Shashi Kapoor is No More and an Era is Over

I’m surprisingly not prepared for this one.  Shammi, him I was prepared for.  He was so sick and so old.  It was sad, but it didn’t shock me.  I don’t know why Shashi is shocking, he was old and sick as well.  I guess because he is the last of his generation.  The Kapoors are changing.

Shashi was the youngest of the 3 Kapoor brothers, the youngest by many years.  His generation was shadowed by tragedy years before he was born.  In 1931 in one week, two sons died and another (Shammi) was born.  Raj Kapoor, the oldest, lost his playmates and companions and never really became as close to his new younger brothers as he had been to the now dead brothers.

Shashi, the baby of the family, was adored and spoiled by his mother.  She used to fuss over his looks, would insist on brushing his hair on his forehead, saying that his head was so large, he needed bangs to hide the size.  There were no more sons after Shashi partly because of that large head, the birth was so traumatizing his mother could have no more children.

Image result for shashi kapoor awara

Shashi grew up trapped between film and stage.  His father, Prithviraj, was a movie star but that was just what he did to make money.  His true passion was Prithvi theaters, his stage company.  All three sons were raised backstage.  But Shashi had options, by the time he was 7 years old his oldest brother Raj had become a movie star, and then a producer, a powerful figure in the industry.  By the time he was a young man, his next oldest brother Shashi had followed in Raj’s footsteps, was a star in his own right.

But Shashi leaned toward the stage.  He was working as stage manager at his father’s theater when he was 18, the same as his brothers before him.  And then his life changed forever when he saw a pretty young white girl sitting in the audience.  Her friend introduced her to him after the show, asking for a tour backstage.  She was Jennifer Kendal, daughter of a stage acting family, the Kendals who traveled India putting on Shakespeare plays.  Jennifer was 4 years older than him, and the lead in her family’s shows.  She fell in love with this handsome charming young man as fast as he fell for her.  But she was only in town briefly, her family was about to leave for another tour.  So, in order to see her again, Shashi joined her family’s troupe.

All the Kapoors are endlessly romantic and dramatic, but Shashi had a different kind of love.  Shammi, Raj, Rishi, they were about the grand romantic gestures.  Shashi, he was about the real sacrifice.  He left his home and family in order to pursue his love, left his career as well, traveled the country playing second lead in a Shakespeare company until she was willing to leave with him.

Image result for shashi kapoor jennifer kendal young

They were so young when they got married, both literally young, and young in their minds, both raised by close families with no experience of the world outside the theater and it’s protections.  They lived in a tiny one room apartment in a building with a shared bathroom.  Jennifer started running down the hall to be sick in the bathroom every morning, and their motherly neighbor had to explain to them that this meant she would be having a baby.

Shashi needed work, fast.  He had loved his time on stage, but he needed money now, there was going to be a baby.  He got his first film role, and then another, and another.  Somewhere in there he did his first English language movie, The Householder, and got critical acclaim and artistic enjoyment from it.  But it wouldn’t pay the rent, and Jennifer was pregnant again.  So he continued with his Hindi work.

Image result for the householder movie

Shashi felt so alone in this period.  His family hadn’t exactly thrown him out, but he was seen as an adult now, now that he was married, and the expectation was that he would fend for himself.  Besides, it was never a family that believed in offering help.  In admitting pride or giving approval to their children.  Years later, in her book on the Kapoors, Madhu Jain interviewed Shashi about this time in his life and he talked about how sad he was, how alone, how he was struggling by himself.  Not that he blamed his family, but it was hard for him to know that no one was behind him.

And then Madhu interviewed one of his first female co-stars, a woman who was an established star while Shashi was just starting out.  She said that before shooting started, she got a call from Raj Kapoor asking her to look out for Shashi, make sure he did well, because he was Raj’s “son” and Raj would be forever grateful for any help Shashi was given.  The sad thing is, 50 years later at the time of the book, Shashi still didn’t know this had happened.  He still thought of himself as the baby of the family, the one who was forgotten at home, the one whose mother loved him because no one else cared.

That’s what was so amazing about Shashi, he never felt worthy of love, but he loved others so much.  He worked day and night in popular Hindi films to support his wife and children, and he somehow managed to make time to support the arts scene as well, acting in and occasionally producing and funding Merchant-Ivory pictures, and eventually re-founding his father’s Prithvi theaters, funding it with his film money just as his father had.

If you watch Shashi in his popular Hindi films, he is good, he is charming, he is sweet.  He went from a young shockingly handsome sweet faced man in films like Sharmilee and Jab Jab Phool Khile, to a dashing still handsome older man with a loud Punjabi style in films like Kabhi Kabhi and Satyam Shivam Sundaram (the last done for no payment as a favor to his older brother, sacrificing for yet another person he loved).  Shashi in these movies does his work in his own quiet way, but there is never that spark of superstardom.  He feels like a steady burning candle onscreen while his brothers felt like a rocket taking off.

It’s in his art films that the real Shashi appears.  Debonair, dashing, confident, you can’t take your eyes off of him.  If Shashi had been able to do that, just that, he would be known as one of the greatest actors in the history of film, anywhere in the world.  The global audience loved him, showered awards on him.  But he turned his back on them.  He didn’t want that for himself, the acclaim or even the artistic fulfillment.  He would rather work for others, make the money that funded Prithvi theaters, that kept his family healthy and happy, that helped fund more of these artistic films that otherwise could not get funding.

Perhaps it was Shashi’s sweet nature that made him so devoted to his wife.  The only Kapoor man about whom there is not even a hint of a rumor of unfaithfulness.  He loved Jennifer to distraction and the exclusion of all other women from the moment they met until the day she died.  He never really recovered from her death.  She was only 51, and just starting up her acting career again, now that their beloved youngest daughter was out of the house.  And then she died of cancer, just as Shashi’s mother had before her.

Shashi stopped working as a leading man after Jennifer passed away.  He couldn’t, he reacted to her death by letting himself go suddenly, as though he no longer cared what he looked like, and became rapidly too obese to be considered for leading man parts.  And even in those character roles, he worked much much less.  It almost seems like he didn’t see the point of working any more.

But his children were there to take care of him.  His two oldest songs, Kunal and Karan, both briefly tried their hand at acting.  They were both stunningly handsome, the Kapoor good looks combined with blue eyes and blond hair from their mother.  But both of them eventually left acting, left the country even, moved to England.  It was his daughter, Sanjana, who stayed.  She took over the running of Prithvi theaters, turned it into a complex with a coffee shop and multiple stages.  A landmark in the Bombay art scene.

Image result for prithvi theaters

And so the forgotten youngest brother, the one who didn’t marry the right kind of girl or have the right kind of career, ended up being the one to carry on the family tradition.  Prithvi theaters is the heart and soul of the Kapoor family.

And, for the past few years, Shashi has been that heart and soul as well.  Since the death of Shammi, even earlier during Shammi’s final illness, Shashi took over the mantle of head of the family.  He represented them at weddings and funerals.  And he hosted them all at his annual Christmas lunch.

It’s a tradition Jennifer started, inviting her in-laws over for a Christmas lunch every year.  And Shashi kept it up in her memory for 33 lonely years.  Kareena, Ranbir, Karisma and her two children, every year they all come to Shashi’s house in the memory of an aunt they never even knew because it was all that this man who gave so much wanted in return.

Image result for shashi kapoor taimur

The thing about Shashi is, you can’t help loving him.  There is a kind of sweet glow around him, onscreen and off, you can sense that big lonely heart inside that just wanted to give love and feel like someone loved him in return.  So I am upset because Shashi is the last of that generation of Kapoors and now it is up to Randhir to carry the family forward.  And I am upset because Shashi is another film giant to fall.  But I am also upset because he was a nice man who loved his mother, and loved his wife, and loved his brothers, and loved his children and his grandchildren and his nieces and nephews and grandnephews and grandnieces now he is gone and it will be a very sad Christmas at the Kapoor household this year.

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35 thoughts on “Shashi Kapoor is No More and an Era is Over

  1. I really look to you to tell us what these deaths of “elder statesmen/women” of the Hindi film family mean in the broader social and film-history view. Thank you! Also, you have a gift of writing about nice people or nice gestures in a moving, yet non-sappy way. That is tough to do, and it is another reason I come to read–I often leave feeling more positive about the world than I came.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Some gorgeous writing here. What a wonderful tribute. I’m on Twitter and keep seeing references to Mere paas maa hai. I know it’s from a scene with Amitabh Bachchan because I saw a clip but it wasn’t translated and I don’t know the film or the context. I’d love it if you could explain it and why it’s so resonant?

    Liked by 1 person

    • First, here is my review of Deewar: https://dontcallitbollywood.com/2017/01/24/happy-raees-week-deewar-the-ultimate-smuggler-and-criminal-and-anti-hero-and-lets-just-say-film-film/

      Deewar was written by two men who lost their mothers in childhood, Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan. That’s kind of where I have to start. And Shashi had just lost his mother a few years before Deewar came out.

      Deewar is one of those Great Great movies that is too big to fully be contained in any kind of description. But to give you the bare bones of it, Shashi and Amitabh are brothers. When they were young and had no money, Amitabh worked as a bootblack to help raise money to pay Shashi’s school fees. Shashi got the education and the bright future, Amitabh slipped into life as a laborer. Amitabh finally got a chance to be something more when the gangster who ran the docks noticed the fire within him and hired him as an enforcer. Amitabh had a natural intelligence and bravery and rose up the ranks of the smugglers. Shashi, meanwhile, struggled to find a job after graduation and finally ended up in the police force. Amitabh, with his gangster money, bought his mother a luxurious apartment, and wanted them to all live together there, his mother and himself and his beloved younger brother. But Shashi had learned where the money came from and refused to stay. Amitabh begged his mother to stay with him, but she chose the other honest son over him, Amitabh’s struggles to keep the family together ultimately made him lose everything.

      Months later, Shashi has been given the job as a police officer to take down Amitabh’s gang. Amitabh meanwhile is protecting Shashi (although he doesn’t know it), putting himself on the line to stop his gang from putting a hit out on Shashi. Shashi asks him to meet the day after their father’s funeral (their father had left the family years earlier, but they were notified when his dead body was found). They meet under a bridge, where they lived as children when the family was homeless. Shashi begs Amitabh to turn himself in and save himself. Amitabh is furious, and bursts out with a scathing indictment of Shashi, that he is just a poor servant of the state, Amitabh declares “Aaj mere paas paisa hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai, naukar hai, bank balance hai, aur tumhare paas kya hai?” (today I have money, house, car, servants, bank balance, what do you have?) and Shashi simply says “Mere Paas Mai Hai” (I have mother). And Amitabh is silenced.

      It’s arguably the greatest line in the history of Indian film, when AR Rahman won his Oscar, the second Oscar ever won by an Indian, he began his speech by quoting it. It contains the whole idea of love, family, heritage being more important than any wealth. And it is also about just wanting a mother, written by two grown up lonely little boys who missed their mothers, and said by a man who had just lost his mother.

      Deewar is Amitabh’s movie to an amazing degree, his character is the one you care about, Shashi is just there in the background. But Shashi got the best line, a little reward for his willingness to always play the support.

      On Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 9:42 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Deewar truly is the best written film in Indian film history. Arguably the greatest film in Indian film history. It’s from the 70s, so it has a different look than you might be used to, but once you get passed that and just look at the characters and performance and dialogue, it is everything.

          On Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 3:14 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Every time I think of Shashi Kapoor, I only remember the scene from Junoon where he barges into the courtyard looking stunned. I understood the exact nuance of the word Junoon and the complexity of the emotion it’s supposed to evoke just watching Shashi emote in that film!! Farewell, Shashi!!

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  4. Shashi is my man the way that SRK is yours. Well, not quite, because I’ve never devoted the time and energy to being anyone’s super-fan, but if I had done so, he would have been it. So handsome, so talented, straddling both critical and commercial acclaim, devoted to his wife and kids, he was my idea of an ideal man, I would have married him in a heartbeat if he had only bothered to ask. 😉 Like him, I too had an interracial marriage and watched my multiracial kids struggle with identity issues, trying to find their right place in this world, just as we watched his kids do.

    Watch Junoon to see Shashi doing a different kind of role for him, and also to see the movie that really inspired Imtiaz Ali to become a filmmaker. Just like with Highway, you have to set aside moral judgement to read the deeper meaning of the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Hindi Film 101 Index | dontcallitbollywood

  6. This is the actor they should be making a biopic of. (I mean, not like we wouldn’t all hate it if they did, probably. I wanted a biopic of Fearless Nadia for such a long time and look what happened).

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  7. Pingback: Junoon Review: For Shashi | dontcallitbollywood

  8. What a kind and apt good-bye to Shashi!
    I’ve seen him in seven Hindi movies and two English ones (Siddhartha and Sammy&Rosie get laid I had watched long before I got to know about Hindi Cinema), as a child in Aag and Awaara, a young man in the multistarrer Waqt, then in Kabhi Kabhi, Deewar, Trishul and Silsila. When I read about Pritviraj’s sons, he would become my favourite as a person.
    I could understand ShahRukh’s very sad eyes at the funeral because Shashi was his favourite, too (if I remember right).
    I will read your Junoon review after having watched the film.

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    • I love him in those films with Amitabh, because he so gracefully stepped back and let Amitabh take center stage. But at the same time never felt like he was exactly in Amitabh’s shadow, he was always his own man.

      On Tue, Dec 5, 2017 at 3:42 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Felt the same… I also felt that he emanated a certain warmth…just watching Junoon (his kids and his wife are in the movie…and I like also the actor who plays Lalal, the loyal Indian (Kulhbushan Kharbanda).
        Just got to know that the author who wrote Susanna’s Seven Husbands (Priyanka played Susanna in 7Khoon Maaf) has also written the book the movie is based on (A Flight of Pigeons, Ruskin Bond).

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  9. Just saw my first movie with Shashi, Silsila, so I’m very sad to hear this news not only because he seems like a fine actor, but also because he seemed like a decent human being.

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    • He is so wonderful in Silsila, he manages to make an impression in only his brief screentime so that you really feel the loss when he is gone.

      He excelled in those “not exactly the hero but you have to really like him” kind of roles, he had similar parts in Kabhi Kabhi, Doosra Aadmi, and Trishul.

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  10. Pingback: News Round-Up: Shashi Aftershocks | dontcallitbollywood

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