Tribute: Shashi Kapoor was an unassuming star and one of Mumbai theatre’s greatest supporters

Till his health permitted, Shashi Kapoor used to go to Prithvi Theatre, which he built, to watch plays – buying a ticket.

As a cub reporter, I had gone to meet Shashi Kapoor at a studio in Andheri in suburban Mumbai. After the interview, he asked how I would get home – the first star to do so – and when I said by public transport, he offered to drop me, driving the car himself. On the way, when a gajra seller tapped on the window, and looked thrilled to see the star, he bought a whole bunch of them, and handed me some. Then he said cheekily, “Gajras don’t go with jeans.”

That became a running gag; whenever he saw me, he wrinkled his nose in mock annoyance and say, “Jeans? Again? When will you wear a sari?”

Everybody who ever interacted with Kapoor had stories of his effortless charm and unfailing courtesy. Later, when I started working with him on the book The Prithviwallahs (named thus because his production company was called Filmvalas, he had done a film called Shakespeare Wallah, co-starring his wife Jennifer Kendal and her theatre family, and liked the sound of the word wallah), I realised that he was always kind and considerate towards others. This explained why his friendships lasted decades, and also why his staff stayed with him forever, and their children after them.

Prithvi Theatre is the little gem of a theatre his wife Jennifer and he built in the beachside suburb Juhu as a tribute to his father, Prithviraj Kapoor, the actor, philanthropist and founder of Hindi cinema’s great Kapoor dynasty. It was also an affectionate nod to Shashi Kapoor’s own beginnings as a backstage hand, production manager, costume and light designer and eventually actor with his father’s company, Prithvi Theatres. It was perhaps because he was the youngest and stayed with the company while his brothers Raj and Shammi Kapoor became movie stars that Shashi Kapoor imbibed the egalitarian values his father insisted on. Family was treated no different from members of his troupe, and that undoubtedly gave Shashi Kapoor his discipline, easygoing temperament and love of theatre.

The Prithvi Theatres team travelled third class, and ate simple meals. Prithviraj Kapoor told his sons that they were “mazdoors, not jagirdars”.

On one afternoon, I arrived at the Prithvi cafe, where he was often found chatting with his old friends, Prayag Raj, and a couple of others. When it was time to start a session for the book, he asked if I’d like to sit outside or move into the theatre that was air-conditioned. “I don’t mind the heat,” I joked. “I am a poor journalist.” He retorted with a smile, “And I am a poor actor.”

The Kapoor hospitality was always rolled out. He observed my food and beverage preferences, and the cook was instructed accordingly. He thought my vegetarian diet was boring, and called out to the cook when I arrived to make dal and potatoes, and then made a “yuck” face. Once, when he saw me pluck out peppers from a dish, he said, “Oho, now she is wasting this nice vegetable,” picked them up from my plate and ate them. I had never met a celebrity who was so unassuming; in his case, it did not seem phony.

Prhtivi Theatre in Mumbai.
Prhtivi Theatre in Mumbai.

Around this time, he left his South Mumbai residence where he spent most of his life and moved to an apartment in the building opposite Prithvi Theatre, which used to be called Prithvi jhopda because it was the cottage where his father spent his last years, and where he ran his film production office for a long time. (It was later torn down and a building was constructed on the land.)

Shashi Kapoor backed marvellous films in the 1980s such as 36 Chowringhee Lane, Junoon, Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav, and directed his own failed magnum opus Ajooba. Most of them were financial setbacks. His days as a multi-shift star were over, and he could not easily make back the money lost.

Even when he moved to the suburbs, he would go regularly all the way to the Breach Candy pool for a swim. The Juhu apartment was almost exactly like the one he left behind – full his antique furniture, beautiful art, artefacts, books and music. He was a man of taste, but without even a hint of Bollywood flashiness. Once the most elegantly dressed man, he had now simplified his wardrobe to white kurta-pyjamas (black for formal events) with a shawl thrown over the shoulder. If he was ever a vain star, there was no longer any trace of it.

Surviving Jennifer Kendal

Those who knew him well said that his wife’s death changed him. Not only did he neglect his diet and put on weight, he seemed to lose his energy and whatever little ambition he had. Surprisingly, for a star as successful as him, he never wanted to be a part of the rat race. Nobody ever alleged that he had stolen a role or cut a co-star’s scene. He happily played second fiddle to Amitabh Bachchan in many films, though he did admit to being underappreciated as an actor sometimes. I got the feeling that if he could help it, he would never have left the stage.

Theatre was also the reason for his prodigious memory – he remembered incidents that happened years ago with dates and vivid details. This was a result, he said, of touring with the Kendals’ Shakespearana, when he memorised 14 of the Bard’s plays in which he acted.

It is part of movie lore now that he also met Jennifer Kendal at the Empire Theatre in Calcutta, where she had come to watch one of Prithvi Theatres’ plays. He peered out of the curtain to have a look at the audience and saw the beautiful Jennifer in the audience. It was love at first sight. They got married two years later, and it was the happiest and most stable marriages in Bollywood, a couple of jolts notwithstanding.

Old-world charm

Later, when the book came out and we went to Calcutta for the launch, he stayed at the quaint Fairlawn Hotel, where he always stayed (while the rest of the team was at a five-star). This was where he had wooed Jennifer, and it held many memories for him. Also, old-style British establishments appealed to him – he stayed at the Poona Club in that city, and often took breaks in Mahabaleshwar, where he always stayed at the Dina Hotel, which also had Raj era furniture and old-style British dishes on the menu. It may have been nostalgia, or maybe he was just a creature of habit.

He was happy that the book was published and he did his bit to preserve the theatre work of his father and document the rich history of his own theatre. When interviewed for the book, Naseeruddin Shah had commented that Mumbai’s theatre could be divided into two eras, before Prithvi and after Prithvi. And it’s true – what the little space has done for the city’s (and by association the country’s) theatre is unparalleled. He did not imagine that it would last so long or have such a far-reaching impact.

He had built it with love, to fulfill his father’s dream of having a home for his troupe. After their mother’s tragically premature death in 1984, his children Kunal and Sanjna kept it going with the same love and passion for theatre than runs in their blood.

Till his health failed, he used to go to the theatre to watch plays – buying a ticket – and when he wasn’t inside, he sat outside in the cafe and greeted people he knew and smiled at those who conquered jitters and hesitantly came over to shake hands with the star.

“Hello, I’m Shashi Kapoor,” he would say, with that warmth that could melt a glacier. It’s so difficult to speak of him in the past tense.

Deepa Gahlot has authored, among other books, The Prithviwallahs (Roli Books).

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