on the actor's trail

A scene-stealing encounter with the heart-stopping actor Shashi Kapoor

A flashback to the day when a school teacher decided to go and meet the Hindi movie star.

Chori Mera Kaam Yaaron, Chori Mera Kaam (Stealing is my job, friends): there couldn’t have been a better song written for Shashi Kapoor, the long-lashed, twinkling-eyed stealer of hearts from 1970s Hindi cinema. For all the romancing of Rajesh Khanna, the wrath of Angry Young Man Amitabh Bachchan and the garam of Dharmendra, it was Shashi Kapoor whose dishevelled forelocks and dimpled smile robbed one of all resistance and critical thinking. Whether he played convict or constable, loser or lover, Shashi Kapoor was a charmer all the way.

I left my Stardust-filled adolescence in Kolkata and came to Bombay in 1990 when I was in my late twenties. I was a teacher in a school then, but I was not ready to make teaching my whole life. I was interested in films and writing for them, but I didn’t have any more Hindi in me than Katrina Kaif. And I didn’t have her looks either.

One day, I decided I would go to meet Shashi Kapoor. It was as simple as that.

I was not filled with any kind of trepidation, as I asked for the liftman to take me to Shashi Kapoor’s flat in Atlas Apartments at Malabar Hill in Mumbai. Since those were more sensible times than the times in which we now live, I was not interrogated or peered at or made to wait for confirmation via intercom.

I didn’t meet Kapoor that day (he was in a meeting with Ismail Merchant) but his daughter Sanjna gave me a string of phone numbers and times I could reach him.

Maybe I was plain thick-skinned, but I refused to think this was the euphemistic “get lost” message that stars fob off their persistent fans with.

It wasn’t.

When I finally spoke to Shashi Kapoor, it was from a pay phone. The voice at the end of the line was courteous; a trifle amused maybe, but not patronising.

“I don’t know who told you I was doing anything in films these days,” he said. “In fact, I don’t think I will be doing anything for – oh – about four years now.”

“So should I call you four years later?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.

“No, it’s not like that,” he said, “You could come over and we could talk about things…”

Shashi Kapoor in Ramesh Sharma’s ‘New Delhi Times’. Courtesy Ramesh Sharma.
Shashi Kapoor in Ramesh Sharma’s ‘New Delhi Times’. Courtesy Ramesh Sharma.

I had absolutely no idea what I would say to him – and strangely, no anxiety about what he would find to say to me. There was just something that made me feel Shashi Kapoor was someone I could know.

At our first meeting in his house, Shashi Kapoor listened to me as I told him about myself and what I thought I could do. I didn’t have to spin stories of fandom and there was no sign of impatience or any self-importance smuggled into the time and attention he gave me. In fact, he barely spoke about himself at all.

He asked if I was a good reader. Had I read Thomas Hardy? The Mayor of Casterbridge perhaps? Could I think of writing a synopsis and doing a treatment of it? There might be something later, but would I consider doing it at this stage, with no payment or promises?

Having had brief encounters of strange kinds with others in the film industry, I was struck by his complete forthrightness of manner.

I flew back on wings to my little room at the Working Women’s Hostel in Colaba and hammered away at my typewriter, which, until then, had only typed examination questions. The synopsis was done and warmly received but for various reasons, the treatment was never fully written and things stopped there.

However, I wasn’t ready to let Shashi Kapoor disappear from my life.

I picked a moment to reconnect with Sanjna Kapoor and thereafter had a seven-year innings doing summer workshops at Prithvi Theatre. Shashi Kapoor and I signed children’s participation certificates together and once or twice we chatted over lunch about the films he loved being a part of and those in which he had felt love’s labour had been lost. But we talked of other things too – about Bengali fish curry and Shakespeare, and he told me some colourful tales surrounding the making of Chori Mera Kaam, one of the craziest fun films of its time.

Three years ago, I took one of Kapoor’s earliest fans to meet him – Nalini Parab, a nurse who is now about 75. She had looked after my mother before my mother passed away and she had repeated herself over and over, “I have only one wish. I want to meet Shashi Kapoor. I know he is ill and in a wheelchair and I know he is not what he used to be, but Shashi Kapoor is Shashi Kapoor.”

Indeed.

As I write this now, I seem not to be thinking of all the pictures I had collected of Shashi Kapoor – as the debonair, dashing Ravi swinging Neetu Singh in his arms in Deewaar or of the restrained and handsome Karan, bringing the calm into Kalyug. I am thinking of a real “bhadralok” minus any arrogance, a true blue-blooded Gentleman Actor whom I have the privilege of knowing a little.

Images obtained from Rupa Publications.

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