While Bollywood is mourning Shashi, it is theatre that has been deprived of its most ardent believer. Prithvi Theatre might have been a vision of Prithviraj Kapoor but it was his youngest son who turned that dream into a reality. As the 79-year-old actor breathed his last, we are reminded of the wonders he created by turning a nomadic, traveling theatre group into a structure with roots that became a tree of salvation for all theatre aspirants since the early 70s.
As Shashi often said, the iconic landmark of suburban Mumbai was a product of the synergy between India’s biggest theatre groups – Prithvi and Shakespearana. In a way though, Shashi’s marriage to Geoffery Kendall’s daughter, Jennifer, scripted the destiny of theatre in Mumbai – a quintessential film hub. When it came to entertainers, movies were a way ahead.
Theatre in Mumbai, at the time Prithvi was conceived, was dominated by the English theatre of south Mumbai and Gujarati and Marathi theatre in Dadar. Hindi theatre was at an all-time low with few venues available. Prithvi offered Hindi theatre an affordable platform where new styles and forms could be experimented with, a new exciting venue for performers, directors, writers in the city, and a new audience for the genre. The very first play to be showcased at Prithvi was Udhwastha Dharmashala by GP Deshpande, with a grand star-cast of the likes of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri.
For a man who gave theatre the vastness of cinema, Prithvi was Jennifer and Shashi’s child and, yet, Kapoor insisted on being an invisible benefactor of theatre all his life. He backboned the process and vision for Prithvi but he never insisted on being its face. In fact, he hardly ever addressed the audience before the plays and always went to the plays as an audience. Much to the embarrassment of the ticket vendors at Prithvi, he insisted on paying for his ticket each time he saw a play in the theatre he built.
But that was Shashi for you – despite being the youngest brother to the likes of Raj and Shammi he didn’t get lost in the maze of their glamorous personas; rather, it made him blossom, he carved his way through cinema because of his stubborn will to grow despite the shadows around him.
For someone who started his journey with a wandering theatre group, Shashi Kapoor’s biggest strength lay in his ability to adapt. He adapted to cinema, to theatre, to life and dreams…. Like no one else could.
As we lay down the visionary to rest, we will forever be grateful for the seeds he sowed… as he rightly said, “Hum gayab hone waalo mein se nahi hai … jahan jahan se guzharte hai jalwe dikhate hai … dost toh kya, dushman bhi yaad rakhte hai.” – Silsila 1981.