Felicity Kendal on Shashi Kapoor: ‘Funny and glamorous, the most flirtatious man I had ever met’

In her memoir ‘White Cargo’, the acclaimed British actress recounts her sister Jennifer’s romance with Shashi Kapoor.

He was “this tall, beautiful Indian actor” that her sister Jennifer had fallen in love with, “funny and glamorous, the most flirtatious man” that Felicity Kendal had met in the 11 years she had been on the planet.

Shashi Kapoor wasn’t yet the romantic hero from countless Hindi films, but he was certainly a heartthrob for Jennifer Kendal. She had met him in 1956 during a performance of the play Dewar in Mumbai. As Felicity Kendal writes in her marvellous memoir White Cargo, “Before the performance, Shashi peeped through the tabs to look at the audience and size them up… He saw in the fourth row of the stalls a young girl with long fair hair. She was dressed in a black-and-white polka-dotted summer dress with a halter neckline – daring – and she was pretty, laughing with her girlfriend and fanning herself with her programme. Shashi, according to Shashi, instantly fell in love.” He was five years younger than her.

The next day, Felicity was “sitting in a Chinese restaurant, watching Jennifer and Shashi fall in love over their noodles”.

The sisters had been living in India since the early 1950s. Their parents, Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell, ran Shakespeareana, the touring theatre company that staged William Shakespeare’s plays for audiences and students across the country. Kendal had travelled to India for the first time in 1944, and his love for the country grew over repeated trips. “Everywhere is so full of lovely colours – the dresses, the things they sell, it’s all so grand,” he exulted in a letter to his elder daughter in 1946.

Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell in Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.
Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell in Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.

In 1946, when Felicity was nine months old and Jennifer 13, the family moved to Kolkata, where they lived for two years before moving back to England. In 1952, the family returned to India, and this time, they stayed for much longer.

After meeting Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer persuaded her father to cast him in a couple of Shakespeareana productions. Felicity has vivid memories of Kapoor, the future movie star and heart-throb of Indian cinema: “He had never acted in English in his life and was shaking with nerves, but he carried it off with great success and was reluctantly welcomed into the fold by my father, who was never keen on any boyfriend Jennifer had.”

Jennifer took along her sister on her dates with Kapoor, and the preteen became the “safety net for flirty times in the bedroom when they hugged and talked and planned the life they would spend together”.

Geoffrey Kendal did not welcome the relationship – he didn’t want Jennifer to leave the theatre company, especially since it was clear that Kapoor would not be touring with them forever.

When it became clear that Jennifer was going to leave Shakespeareana to marry Kapoor, “Geoffrey’s possessiveness was approaching fever pitch”, Felicity Kendal writes. The morning that Jennifer finally left home, her father refused to return her farewell hug. “The look of bewilderment on Shashi’s face at this appalling behaviour is something I will never forget,” Felicity Kendal writes. “It would be a year before the family was reconciled to the fact that she was gone.”

Jennifer Kendal and Shashi Kapoor in Bombay Talkie (1970). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.
Jennifer Kendal and Shashi Kapoor in Bombay Talkie (1970). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.

Jennifer Kendal and Shashi Kapoor were married in a Hindu wedding in Mumbai in 1958. The rift with her parents was healed after the couple’s first child, Kunal, was born in 1959. Jennifer Kendal returned temporarily to the company for a few productions, and Kapoor too pitched in with a guest appearance or two, “driving the schoolgirls into a frenzy”.

Felicity Kendal was later paired with her brother-in law in the Merchant-Ivory production Shakespeare Wallah (1956). One of the first of seven collaborations between Kapoor and director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Shakespeare Wallah is a thinly disguised account of Shakespeareana’s touring years in India. The Kendals play versions of themselves, while Felicity plays their daughter, who falls in love with Shashi Kapoor’s playboy.

Shakespeare Wallah (1965).

The movie, shot by the brilliant cinematographer Subtara Mitra and scored by Satyajit Ray, was widely acclaimed upon its release, but Geoffrey Kendal initially despised it before declaring that it was “bloody wonderful” five years later. “The story is incomprehensible, best bits cut out, worst bits left in… two hours of untrammeled misery… an insult to India,” he complained in a letter to Felicity. “But you are damn good, though Shashi is wasted. The only shot worth seeing is the shot of him by himself, when everyone else has gone to bed, a real winner. He should go into films in English with foreign directors who know how to exploit him.”

The father-in-law was being prophetic: Shashi Kapoor had a sporadic but respectable international career alongside his Indian films, appearing in Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha (1972), Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), and five more Merchant Ivory productions, including Heat and Dust (1983) and In Custody (1994).

Felicity Kendal had by then moved to London to pursue an acting career, and she kept in touch with her sister and brother-in-law through letters. Shashi Kapoor had solid advice for her: “Don’t ever get a job via the casting couch…Be a strong girl and you will be something in your own right very soon.”

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