Veteran actor Shashi Kapoor’s death on Monday prompted a flurry of obituaries and remembrances, both from his fans as well as his contemporaries and colleagues. Amitabh Bachchan, who acted with Kapoor in 14 film including Manmohan Desai’s Suhaag (1979) where they played twins, wrote: “With men like him around, I stood no chance.” Perhaps an exaggeration; but Shashi — son of Prithiviraj and brother of Raj and Shammi — was a beneficiary of the kind of nepotism and insider advantage in which Bollywood revels. With his matinee idol looks and acting chops, he probably did not need it but one of the first things almost everyone seemed remember about Kapoor was how handsome he was.
Yet, Kapoor was more than a matinee idol. In the late 1970s, he turned producer with his company Film-Valas and financed five films: Junoon (1978), Kalyug (1981), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Vijeta (1982), and Utsav (1984). Now, most of these films are forgotten. A colleague, who has not an inconsiderable knowledge of popular Hindi cinema, told me that he had watched almost all Shashi Kapoor films, but when I asked him about these, he drew a blank. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to hunt around too much to find these; they are all available on YouTube. Watching these over the past week — and YouTube is admittedly not the best place to watch movies — I was reminded of a moment of Indian cinema, a sort of aesthetic standard that now seems almost lost.
Kapoor was no stranger to small, independent, art house cinema. In the 1960s, at the very beginning of his career and before he became a big star, Kapoor acted in three films — The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, and Bombay Talkie — with American writer-director duo Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. These films are also now of interest only to film scholars or die-hard enthusiasts. But, the aesthetics of these non-mainstream films seem to have so seeped deep into Kapoor that even his subsequent career in the most formulaic cinema of Bollywood could not wash off its colours. By the time he turned producer, he was a pretty big star, working three shifts a day, as was common in the Bombay film industry. It earned him the moniker “taxi” from Raj Kapoor, who was reportedly deeply frustrated by Shashi’s many commitments while directing him in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978).
Yet, when he turned producer, instead of choosing a mainstream project as he could easily have, he chose to produce Shyam Benegal’s Junoon, adapted from Ruskin Bond’s novel, A Flight of Pigeons, set during the 1857 Rebellion. Till then, Benegal had made only independent films, such as his village trilogy — Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) — as well as Bhumika (1977). Junoon, a period piece with action and battle sequences, needed more money and that’s where Shashi Kapoor stepped in, sparing no costs to create a film that was authentic as well as visually pleasing. Benegal — who would also make Kalyug (1981) with Kapoor — described his producer as “the propagator of good cinema”, who didn’t really care if he made money from the projects. He never did.
But that didn’t prevent him from being generous with his cast and crew. Aparna Sen, director of 36 Chowringhee Lane, recalls how she was a beneficiary of this munificence: “He paid me an unheard of Rs 30,000, and when the film released, he doubled my fee and gave me Rs 60,000.” When Sen protested, Shashi reportedly told her: “Don’t be silly... directors must be paid the most.” Not everyone, however, respected this generosity; most in fact took advantage of it, spending beyond need and budget in their productions. His daughter Sanjana has been quoted as saying: “Papa would be extravagant to the point of being foolish... he would give directors whatever they would ask for... And that wasn’t always wise.” Actor Sharmila Tagore has also recalled: “Shashi treated everyone equally... introduced professionalism... but no one appreciated that in India.”
Kapoor, too, confided in a friend that as soon as he turned producer, directors had no control over their purse strings. In a bid to recover his losses, he decided to make another film and don the mantle of the director himself. So he launched Ajooba — an epic fantasy, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor. He reportedly told everyone that he would wield the stick and ensure that the production was disciplined. But the project was doomed from the beginning. It was being made in collaboration with Russian film companies and was shot near the Baltic Sea. Soon after the production started, the Soviet Union, collapsed, ushering in an era of uncertainty and delaying the film considerably. By the time it was released, the world had moved on, and the film failed to mark on the box office. That was the end of Shashi Kapoor the producer.
His tryst with cinema, however, was far from over, especially international, art house cinema. Perhaps his most nuanced performance was as the ailing Urdu poet, Nur, in Ishmail Merchant’s In Custody (1993). By then, Shashi Kapoor, having grown quite obese, was a world different from his younger, more handsome self. And yet, he embodied the drunken, tortured shayar, stuck in a world where all his familiar symbols are crumbling around him. When Nur dies, his procession is carried through the streets of old Bhopal, with Faiz’s “Aaj bazaar men pa-ba-jaulan chalo” playing over the soundtrack. Shashi Kapoor’s last rites were performed last Tuesday; thousands of fans braved a cyclone to attend it. Perhaps, no one played Faiz’s ghazal at his funeral, but with him an aesthetic standard of Indian cinema has breathed its last.