I have had so much fun in the past few weeks talking with Ryan C in the comments. He is new(ish) to Indian film and is asking me all sorts of wonderful questions, and giving me delightfully enthusiastic responses, and it made me think about how maybe I should do more posts sort of aimed at that level. Ideally, you can get that from My Book (really, read it! It’s super short and fast and once you are done, you will know everything you need to understand the movies), but now I am thinking maybe I should try something like that on the blog as well?
Most of the time, you’ve probably noticed, my posts tend to assume a basic level of knowledge, what you would have if you grew up in India or have been watching these films for years. Which seems to be true for a lot of my readers (my visitor tracking tells me about 2/3rds of my views are from India, and most of my commentators seem to indicate a vast backlog of knowledge), so I will keep doing that. But for the 1/3rd or however many of my readers that haven’t grown up with these movies and don’t have a 10 year backlog of gossip and industry knowledge, I’m going to try something a little different. At least for the next few Tuesdays and Thursdays. And we will see how it goes.
Let’s see, where to start? I guess the Kapoor family is as good a place as any. Gives you a nice intro into the various eras of film, and tells you the biggest gossip stories you need. Plus also, helps you start to realize what it means when we say “everyone is related to everyone.”
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: These are not “facts”, or “true”, or maybe they are, I have no way of knowing! I don’t know the Kapoor family personally or anything like that. But if you are just beginning to get into the films, I want to give you a sense of the background that most people have for the Kapoors, what is behind all the allusions in film articles and odd comments in interviews.
To start with, here is the most current image I could find for their family tree:
I’m not sure how accurate that is (for instance, not clear on how Mithun Chakroborty fits in), but it’s a good starting point. I’ll see what I can fill in, based on gossip and common knowledge and occasional comments in interviews, and also this super super fun book:
As you can see, it all starts with Prithviraj. This guy:
(in the skirt in the center, handing the sword)(a bit older)
Prithviraj was born to an old landed family in Peshewar in the far north (many of the stars from early film through today are from the same region. They tend towards pale skin, strong features, and great height and muscles). He was married as a teenager, after seeing his wife from a distance and falling in love with her. She was also from an old landed family (I think maybe distantly related to his family?) and the parents worked out the details and arranged the match. She was also, and this is just an interesting note about how times have changed in India, barely educated. At least with “book learning”. She ran a household and raised her kids and kept the family together, but she didn’t have any training beyond that, which wasn’t unheard of for a young woman of her station.
Prithviraj and his wife promptly had a son, Raj Kapoor, while they were still teenagers. And then two more sons. By this point, India had begun to change and it was clear that the old “landed family” lifestyle wasn’t going to be enough to support their family. Especially since Prithviraj’s father wasn’t the greatest support for them, and in fact the head of the family and chief earner was his aging grandfather.
Prithviraj wanted to be an actor, and he started traveling around trying to pick up work and learn the trade. Meanwhile, his wife and his 3 sons stayed back in Peshawar with his family. Finally, Prithviraj got a good job and some promising prospects in Bombay and he moved his whole little family down to Bombay. The 3 little boys promptly switched from running around the grounds in Peshawar to running around the streets of Bombay, making it into their playground. Raj was their leader, but they were inseparable, especially Raj and his next youngest brother, Nandi.
And then in one week, everything changed. If I am remembering this right, the youngest son died of pneumonia and Nandi died of accidentally eating snake poison, in the same week (presumably these two things were related in that his mother didn’t have time to supervise him, leading to the accident). And then a few weeks later, Shammi Kapoor was born. Raj went from being the oldest of 3 brothers, all close in age, to being an only child, to being 7 years older to his next brother. And then 7 years later his next brother was born, Shashi Kapoor. The age gap between Raj and Shashi is about the same as between Raj and his own mother, making their relationship in particular much more of a father and son than brothers.
After this tragedy, Prithviraj continued to travel as he built his career, sometimes bringing the family along with him. Prithviraj had already become a film star, but that didn’t mean the same thing in the 1930s as it does now. In terms of money and regular work, for one thing. Prithviraj was a movie star, but that didn’t make him rich. And it wasn’t a very respected or, to Prithviraj’s mind, challenging kind of profession. He preferred to focus on building his stage company, Prithviraj Theaters, which involved traveling all over India with sets and dancers and costumes and putting on a show every night.
His little family sometimes came with him and sometimes stayed home. But all 3 boys were raised in the theater. All 3 of them, starting with Raj, got their first jobs as teenagers working as stage hands, paid the same as all the rest of the workers for the theater. And then they all slowly advanced from stage hand to stage manager. And, of course, they also started playing “child” roles from babyhood, gaining more acting experience by age 18 than most actors get in a lifetime.
(Something like this)
Raj was the first to rebel against this lifestyle, to decide he wanted to leave Prithviraj theaters and try his hand at making it on his own in film. You would think he would have had his path eased a little, but in fact Prithviraj had so little faith in his son that he not only didn’t use his connections to help him, according to some reports he tried to dissuade them from taking a chance on Raj.
In the end, Raj got his first lead role in a film at 19 and was a major star by 23. At which point he decided he wanted to produce his own film. While Prithviraj had started out in an era where films were a shakey business and money was tight, Raj was beginning in the immediate post-war era, where money was everywhere (because of blackmarketers trying to launder their money in film). He was able to tentatively get funding for his script, but he still needed some big names to star in it along with him.
Oh, and also he needed to get married. It was time. His father had already been a father of 3 sons by the time he was Raj’s age. And so they found him a bride. A distant relative, sometimes referred to as his “aunt”, Krishna is actually his 2nd or 3rd cousin once removed. And she is the sister of the actor Premnath, meaning it was an appropriate match not just because their family standing matched, but because they were both in film. And so they were married, and 3 months later she was already pregnant when Raj started taking his script around town trying to find stars.
And thus began the Greatest Love Story of Film. Raj went to visit a young actress Nargis. She had been playing the heroine since she was 14, and was now an accomplished and popular actress, far beyond Raj’s current level of fame. They had an appointment scheduled, but she didn’t take it very seriously, since he was just some “chubby young actor”. He knocked on the door, and she answered it in a housedress with flour on her nose because she had been making parathas with her mother, and he immediately fell in love. He famously recreated this scene years later in his film Bobby.
Nargis wasn’t in love quite so quickly, but then they did their movie together (Aag, Nargis’ role is fairly small) and then a second movie (Barsaat, she is the lead), and somehow she fell under his spell and returned from location shooting completely passionately hopelessly in love.
For the next decade, Raj and Nargis ruled the film industry and the hearts of India. They were cool and modern and sophisticated, while still maintaining their Indian identities in movies about sacrificial love and trying to build a better nation. Their love story on screen had a kind of power that was beyond “sex” (although they had that too), and more purely evoked the feeling of two people who were just made for each other. They were beloved and cheered not just at home, but around the world, traveling from Russia to America. Russia in particular loved Raj and Nargis, and still does, particularly their film Awara.
And back home, there was Krishna. Who had 5 children during this same time, children who barely saw their father as he returned from the studio he had built (RK Studios, still an active filming space today) late at night and left again in the early morning.
(Krishna was lovely, wasn’t she? Still is for that matter)
Raj also had his two brothers. With the age gap, and Prithviraj’s traveling during the childhood, in many ways Raj was more of a father than an older brother to them. He was the one they went to when they needed anything, he was the one who punished them when they broke the rules, and (although they didn’t know this) he was the one who went to bat for them with their father and made sure they received a living wage once they started working full time for the family theater.
Shammi was 12 when Raj became a movie star, and a teenager when he started producing. It was natural for him to follow his brother into film. Shammi’s first few films did not do well, he seemed like a pale imitation of his older brother, with the same hair and the same mustache and almost the same face.
But then Shammi made a change. He shaved his mustache and grew out his hair. He stopped playing the “noble poverty” roles of his brother, and went for the complete opposite, “wealthy carefree playboy”. Most of all, he let himself dance! No one dances like Shammi Kapoor danced. They would start up the music and his body would start to shake and gyrate like he couldn’t even control it. It was some sort of unstoppable power driving him. He danced so hard and so much, he actually blew out his knees and was semi-crippled in his old age. And he found superstardom! For a brief period in the early 60s, Shammi ruled all.
While Shammi’s career was going smoothly, his personal life was a little rocky. Raj and Prithviraj both had semi-arranged marriages. They both claimed to have fallen in love with their future wives at first sight (yes, even Raj. He fell in love with a lot of women at first sight), but it was their families who took the next steps forward. But Shammi straight up eloped! And not with a woman of good family.
He married Geeta Bali, who is an incredibly charming actress from that same era. She was a bigger star than he at the time, and she was the one who encouraged him to shave the mustache and be himself. They took his sports car to a temple in the middle of the night one night and used her lipstick for sindoor, and then went back to his parents’ house the next morning announcing they were married. (and then there was a second official wedding with photos and so on that you can find online.)
It was an extremely happy marriage. They had two children, Shammi’s career took off, everything was great. And then Geeta died of smallpox ten years after the wedding. Shammi kept working and kept dancing, but he never really felt the same way about any other woman. Eventually, he decided he had to marry again, for his children if for no other reason. And this time he picked a young woman of good family and good background (actually of a former royal house). They met once, and then he called her up and asked her if she wanted to marry him. She married him, moved in to his house, raised his children, and fixed his life.
(Not saying he didn’t love her, just in interviews he didn’t talk about his second wife in the same way as he talked about Geeta Bali)
Shammi ruled the 60s, but then came the arrival of India’s first SuperStar Rajesh Khanna. And after Rajesh, there was Amitabh, and suddenly India just wanted action movies and social dramas, not the light-hearted romances Shammi specialized in. Shammi had also fallen victim by this point to the congenital Kapoor weakness for food and was getting a bit big for a romantic hero. And so he gracefully transitioned to character parts, until his knee problems made even that difficult for him.
At which point Shammi entered the oddest and most delightful phase of his career, Internet Pioneer! Shammi set up a Kapoor family website (really, click the clink!) all the way back in the early 90s, was a part of all sorts of early Indian Internet groups, and spent his days on a computer learning and creating in a new medium.
That was Shammi, what about Shashi? The youngest Kapoor brother? Shashi is the “different” one. He started out the same as Raj and Shammi, working back stage for Prithviraj theaters. And then one night there was a young girl in the audience who’s friend knew him, she introduced them and Shashi gave them a backstage tour, and by the end of the night, he was in love. With Jennifer Kendal, a British woman also from an acting family who was 5 years older than him. Scandal and disaster!
Shashi joined the Kendal family acting troupe, which traveled India presenting Shakespeare plays at schools and theaters and everywhere else they could find a slot. Both families were against the match, but in the end Shashi and Jennifer eloped. Supposedly her father found the most upsetting part of the marriage the fact that he had now lost this promising young actor from his troupe, as Shashi was now able to return home in triumph with his bride.
(Yes, their story is the basis for Shakespeare Wallah. In which Shashi played himself and Felicity Kendal played her older sister Jennifer. Only in this version, Shashi is some kind of dangerous dashing playboy, instead of an innocent teenage boy, which gets into a whole Orientalist vision of masculinity thing I don’t want to deal with)
They had nothing and no prospects, at which point (although Shashi never learned this) his father-brother Raj started pulling strings to get Shashi something in the film industry so they would have enough money to buy food. Especially since, of course, Jennifer was already pregnant (the Kapoors don’t waste time. Or understand birth control).
Shashi never really seemed to fit in the mainstream Hindi industry. He was probably the most handsome and the best actor of all the Kapoor brothers. But his greatest work was always in parallel cinema type films. Bombay Talkies (opposite his wife), Junoon, The Householder, these are his great roles. In the mainstream industry, he tended to be cast more as the second lead. Where his acting style was a better fit, he was able to play subtle emotions and long speeches and all of that, instead of just the basic “Hero” type of parts. Yash Chopra in particularly really knew how to bring out the best in him, in Trishul, in Deewar, and in Kabhi Kabhi.
(Here he is with his wife, playing another playboy movie star who has an affair with a white woman. So odd how on film they were always this star-crossed lovers thing, whereas in real life they had a long and happy and boring marriage! Well, not interesting, indicative of how pop-culture always wants to make cross-cultural romance look more dramatic than it really is)
Shashi also was never really a normal “Kapoor” in his personal life. His wife, supposedly, told him up front that he wasn’t allowed to cheat on her, or on his diet, or she would leave him. And so Shashi remained slim and boyish well into his 40s (a feat no other Kapoor has managed to accomplish). And also remained devoted and faithful to his wife until the day she died (ditto). In fact, he is still devoted to her, her death devastated him and he has kept up the traditions she started in the 32 years since. For instance, the annual Kapoor Christmas brunch, started by Jennifer as a way of merging her family traditions with her new in-laws, and continued to this day. You can see photos every year of Ranbir and Kareena and now Saif faithfully trooping over to Shashi’s house every Christmas morning.
On the other hand, while he wasn’t much like his brothers, Shashi was also a bit of a throwback to his father. Not just in looks (they are practically identical in early photos), but in priorities.
Shashi re-founded the Prithvi theaters in the late 70s. He kept it running for years, finally handing it down to his daughter Jennifer who runs it today. Interestingly, all of Shashi and Jennifer’s children ended up on more of the behind the scenes side of things. Their oldest, Kunal, started out as an actor and ended up running a production company for ad films. And their youngest, Karan, started as a model (he has a striking combination of the Kapoor handsomeness with the Kendal coloring), and is now a successful photographer.
All 3 of Shashi’s children have had successful careers, but they have been able to fly somewhat under the radar. Unlike Raj’s children, who were expected to succeed and surpass their father, just as he surpassed his father. But that is a story for another day, because I have now reached an enormous number of words and information.
If you have anything to add to what I have said above, or any follow up questions, please put it in the comments! I am trying to give more the general narrative impression then all the little details and so on, so I know I am missing things. And I will come back on Thursday to give you the next part of the Kapoor story, including the conclusion of Raj and Nargis.