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Shashi Kapoor (1938-2017): A romantic hero, comedian, mediator and the very picture of elegance

The veteran actor and producer died in Mumbai on December 4 at the age of 79.

In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, the self-pitying, drug-addled Faizal, upset about living in an elder brother’s shadow, mumbles these memorable words: “Hum toh sochte thay ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein Bachchan paida huwe hai, lekin jab aankh khuli to dekha ki hum Sasi Kapoor hai.” I thought I was a Bachchan, born in Sanjeev Kumar’s house, but later realised I was only Shashi Kapoor.

Yes, Faizal pronounces the name more like “Sasi” than “Shashi”, making the sentence sound comically rustic. And the reference is, of course, to Trishul, which we have seen Faizal watching in an earlier scene – one of many films in which “Sasi” was the clear second lead to Bachchan’s intense hero.

Many boys of my generation, growing up in the 1980s, would have understood why Faizal felt he had been let down by fate. As a Bachchan-worshipping child, I always thought of Shashi Kapoor as a pleasing screen personality, but he didn’t figure on my shortlist of favourite heroes – in fact, I probably didn’t think of him as one. He and his nephew Rishi occupied a very different niche from that of the action men, and it felt ludicrous when a film insisted on giving one of them a fight scene where they could trade punches with the heavyweights on equal terms. In a climactic dhishoom-dhishoom in Trishul, when Shekhar (Shashi) gives his half-brother Vijay (Bachchan) as good as he gets, it is not just implausible but also thematically flawed. (Surely part of this film’s point is that Shekhar, the mollycoddled legitimate son, would be much softer around the middle than Vijay the smouldering anti-hero, forged in the fires of abandonment and hard labour.)

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Trishul (1978).

My feelings about Kapoor would change somewhat over the years. As an adult watching those films again, I find myself more interested in his characters than I had been before, and more willing to embrace his special charms. Consider an old favourite, the 1980 comedy Do aur Do Paanch. The exuberant song sequence “Tune abhi dekha nahin” is part of a running series of gags in the film’s first half, where Kapoor’s Sunil and Bachchan’s Vijay – rival conmen – get the better of each other in turn; but watch the scene out of context and it feels like a commentary on Bachchan’s stature as a one-man industry, a magician who stayed several steps ahead of his rivals. (“Duniya deewani meri/Mere peechhe peechhe bhaagi/Kismein hai dum yahaan / Thehre jo mere aage.”)

And yet, its effect also depends on how well Kapoor plays sidekick and foil, standing by and watching the superstar perform to the gallery. Shashi gets tripped, takes pratfalls, is elbowed away when he tries to dance with his girlfriend, gets doused by a sprinkler… and in between all this he also holds the stage for a few seconds, not least during a little tap-dance where we see how nimble-footed and graceful he was even in his forties. It’s brief, but it’s as magical as the little moment during the opening scene of Merchant-Ivory’s Bombay Talkie 10 years earlier, where Kapoor – playing a version of himself, a Hindi-movie star – dances on a giant typewriter while rehearsing a song.

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My own viewing preferences as a child notwithstanding, Shashi Kapoor had a varied existence outside the Bachchan universe and the Hindi-film mainstream. Much has been said and written – notably in Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors and Aseem Chhabra’s Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star – about his status as one of India’s first international stars, decades before Irrfan Khan or Priyanka Chopra, and this in an era when our film industry was largely cut off from the rest of the world and its dramatis personae didn’t get out very much. We have his work in a range of films, including the Merchant-Ivory productions (The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah and In Custody), Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha, Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and his own productions Kalyug, Junoon, Vijeta and Utsav, which – sometimes uneasily – bridged the divide between mainstream Hindi cinema and the “parallel film”.

In the mainstream itself – the medium where he did the bulk of his work as a star-actor – it’s astonishing how many films there are, and how integral his presence is to them, even if that isn’t how it might seem at first viewing. From the earnest 12-year-old boy of Awaara, preparing the ground for the adult version of the protagonist Raj, to the toothy swain in songs like “Likhe jo khat tujhe” (Kanyadaan), and the young chauffeur in Waqt, trying desperately to get his mother to the hospital while everyone else sways to “Aage bhi jaane na tu”. And then the 1970s, a decade spent under the shadow of two megastars. (Apart from playing second lead to Bachchan so often, Kapoor was a policeman in Prem Kahani who worries about his wife’s relationship with her ex-lover…played by the era’s biggest romantic star, Rajesh Khanna.)

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Though Kapoor did the grinning, romantic-hero parts very well, showed an unexpected flair for comedy, and had a reassuring integrity in serious, dramatic scenes, he could seem a bit one-dimensional in commercial films. Was this because he was usually cast in certain types of roles, or because of a lack of discernment in choosing films, or because he couldn’t fully submit to the higher registers of emotion demanded by mainline Hindi cinema? (Other actors such as Waheeda Rehman and Balraj Sahni have admitted to struggling with this.) Or was it a combination of all these factors? He may have become sheepish about the reactions of his wife and children to some of his work; in the 1970s, he was shooting simultaneously for so many mediocre films that his brother Raj disparagingly called him a “taxi”.

Since he was almost never required to carry a major 1970s film on his own shoulders, one tends to remember him in multi-starrers: the Bachchan films, of course, but also others like Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, in which Kapoor was almost inevitably cast as the pampered, white-suited, colonial-era prince who joins the other, more rough-hewn heroes in their fight for independence. Kranti is an intriguing work in his filmography, though not many credit it as such. What we see over the course of this narrative is a character who is born to privilege but undergoes a reformation and realizes what the “right side” is. It is a reminder of Kapoor’s function as the Moral Hero, as Karan Johar puts it in the foreword to Chhabra’s book.

The best-known avatar of that moral hero is Ravi the younger brother in Deewaar, an idealistic, well-scrubbed man in a police uniform, eyebrows raised and nostrils flaring with righteous zeal. It is easy, from a distance, to remember Deewaar as a film where Ravi remains untouched by darkness, a smugly goody-goody hero from beginning to end. Up close, though, it isn’t that simple. Kapoor’s most memorable scenes are the ones where Ravi has to look into the mirror and introspect after shooting and wounding a young boy who was stealing food for his starving parents. Or when one gets the sense that for all his righteous posturing, he feels a smidgen of resentment about his mother’s special affection for her errant older son.

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A few years later, in one of his best-regarded roles in Kalyug, Kapoor would play a modern-day version of Karna, the Mahabharata’s tragic anti-hero. But good as he was in that part, it was a casting anomaly (Bachchan was the original choice) and the image that suited Shashi Kapoor much better was the straight-arrow hero Arjuna, vanilla on the outside but capable of showing layers.

In a revealing scene in Deewaar, Ravi tells his girlfriend, with a troubled look on his face, that the mythological hero Arjuna had Lord Krishna guiding him, but that he himself doesn’t feel strong enough to be a modern Arjuna. In moments like these, one sees a different sort of internal conflict playing itself out, a subtler, less dramatic one than that of the Angry Young Man.

Here’s another thing about Arjuna: he is comfortable with his feminine side, and he has a strong streak of pacifism: he could tell God “I will not fight”, and briefly at least hold his own in a conversation that ends with a call to arms. As a child, I may have chuckled when I saw Shashi Kapoor flamboyantly holding apart those uber-macho heroes Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha at the end of their fight scene in Kaala Patthar, ordering them to bury the hatchet. Today I think of it as one of the emblematic images of his career, and a reminder of why he was such an appealing hero in a testosterone-fuelled age.

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