Free Press Journal

Shashi Kapoor: An underrated actor


When an actor is as ethereally handsome as Shashi Kapoor, filmmakers tend not to go beyond looks, so for a large part of his career, he played the typical Bollywood hero — romancing the heroine, occasionally fighting a villain, singing and dancing (awkwardly). But when he got a role worthy of his talent, Shashi Kapoor put his heart and soul into it. A list of personal favourite performances by the star.

Dharmputra (1961):  In his first film as an adult, directed by Yash Chopra, Shashi Kapoor played a fanatic Hindu, fired by patriotic zeal and rabid anti-Muslim sentiment. He is the kind who will not sit at a table to eat, and rejects a prospective bride, because she spent some time abroad, and may be corrupted by Western ideas. In the end, when he discovers that he was adopted by Hindus and that his real parents are Muslim, he delivers a moving soliloquy on religion and identity. For him to have done a difficult role at the start of his career was commendable, and his training in the theatre came in handy when he had to portray difficult emotions.

The Householder (1962):  Based on a novel by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, and directed by James Ivory, this was the first production by the famed Merchant-Ivory team. Shashi Kapoor played Prem, a simple college teacher recently married to Indu (Leela Naidu). It is an arranged marriage and like all such alliances, it takes time for the couple to get to know each other and make the requisite adjustments. The arrival of Prem’s mother (Durga Khote) causes an upset, that leads to Indu leaving Prem to go back to her family. The baffled young man has to figure out how to make his marriage work. Later, Shashi Kapoor would play large-than-life and glamorous film heroes, but early in his career, he played an ordinary man with much empathy.

Also Read: Juhi Chawla: ‘Shashi Kapoor did not even remember who I was’

Jab Jab Phool Khile (1964): This is when the industry discovered the full impact of Shashi Kapoor’s stunning good looks.  He was perfectly cast in this film directed by Suraj Prakash, as Raja, and fresh-faced Kashmiri boatman. He falls in love with a rich city girl, Rita (Nanda), whose father is obviously against the match and points out the differences in background and culture. Still, Raja agrees to come to the city, wear a suit and attend a party (where he sings the melancholy Yahan mein ajnabi hoon)  As expected he cannot understand city ways and leaves to return to Kashmir. Shashi Kapoor pulled off the mix of innocence and old-fashioned machismo of the character with elan. This film, with its wonderful songs composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, made it a superhit in India, and also abroad where Hindi films were gathering some popularity.

Siddhartha (1972): Conrad Rooks directed this film from Herman Hesse’s novel,  in which Shashi Kapoor played the eponymous character, who is born in a rich family, but leaves it all behind to search for meaning in life. He wants to experience everything life has to offer, from tough asceticism to pleasure of the flesh. (Simi Garewal’s nude scene as a courtesan caused the film censor problems.) The film won appreciative reviews abroad, as it had served a simplistic version of Indian mysticism to the West, but for the actor, it was an interesting part to play. Had Shashi Kapoor wished it, he could have chosen a career in the West, but  he stayed on to achieve bigger stardom here.

Chori Mera Kaam (1975): Shashi Kapoor has not done too many comedies in his career, this Brij Sadanah film is one of them.  He played a petty criminal called Bhola, who works with a female accomplice (Zeenat Aman. They find a  manuscript for a book titled Chori Mera Kaam during one of their burglaries, which they sell to a dubious publisher, named Parvin Bhai. The success of the book gets the cops, gangsters and the original writer himself after them. Shashi Kapoor looked like he was having a good time, even though the funnier scenes belonged to Deven Varma as the Gujarati publisher.

Deewar (1975): Written by Salim-Javed at the peak of their powers and directed by Yash Chopra, this film gave Shashi Kapoor’s career a fresh lease of life as a parallel lead. Amitabh Bachchan had the more dramatic roles as the rebel but he needed to play off his fury against the calm and righteousness of his brother played by Kapoor.  To him falls the testing challenge of arresting his own brother, who, of course has the sympathy of the audience. Still when he looks straight at his brother sneering “I have everything, what do you have,” and says, “Mere paas maa hai,” the audience shifts to his side, because good ought to win over evil.

Kalyug (1980): In Shyam Benegal’s contemporary take on the Mahabharata, set in amidst a family of squabbling industrialists, Shashi Kapoor, played a modern day Karna. As the cousin belonging to the Ramchand and Bhishamchand clans scheme and plot, Karan the adopted son of Bhishamchand is tragically caught in the crossfire. Shashi Kapoor won awards as producer of the film, but not for his fine
and very dignified performance as a conflicted man.

New Delhi Times (1983): The only film Ramesh Sharma made, is an accurate portrayal of the nexus between politics, business and the media. Shashi Kapoor, still handsome in spite of the extra weight, played an honest journalist, Vikas Pande, who tries to do an expose on the rampant corruption and wheeling-dealing going on between politicians, but finds that his honesty has been used to manipulate him. The very powerful film fetched for Shashi Kapoor a well-deserved National Award for his performance.

Utsav (1984): In his own production of Sankskrit classic Mrichhakatikam, directed by Girish Karnad, Shashi Kapoor played the villain — rare in his career as leading man. Not just that, the star known for his good looks, played a fat, paunchy villain Samsthanak, with a grotesque moustache, an evil man who falls for the beautiful courtesan Vasantsena, ends up killing her and framing the man she loves. Shashi Kapoor played the role he wanted Amitabh Bachchan to do, and amazingly played the evil Samsthanak with remarkable conviction — the man who is as pathetic as he is powerful.

In Custody (1993): Based on Anita Desai’s acclaimed novel, the first film directed by Ismail Merchant, had Shashi Kapoor in one of the last roles of his career and undoubtedly the finest. He embodied Nur, a tired old poet, who represents a dying breed Urdu poets a man of words, grace and scholarship. A journalist (Om Puri) comes to Bhopal to interview the great poet he has idolized, and finds a man surrounded by squabbling wives, greedy relatives and smarmy friends, man who knows his era has come to an end.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based journalist & co-author of ‘The Prithviwallahs’ with Shashi Kapoor

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