Very good, even classy, when good. And very ordinary and pedestrian when bad. That is what Shashi Kapoor has been in the seven decades that he has been part of showbiz. The Dadasaheb Phalke award may have taken far too long in coming, but it couldnât have happened to a nicer man, acknowledged as a quintessential gentleman even by the most exacting of critics. When he decided to make films, and that was in the late 1970s, Shashi ensured that he would eschew the crass values of commercial cinema he himself was unwittingly part of. And no wonder there is a certain sophistication and sense of values associated with this representative of the famous Kapoor clan. Women of all ages found him ever so adorable and vulnerable, while the men were almost universal in the belief that he was so different from most of them.
An abiding tale about his generosity and sense of fairplay goes back to 1977-78 when Shyam Benegalâs Junoon was being made. The handsome actor, who turned producer with this venture, had arranged for everyone â from the technicians to the stars â to stay for two full months at what was then known as the best hotel in Lucknow! A leading financial daily quotes Govind Nihalaniâs observation: âHe (Shashi Kapoor) got rid of the hierarchy we were used to in mainstream cinema and made it democratic. It felt like a family.â
Pitchforked into acting, Shashi was groomed in the theatre starting from the age of four by his father, the imposing and magnificent Prithviraj. Shashi followed his brother Raj in pictures in the late 1940s. Most famously, he was the child actor who played a younger Raj in Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951). His first full-fledged roles as the lead were in the 1961 films Char Diwari and Dharmputra. He followed this up with more than 150 films until the late 1990s. Here too, his approach was novel and different as he chose films in Hindi and English, took on big and small parts, and shuffled comfortably between the mainstream and arthouse genres.
For a long time, Shashi was the only actor to consistently appear in international films. In 1963, he starred in The Householder, a partnership between director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. He went on to work for their Merchant Ivory Productions in films such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and In Custody (1993). Other directors such as Guy Green and Conrad Rooks signed him on too. It is common knowledge that the Illinois-based Beth Watkins, author of the âBeth Loves Bollywoodâ blog, is a self-confessed mega-fan of the actor because he can be âfunny, romantic, authoritative, or vulnerable equally believablyâ. When Kapoor finally retired from acting in 1998, it was with another international production, Tony Gerberâs Side Streets.
In India, these achievements were overshadowed by the roles he played in loud Hindi films. He did projects both as the lead â take Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) and Sharmilee (1971) and as supporting lead, for instance, in Kaala Patthar (1979). Kapoor often appeared alongside Amitabh Bachchan, most memorably in the 1975 blockbuster Deewar.