I’m not getting into the whole “does he deserve it?” debate, but the news about the Phalke filled me with a vague kind of happiness. There’s always been something wholesome, something nice about Shashi Kapoor. You probably remember the Friends episode that was about the crush-worthy celebrities you were allowed to sleep with – in theory; no questions asked – if the opportunity presented itself, and no, the spouse/significant other wasn’t allowed to get mad, because she or he had to understand. For a lot of women of a certain generation, that celebrity was… not Shashi Kapoor. It was Rajesh Khanna. Every female friend or relation of a certain age will admit to a crush on Shashi Kapoor – “soooo cute, yaar,” followed by a liquid sigh – but things never really got out of hand. Or below the belt. The Rajesh Khanna mania, at least the way we hear about it today, carried an A-rated vibe. There was something dangerously hormonal there. With Shashi Kapoor, you imagine a photograph, the face outlined with a lipstick heart, tucked into a Chemistry textbook.
I’ve sometimes wondered why. A slightly older woman friend I was discussing this piece with dismissed Shashi Kapoor as an “ornamental presence.” She added that his “good looks came in the way of his being taken seriously.” I asked her if she preferred the more macho kind of leading man. Her reply, her exact words: “Women always do.” But Rajesh Khanna wasn’t exactly macho either – unless you consider the eye crinkle a muscle movement.
But I’m not going to dwell on this. The ways of stardom and fandom are mysterious – as mysterious as Shashi Kapoor’s career. He was an actor who liked to internalise things, and yet he ended up working in Hindi cinema in an age where everything was externalised. He never really was leading-man material – in the way we talk of, say, Amitabh Bachchan as a leading man, the kind who appears on screen and causes everything and everyone else to disappear – and yet he was one of the most successful leading men of his time. His solo hit ratio wasn’t great, and yet he just kept making movie after movie after movie, a few worth remembering, many hard to even recall the names of. A random selection of his mid-seventies’ films: Jai Bajrang Bali, Naach Uthe Sansaar, Farishta Ya Qatil, Hira Aur Patthar. Shashi Kapoor’s career is one of the things that justifies the existence of Wikipedia.
It’s easier to understand the “classy” part of his career – the Merchant-Ivory films, the art-house movies he produced (Junoon, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav). He just seemed like that kind of guy, a Western kind of guy, with their sensibilities. Wasn’t that why he married Jennifer? (Hey, maybe that explains the relatively chaste nature of the Shashi Kapoor crush; he was a happily married man. You could look, but you couldn’t touch.)
It’s easy to understand, too, the films like New Delhi Times and In Custody, which came from a relatively “naturalistic” mould. He did solid work in these films – but maybe “solid” isn’t quite the word for Shashi Kapoor. A measure of his talent is his ability to disappear and let the co-star walk away with the scene, the song, the movie. That’s surely a reason we think of Shashi Kapoor and think second fiddle – which he played to Bachchan, most famously, but also to his heroines and to his oftentimes mediocre material. The flip side? His bad movies were really bad – he was probably too much of an actor to do the things a star can do to save a bad movie. Think about it, and you’ll find it easier to recall a few dozen bad movies that Shashi’s brother Shammi or nephew Rishi Kapoor were in than the bad ones Shashi was in. But a lot of the money he made from all these bad movies went into producing good movies, or movies that sounded good at least on paper. If you didn’t end up actually watching Ajooba, you’d have thought it’s a pretty cool movie.
But watch him in Kaise kahen hum, from Sharmilee, and you’ll see how he can also dial it down. The SD Burman number is almost ridiculously gorgeous, and Kishore Kumar sings it so magnificently, with such feeling, the actor on screen is practically irrelevant – Mukri could have been cast and we’d have felt a twinge. But Shashi puts the actor at the centre of this number. He does that thing where he’s really sad but putting on a brave face for his friends but even as he’s smiling he’s unable to forget how he’s been screwed in love. Happy-face, sad-face, happy-face, sad-face – not many actors can do this convincingly. And of course, those looks don’t hurt. You can imagine the women going: Oh you poor thing. With a face like that, you’re still a one-woman man.
The same film has Khilte hain gul yahan. During the prelude, Shashi plucks a rose from a woman’s hair, and when he says bikharne ko, he does a little hand toss. It may be the most blithely existential hand toss in Hindi film history. And then he smiles that crooked-teeth smile. He’s not just going through the motions, mouthing the words, looking for things to do as the interlude comes on. He’s enjoying the song. It’s coursing through him. We get the sense he believes in it, in this faintly ridiculous situation that has him singing someone else’s words in someone else’s voice to a tune someone else has composed. This is also some kind of good acting.
Even in his “bad movies,” by which I refer to your garden variety Hindi film without any great pedigree, you can find snatches of good acting – though maybe a different kind of good acting from the good acting we talk about in the context of New Delhi Times and In Custody. I’m talking about melodramas like Abhinetri and Baseraa – Shashi Kapoor played a beleaguered husband in both. Watch him in the scene in Abhinetri where he drops Hema Malini home and they have a small conversation about mothers. Her mother is now a portrait on a wall, and she tells him that she “speaks” to her mother constantly. He seems to genuinely like this trait of hers. His reaction is lovely, just the wee-est bit animated – the screenplay instruction must have read “He gushes without actually gushing.” And then she asks him about his mother. He smiles, as if anticipating a future in which every time he’s spoken about it’ll be to the accompaniment of a line that has him declaring that he has his mother with him. He’s charming (to us) and awkward (with her) and innocent (the way young men were, generally, then). Had Rajesh Khanna played this scene, we’d have seen Rajesh Khanna in the scene. Here, at least to the extent that we can do these things, we see the character, we see Shekhar Babu.