How Shashi Kapoor became the first Indian crossover star and other stories

A new biography retraces the Kapoor scion’s fascinating adventures, on and off the screen.

When Shashi Kapoor fell in love with Jennifer Kendal

It was during his apprenticeship at Prithvi Theatres that Shashi Kapoor, through a quirk of fate, met the woman who would be his wife. Shashi’s future sister-in-law, Felicity Kendal, writes in her autobiography, White Cargo, that one evening her sister, Jennifer Kendal—who was thirteen years older than her—went to the Royal Opera House in Bombay to catch a performance of Deewaar by Prithvi Theatres. Shashi was backstage and happened to look through the curtains; that’s when he caught a glimpse of Jennifer. There she was ‘dressed in a black and white polka-dotted summer dress with a halter neckline—daring—and she was pretty […] fanning herself with her programme. Shashi […] fell instantly in love.’

After the show, Shashi introduced himself and took Jennifer backstage; she was four years older than him. Felicity writes: ‘The next afternoon, I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant, watching Jennifer and Shashi fall in love over their noodles. They would stay together till she died, through thick and sometimes very thin […] She had met in Shashi the man she wanted forever.’

Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal in ‘Bombay Talkie’. Courtesy Merchant-Ivory Productions.
Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal in ‘Bombay Talkie’. Courtesy Merchant-Ivory Productions.

From flop to movie star

While Shashi had pedigree – he was the son of the pioneering Prithviraj Kapoor, and the brother of two already illustrious actors, Shammi Kapoor and Raj Kapoor – he had limited film experience. Like the thousands in Bombay looking for film work, Shashi had to spend hours visiting directors and studios, distributing portfolio pictures, and hanging outside coffee shops to get noticed by busy producers. Finally, Shashi got his first break. He was asked to act in a social melodrama, Char Diwari, with Nanda as the female lead.

Char Diwari did not fare well at the box office…Soon after, Shashi went on to act in two more films with Nanda – Mehndi Lagi Mere Haath and Mohabbat Isko Kahete Hain. Both failed.

It was as though Shashi’s career was fated to combust too soon, and with that, Nanda’s. But then came the year 1965, and the film, Jab Jab Phool Khile – a love story set in Kashmir. The film became a surprise hit, and suddenly, Shashi was an actor in demand along with Nanda!

How James Ivory and Ismail Merchant created the first crossover star from India

James Ivory remembers it clearly. In November 1961, he had arrived in a wintry Bombay, en route to a tiny village in Gujarat, where he planned to shoot a feature film, Devgar—written by the anthropologist, Geetal Steed. His New York-based friend, Ismail Merchant, was planning to produce it, and Sidney Meyers was to become the director. Ismail hoped to cast Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu, a young French–Indian actress, in lead roles, and get veteran actress, Durga Khote, to play the elderly mother.

As it happened, Devgar was never made; the money that Ismail was supposed to raise for the film did not come. But the producer – far from conceding defeat – found another idea to pursue.

On the recommendation of a Hollywood scriptwriter at MGM (Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer), Ismail had read a book written by the German writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who lived in Delhi with her Indian architect husband. Ismail was riveted by the story of The Householder and its ability to capture the nuances of Indian life. He passed on the book to James, who was equally captivated.

Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu in ‘The Householder’. Courtesy Merchant-Ivory Productions.
Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu in ‘The Householder’. Courtesy Merchant-Ivory Productions.

Shashi’s rapport with Ismail, and his fondness for James, would have a direct bearing on his working relationship with them. They combined their immense talents for seven films made under the Merchant–Ivory Productions banner: The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, Heat and Dust—all directed by James Ivory—and three films by three other directors—The Deceivers, In Custody, and Side Streets.

Shashi Kapoor in ‘Heat and Dust’. Courtesy Merchant-Ivory Productions.
Shashi Kapoor in ‘Heat and Dust’. Courtesy Merchant-Ivory Productions.

That moment when Shashi Kapoor rolled in the hay with Simi Garewal

Conrad Rooks, a New Yorker and the son of the founding president of Avon, was deeply inspired by Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel and its protagonist, Siddhartha—a restless boy, who travels long and far in pursuit of the true meaning of life.

While he was advised to sign on Peter Fonda for the lead role, the director wished to have an Indian star cast, and could not think of anyone better suited to play the hero than Shashi. Simi Garewal, who had by then acted in a range of art-house and commercial films—from Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri to Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker—was cast as the exquisite Kamala.

Then came the time to shoot the intimate scenes between Siddhartha and Kamala—for which Conrad was inspired by the sculptures of Konark and Khajuraho. ‘There wasn’t a lot of sex,’ David [McKibben, lis quick to clarify. ‘It was suggestive and tastefully done.’

Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in ‘Siddhartha’. Courtesy Alexander Rooks/Lotus Films.
Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in ‘Siddhartha’. Courtesy Alexander Rooks/Lotus Films.

But the scenes did require kissing and Simi had to be shot partially in the nude. ‘I can’t tell you how nervous I was before these scenes,’ Simi says. ‘The Swedish crew couldn’t understand my anxiety. Sven told me, “In Sweden, when we set up a nude sequence, the actors just remove their clothes and sit around waiting!” I finally wore a body-stocking from the waist down, but when I had to go topless, I was stricken. I couldn’t look up and just lowered my eyes. Shashi sensed what I was going through and said to me, “Don’t be shy, Simi. You are beautiful.” Buoyed by his words, I found the courage to go through it all with confidence.’

The world’s best/worst producer

In the early 1970s, Shashi acquired the Indian distribution rights for an odd adults-only Japanese anime film, A Thousand and One Nights (Sen’ya Ichiya Monogatari), directed by Eiichi Yamamoto and released as an X-rated movie in the US. The psychedelic, erotically-charged movie, while a success in Japan, did poor business in India.

After two failures, Shashi’s next big step as a film distributor was when he bought rights, within the territories of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, for Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (and later, Satyam Shivam Sundaram). For Raj, his brother’s intervention was a welcome relief. After the box office failure of Mera Naam Joker, he had a tough time convincing distributors to buy the rights for Bobby—a film that seemed to have nothing going for it, with two newcomers as protagonists—twenty-one-year-old Rishi Kapoor and sixteen-year-old Dimple Kapadia.

Bobby was a huge hit. Overnight, the film made stars of Rishi and Dimple… Unfortunately, Bobby’s box office success and the young stars’ popularity did not translate into big returns for Shashi.

But Shashi was not one to give up after a few setbacks. The real businessman in him came to the fore, once more, with the iconic Junoon. Soon after, in 1976, Shashi formed his company, Film-Valas—clearly inspired by the title of the Merchant–Ivory film he acted in, Shakespeare Wallah. Film-Valas would go on to produce some of the best-known art-house films of the late 1970s and 1980s. ‘Dad was getting a bit frustrated with the kind of cinema he was working for,’ Kunal [Kapoor] says, while acknowledging that Shashi was making good money as a Hindi movie actor. Film-Valas and its productions, then, satisfied Shashi’s creative hunger.

Shashi Kapoor in the biopic ‘Jinnah’.

For the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Pakistan, filmmaker Jamil Dehlavi and co-writer/executive producer Akbar Ahmed set out to make a definitive film on the founding father of their country—Muhammad Ali Jinnah—a film that some would refer to as Pakistan’s response to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. But the project got delayed by a year and Jinnah was finally completed in 1998.

Shashi Kapoor and Christopher Lee in ‘Jinnah’. Courtesy Jamil Dehlavi.
Shashi Kapoor and Christopher Lee in ‘Jinnah’. Courtesy Jamil Dehlavi.

Jamil wished to sign on an international cast, particularly because he could not get a Pakistani star to play Jinnah in an English language film. ‘Most of the Pakistani actors I have worked with— well, they are not comfortable acting in English,’ Jamil tells me. ‘Their performances end up being quite stilted. So, I faced the huge challenge of finding an actor who looked like Jinnah and could carry off the role and the myth—which is why I signed on Christopher Lee, who is terrific.’

For the part of the angel, Jamil decided to cast Shashi Kapoor. ‘We needed somebody who was a strong actor, a star equal to Christopher, and also a little quirky, with a slightly humorous dimension to him. Shashi seemed like an obvious choice. He wasn’t the young superstar he used to be and I thought he could pull off the idiosyncrasies of the character.’

It is a role where Shashi proves to be the perfect foil to Christopher. While Shashi says he loved working with the British star (‘He is a marvellous actor,’ he asserts, ‘besides being a good human being, very conscious of the responsibility that he carries playing the role of the Quaid-e-Azam’), Christopher, too, remained gracious during a 2001 radio interview with the Pakistan News Service: ‘The Pakistani actors in the film were very kind to me and we had a very distinguished Indian actor in the film, Shashi Kapoor.’

Excerpted with permission from Shashi Kapoor The Householder, The Star, Aseem Chhabra, Rupa Publications.

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