This year marks the 75th birthday of Bollywood’s eternal heartthrob Shashi Kapoor. He was the youngest child of the great theatrical pioneer Prithviraj Kapoor, and brother of Shammi and Raj Kapoor – all great cinematic talents that would go on to create Bollywood’s first acting dynasty.
Shashi began his acting life as a child, first appearing in feature films during the last years of World War Two, and later alongside his brother Raj, in Aag (1948). His ultimate memorable role as a child actor would be in his brother’s biggest blockbuster of the 1950’s Awaara (1951) in which he played Raj’s younger self. In the following years Shashi would immerse himself in the world of theatre. He acted in numerous productions of the Classical Sanskrit writer Kalidasa, directed and produced by his father; he would also hone his skills as assistant director, in both theatre and film.
It would not be until the early 1960’s that Shashi came to wider public attention. He spent the years refining his acting technique in the theatre and minor film roles which, coupled with his boyish good looks, made him the perfect package for casting directors.
He was chosen as the lead role for Yash Chopra’s 1961 film Dharmputra, which went on to with the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and the Filmfare award for Best Dialogue. Dharmputra was one of the first films to depict the graphic reality of partition, and despite winning praise from the Hindi film industry, the painful memories of partition proved too strong for it to be embraced by the public, and it subsequently flopped at the box office. Shashi played the role of Dilip, a Hindu nationalist and fearsome Muslim hater; he brought intensity to the role that any other actor at the time would have found difficult. The fact that he took on this role so early in his career showed tremendous bravery, as well as an immense passion to prove his weight as a character actor.
With his cheeky smile and piercing brown eyes, Shashi emerged as one of the great leading men of Bollywood’s golden age. Proving himself as versatile as Shammi and Raj, he could easily play the role of perfectly sculpted matinee idol, in films like Waqt (1965) by Yash Chopra and Sharmeelee (1971) by Samir Ganguly, or embrace the comedic in films like Haseena Maan Jayegi (1968) by Prakash Mehra. Shashi was always ready to explore his skills, never afraid to take on challenging roles.
Unlike his brothers, Shashi also found success in Western cinema, working on numerous films by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. One of his earliest roles was in 1963, in Merchant Ivory’s critically acclaimed The Householder, a poetically nuanced and slow burning masterpiece. The film was adapted from a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and saw Shashi playing the role of Prem Sagar, a young teacher and newlywed, whose dreams of wedded bliss with his wife Indu (Leela Naidu) are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of his meddling mother (Durga Khote). The marriage takes a dramatic turn for the worse, and Prem is forced to search for the answers to a happy marriage, if he is ever to get his wife back.
The Householder is one of the first films to really examine the flaws in a marriage, and also deal with questions of male maturity. Shashi stood out as a magnificent character actor, bringing all the pent up emotion of a young man who is standing on the threshold of married life to the forefront.
Over the years he managed to forge a wealth of memorable on screen partnerships, with many of Bollywood’s leading ladies, such as Sharmila Tagore, but his greatest partnership would be with his wife Jennifer Kendal. He once remarked that “Amitabh had Jaya whilst I had Jennifer, and that was the reason why we could do so many films together, non-stop, and still remain in good health.”
Shashi met Jennifer in 1956, whilst working with his father’s theatre group. The pair had an immediate attraction for one another, which on subsequent meetings developed into a passion. However, their relationship looked as if it would be tarnished before it had even began, as Jennifer’s father Geoffrey and Shashi’s father Privthiraj voiced their reservations. But with the persuasion of Shashi’s sister-in-law, the Punjabi actress Geeta Bali, and Jennifer’s sister Felicity, the two fathers gave their blessing.
The couple went on to create one of the most unique partnerships in Bollywood’s history, with Jennifer being the first English actress to become part of a Bollywood dynasty. In the late 1970’s they founded the Privthi Theatre in Bombay, which aimed to enhance and promote Indian theatre. The theatre is still in operation to this day. Shashi had inherited his father’s love for the theatre, and with the encouragement of Jennifer, he was able realise his dream.
Married life was a fulfilling time for Shashi and a source of great strength, but with the tragic death of Jennifer in 1984, it proved too much to bear. He went into self-imposed exile, from both Bollywood and his beloved Privthi theatre. He has rarely spoken of his heartbreak over losing his wife, but his silence speaks volumes, for she was the great love of his life, and her death proved to be the one thing that crippled him, emotionally and physically.
It would not be until 1986 that he returned to Bollywood in a blaze of glory, starring in Romesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times, playing a journalist who tackles media corruption. Just as in his first lead role, Shashi showed immense bravery, as the film was revolutionary in its approach, and to this day the narrative of corruption remains a tentative subject for actors to tackle. The film became a great success, and saw Shashi win the National Film Award for Best Actor and the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Award for Best Actor.
In later years, Shashi would again prove himself to be ever the versatile actor, playing the lead role in Ismail Merchant’s In Custody, which was an adaption of Anita Desai’s Man Booker Prize winning novel of the same name. He would also court controversy when he took up the offer to narrate the 1998 Anglo-Pakistani film Jinnah, which chronicled the rise of Pakistan’s first Premier.
Time and again, Shashi Kapoor has gone beyond expectations, he has surprised many with his choices over the years, but he has never failed to give a tremendous performance in whatever role he has undertaken. As the last of the three great brothers of Bollywood, Shashi remains the most unique and his contribution to not just Hindi cinema, but global cinema, should always be remembered.