Senior journalist Aseem Chhabra's new book looks at the life and times of one of India's biggest yet humble actors who strode the worlds of theatre and film with effortless ease. Excerpts from an exclusive interview
Q. Were you comfortable that Shashi Kapoor could not directly contribute to this book? Did you face any challenges as a result?
A. From the beginning, I knew that I would not be able to talk to Shashi Kapoor. But I was fortunate to talk to many people close to him, including Kunal and Sanjna Kapoor, Rishi and Neetu Kapoor, and many of his colleagues — Sharmila Tagore, Amitabh Bachchan, Simi Garewal, Shabana Azmi, Shyam Benegal, James Ivory, Aparna Sen, Govind Nihalani and even Hanif Kureishi. I spoke to Shashi ji’s friends — including Anil Dharker, and journalists who over the years had interacted with him. All of these people shared with me their rich, wonderful memories of working and interacting with Shashi Kapoor.
While researching for the book, I found many articles and other materials where Shashi ji has spoken or has written his views. I was fortunate to find some terrific video interviews with Shashi Kapoor in the extras for the Merchant Ivory DVDs of The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust and In Custody. I felt as if he was talking to me in those interviews. There were many challenges throughout the time I worked on the book. But I am a journalist and I have learned how to work around those challenges.
Shashi Kapoor: The householder, the star, Aseem Chhabra, Rupa & Co. Rs 395.
Q. James Ivory spoke of Shashi Kapoor being a restrained actor even in commercial Hindi cinema. Do you believe this trait might have stopped him from earning the hysterical fan following that Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh Bachchan had?
A. That is probably correct. Shashi ji was on the cusp of becoming a star, when Rajesh Khanna appeared out of nowhere in the late 1960s. In the first three years of his career, Rajesh Khanna had 17 hits. That was unprecedented. And then his career suddenly started to decline, just as Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man persona took off in the early 1970s. But Shashi ji remained a consistent star through this period and beyond. Yes, he was a restrained actor, never loud in his performance. But he was always a team player. So when the time called for it, he started acting in multi-star films. Producers loved including Shashi Kapoor in their multi-star mix. He was easy to work with, always cooperative, arriving on time on the sets and he had a consistent fan following.
Q. Why did the Shashi-Sharmila on-screen pairing click?
A. They were young, good looking, wore fashionable clothes and worked on films with high entertainment value — Waqt, Suhana Safar, Aa Gale La Jaa. And when one film became a hit — in this case, Waqt, other producers and directors wanted to cast them together. It is hard to say what makes an on-screen pairing click. The chemistry is hard to define. But some actors look good together on the screen. They complement each other and bring out the richness of romance. Shashi ji and Sharmila ji managed to portray this effortlessly on screen.
Q. What impact did the Ivory-Merchant association have on Shashi Kapoor’s idea of cinema?
A. As I say in the book, Shashi Kapoor was a reluctant film actor. If he had his way he would have only done theatre. But he had to support his family and so he started working in films and often ended up taking really bad scripts and projects, only because those films paid good money. But the chance meeting with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, changed Shashi ji’s world. Films such as The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, Heat and Dust and In Custody matched Shashi Kapoor’s artistic sensibilities. He was comfortable in those roles
just as he was on stage. It brought out the real actor in him and changed his perspective of cinema. But this lifelong friendship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and their style of filmmaking, also kept Shashi Kapoor grounded, connected to reality. He remained a humble man despite all the fame he got from the Hindi film industry and abroad.
Q. Why, according to you, did Shashi and Amitabh make 14 films together?
A. Some of it had to do with business related decisions. If one film with the actors was a hit (Deewar in this case) then producers and directors wanted to cast them more often. Scriptwriters – especially Salim-Javed chose to write stories with two strong male characters, with different temperaments, who complemented each other. Directors like Yash Chopra were comfortable working with actors who they connected with on a personal level. Shashi Ji and Yash Ji were good friends. At times, the casting of Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan seemed odd. In one film – Suhaag, they were even cast as twins. But as Amitabh Bachchan said to me in an interview, perhaps some people believed the two actors really looked alike.
Shashi Kapoor at the Prithvi Theatre
Q. As an actor, which decade do you believe best exemplified his body of work?
A. I would say the 1970s, because this was when Shashi Kapoor became a star on his own, despite the brief Rajesh Khanna era, followed by the Amitabh Bachchan's reign. One of my favorite Shashi Kapoor film, Sharmeelee (even though it was more of a vehicle for Rakhee) was released in 1971. His best work with Yash Chopra, besides Dharamputra, was in the 1970s (Deewar, Kabhi Kabhie, Trishul, Kaala Patthar). Shashi Kapoor's first home production – Junoon was also made in this decade. And his stunning looking Siddhartha was released in 1972. But some of his best films also opened in the 1980s – Kalyug, the haunting 36 Chowringhee Lane (Shashi Ji produced it), Vijeta, Heat and Dust, New Delhi Times and one of his lesser known works which was made in London Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The 1980s also saw some big hits with Shashi Kapoor, including Namak Halal.
Q. What was the reaction of the Kendal family to your book? Was sourcing research easy from the early years of the Shashi-Jennifer romance?
A. I was not able to interview the only living member of the Kendal family – Jennifer Kapoor's sister – Felicity Kendal. She did not want to talk about the family. I don't know what her reaction will be, since the book has just come out. So again I had to depend on people who were close to Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor for their stories. I found out much of the details through my research.
Q. You hoped that the book would be able to do justice to the many avatars of Shashi Kapoor. As you reached towards the end of writing it, were you pleased with its contents? What was going on through your mind?
A. There is always a sense of relief when you finish a major project. But I also felt a strange kind of sadness finishing the book. I had spent more than a year living with Shashi Kapoor – one of my all time favorite actors. He was on this journey with me at all times, even though I never interviewed him. And now I had to bid goodbye to him and move on. The best part of working on this book was while I watched his films – many I revisited. It was pure joy to watch Jab Jab Phool Khile, Pyar Ka Mausam, Sharmeelee, Deewar, The Householder, Junoon (I saw a beautiful restored print of the film at IFFI, Goa), Kalyug, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and In Custody. It's become an addiction now. I keep watching his old film songs on YouTube.
Q. Any other comments on the experience of writing this book.
A. I think the most important thing I learned while writing this book was what a good soul Shashi Kapoor is. I only knew him as the star, the actor and the producer of some remarkable films. But every person I talked to told me that Shashi Kapoor's heart is in the right place, how he treated everyone on the sets – from a junior technician to the biggest star in the same way. He is one of those rare Hindi film personalities who respected everyone, and was kind and caring. That is the man I want to celebrate through my book.
Shashi Kapoor is a good soul. I only knew him as the star, the actor and the producer of some remarkable films. But every person I talked to told me that Shashi Kapoor's heart is in the right place, how he treated everyone on the sets – from a junior technician to the biggest star in the same way. He is one of those rare Hindi film personalities who respected everyone, and was kind and caring. That is the man I want to celebrate through my book.