A Pakistani journalist recalls dealing with a childhood tragedy and identifying with the more relaxed fun-loving Shashi Kapoor who resembled her often-absent father while a hyper-aggressive uncle was more like Amitabh Bachchan
The first time I noticed Shashi Kapoor was when he married Amitabh Bachchan’s girlfriend, Rakhi, in ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ and the latter sang a forlorn song in her former lover’s memory on their wedding night. My sympathies were with Amitabh and Rakhi.
Several years and many Indian movies later, I began to appreciate if not necessarily approve the nuances of love triangles, adulterous affairs and tragic romances. At one point, I saw an Indian television show discussing the cult classic ‘Silsila’ in which the host praised Shashi Kapoor repeatedly. Shashi Kapoor returned on my radar, not just as a policeman or hotel owner, but as a person.
Back in the 1990s in Pakistan, my twin sister and I were entertainment-starved. There was little for children to watch on TV and not much for adults either. There was only one television channel, the uptight state-run Pakistan TV. Pakistani society was – and perhaps, still is – recovering from Zia-ul-Haq’s miscarried “Islamization” that choked the performing arts. But we had VCRs – video cassette recorders that are now obsolete.
My uncle who lived with us rented Indian films that we secretly watched, ignoring his strictly warnings. Over six feet tall, he was wheatish-complexioned and hyper-aggressive — like Amitabh Bachchan’s characters often were. My father who was posted in Balochistan at the time, was more relaxed and fun. I started relating to Shashi Kapoor who bore a strong resemblance to my father, unlike Bachchan who seemed more like my uncle.
I developed an aversion for the “angry young man” and action heroes, and an appreciation for urbane and romantic heroes such as Farooq Sheikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Sanjeev Kumar and Kamal Hassan.
As the dish antenna became common before the end of the last millennium, dozens of Indian channels entered Pakistani homes. These channels were the opposite of PTV – they were informal, obsessed with music, dance and of course, films.
Around the same time, my twin sister was diagnosed with cancer and was invariably the centre of my attention. Our parents were often away from Lahore due to work reasons, and I did poorly at school.
We were in class two when my sister died, less than eight years old. Processing my loss and loneliness, these Indian channels came to my rescue. I spent my pre-teen years and post-school hours huddled in front of my uncle’s television upstairs. I didn’t understand much English and the latest Bollywood films were still mostly out of reach. I watched the 1960s and 70s films – usually several times over. Most of these films had Shashi Kapoor as the side hero, which I started considering to be a tad unfair.
Dealing with my loss, I identified with the characters whose love was either unrequited or who died too soon or those, who for various reasons, had to sacrifice their love.
Shashi Kapoor looked like my father, behaved very differently from the “alpha” Punjabi males around me and was a sidelined star which I (childishly) considered myself to be too. Eventually, both Shashi and I benefitted from this lack of super-stardom and conventional success. He moved on from commercial films to theatre and parallel cinema. I joined a profession which no one in my science-obsessed family had ever imagined — journalism.
Growing up, I continued to follow Shashi Kapoor closely. I saw that he started experimenting with period movies like ‘Junoon’ and ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’, the latter in English. ‘Utsav’ was shot both in Hindi and English. The last film he is known to have directed was ‘Ajooba’ in 1991, a superhero fantasy starring Amitabh Bachchan. Based on A Thousand and One Nights, the film was dubbed in Russian and released in the (former) Soviet Union.
He worked with Bimal Roy more than once and with Shyam Benegal in ‘Kalyug’. Meena Kumari helped him with his voice modulation. The incredible (and incredibly bohemian) Aparna Sen was also Shashi Kapoor’s discovery. Shashi refused the National Award for ‘Dharmputra’ because he felt his performance wasn’t worth it.
Shashi was exceptional in how he expressed love too, in those days when male actors took pride in their promiscuity and romances. Raj Kapoor’s romantic associations were the folklore of his times. I was watching closely, of course.
But Shashi had found an extraordinary love in theatre. He married Jennifer Kendal, who played Desdemona and he played her father Brabantio in Othello. When I saw him in later movies, I found him acting in a more understated way, less histrionic. I reckoned the change had come because of Jennifer’s untimely death. Grief can cause health problems particularly in later life, especially when the person is artistic in temperament.
The twinkle-eyed Shashi Kapoor will always be part of my childhood – evading murderers on a boat, catching his wife touch the feet of her former husband on a train station or conspiring to steal a big-bosomed woman’s necklace while Parveen Babi bewitched the audience (and Amitabh) with a song.
I will always cherish his inconspicuous grandeur and be inspired by how he carved his own path in life and art.