, grandmothers too. It wasn’t just his u-turn eyelashes or dimpled cheeks. Among the least actorly of film stars, the audience believed in him as a romantic lover. The takeaway from his breakout hit Jab Jab Phool Khile in 1965 was that the actor’s romantic feeling for his leading lady Nanda rang true on the screen.
Obsessive fans come with the job. However, in Shashi Kapoor’s case, women from different corners of the country landed up at the door of his penthouse flat at Atlas Apartments, off Nepean Sea Road—all convinced he would marry them. While I was researching my biography of the Kapoors, he told me about a runaway young woman from Punjab who refused to leave. She sat on her trunk on the building’s premises for weeks until the police forcibly removed her. There wasn’t a trace of braggadocio in his voice recounting this incident; he actually felt sorry for her.
Being the Nice Guy of the Indian screen made him a magnet for lovelorn women even well into his sixties. But he was equally convincing, if not more, playing the bad guy. Shashi told me that on one occasion he had to play down his role as the villain. “In
Paap Aur Punya, I came on too strong as the bad one. Consequently, the hero appeared weak.”
He was right. Discerning Shashi’s potential for complex or obsessive characters, Shyam Benegal explored the nonangelic side of the actor in both Junoon and Kalyug. Perceptive international cineastes recognised his ability to explore the complexities of human nature, beyond his handsomeness. Discussing Bombay Talkies (1970), James Ivory, who directed him in several films, said: “Shashi draws on his own dark side. We all have our own dark sides, and he is able to bring up his.”
Perceptive international directors explored this facet of his personality: as a shifty nobleman who is actually a thug in The Deceivers, starring Pierce Brosnan; as a notquite-straight Pakistani businessman in Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid; and as a mafia boss from the subcontinent in Dirty British Boys. Nor was he always so good-natured. “I was an angry child,” he said. “I was the youngest, and could almost get away with murder. When I was about eight or ten, I challenged a friend. I had an air gun and shot him in the leg—I put a lead bullet in his leg. Everybody thought Shammiji was the angry young man, but I was.”
Like his brothers Raj and Shammi, Shashi Kapoor shared an obsessive love for food and alcohol. However, his wife Jennifer Kendal, whom he met at 18 and married two years later, was responsible for his ‘un-Kapooring’. She steered him towards the theatre and encouraged him to produce and act in a different kind of cinema—as well to enact the real life role of the ‘perfect gentleman’. The youngest son of Prithviraj Kapoor was known for his generosity. Several actors told me he surreptitiously slipped money into their pockets when they were out of work. What’s in a name, one might ask. But had his mother not changed his name from Balbirraj (chosen by his step grandmother because of the pundits) to Shashi, would he have achieved similar success? She selected the name because he was always looking at the moon.
And leaving legions of us moonstruck.
Madhu Jain is editor of The Indian Quarterly and author of The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema (2005)