Author Aseem Chhabra
Author Aseem Chhabra

Chicago: As the youngest of the Kapoor brothers,the grandees of Hindi cinema, shining on his own merit might have been a particularly difficult endeavor for actor and producer Shashi Kapoor. However, a cursory glance at the now retired 78-year-old Kapoor would suggest an extraordinary career to the contrary, both as once Hindi cinema’s busiest star and a producer who took unusual risks in aid of sensible cinema.

It is a testimony to his craft and commitment to cinema and theater that Kapoor was conferred India’s highest cinema honor of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2014.

For someone who began as a child actor in 1948, Kapoor has seen quite a remarkable span of over five decades in cinema with some 160 movies to his credit, including 12 in the English language. He was the first Indian movie star to “cross over” before the term cross over began to be thrown about so casually.

In chronicling his career, New York-based journalist, writer and columnist Aseem Chhabra fills an important gap in India film history. Aseem’s book ‘Shashi Kapoor—The Householder, The Star’ * is a long overdue account of an actor who in many ways embodied the quintessence of Hindi cinema.

Hands down the most handsome actor of his generation Kapoor had to often compensate for his looks that seemed to frequently overshadow his obvious talents as an actor. By the same token, those very looks also initially opened many doors for him.

Aseem offers an insightful look inside the life and career of one of Hindi cinema’s most interesting figures known to be polite to a fault and unusually shorn of celebrity airs.

His book can be bought here:

It is distributed via Amazon in the US, UK, Europe and India. It is also available in stores in India.

Aseem answered questions via an email interview with The Indian Diaspora:

Q At some level Shashi Kapoor is such an ideal choice for a book and yet it had to wait so long. Why do you think that is?

A I know a few people had wanted to write books on Shashi Kapoor. Madhu Jain and Anil Dharker both tried, but Shashi discouraged them. Madhu then wrote a terrific book on the entire Kapoor clan.

I agree a tribute to this fine actor and star was long overdue.

Q What was your first connecting point to him as an actor? What drew you in?

A I believe that would Sharmeelee, which I saw as a teenager at Delhi’s Regal cinema. I loved his charm, uber good looks when he sang Khilte Hain Gul Yahanand later when he was terribly sad singing Kaise Kahen Hum. Around that time I also discovered his earlier films, including Jab Jab Phool Khile and Pyar Ka Mausam, both of which I first watched in black and white on Doordarshan.

Q For many of a certain generation who remember Kapoor they do so for his looks. I had asked Shashi Kapoor in 1985 at the height of his intense preoccupation with mainstream Hindi cinema how his obvious handsomeness might have undercut his natural gift as an actor. He just flashed his famous boyish smile and said, “Ab uska kya karen?” (Now what do I do about that?) You refer early on to this factor. How much do you think his looks took away from his assessment as a gifted actor?

A I think for the longest time Hindi filmmakers just cashed in on his good looks, boyish charm and smile. But he was lucky to work with filmmakers like James Ivory since that gave him the chance to explore his acting muscles. By the time Shyam Benegal directed Shashi Kapoor in Junoon and Kalyug, it was very clear that this man was one of the finest actors in the Hindi film industry.

Q Although he could have sailed smooth on the strength of just his looks, as you note, he has been intuitively multifarious in his choices. ‘Namak Halal’, ‘Heat and Dust’, ‘Junoon’ and ‘Gautam Govinda’ are a testimony to that. What do you think propelled him?

A Once Shashi Kapoor accepted the norms and the rules of the Hindi cinema he never questioned what those films demanded from him. But he was always hungry for more – largely due to his early training in theater at his father’s and father-in-law’s drama companies. But his wife Jennifer also helped shaped his artistic sensibilities. Shashi was fortunate to have met Ismail Merchant and James Ivory so early on in his working life. So he was able to balance the demands of the Hindi commercial cinema with the more art-house Merchant Ivory Productions films.

Q He was easily among the most dignified and primly behaved major stars of his time. Do you think his inherent goodness reflected in his roles and in a sense that might have diluted his standing a bit?

A It is true that Shashi often played the good guy in films ranging from Deewar toKabhi Kabhie, where I believe he essentially was asked to be himself. He was always a big star – at least in the 1970s and 1980s, but his standing was diluted for other factors. First just as Shashi was making a big splash in the late 1960s, Rajesh Khanna appeared on the scene with a bang. Rajesh Khanna had 17 hits in three years. And just when Rajesh Khanna’s star began to decline, Amitabh Bachchan started playing the showy angry young man roles.

But throughout this period Shashi Kapoor remained a consistent actor. He somewhat played a negative character in a film like Chor Machaye Shor, but even there his heart was in the right place.

Q You speak of his persona as the star being the aspect of his life that worked the most for you. What particular qualities as a star that excited you?

A I loved watching Shashi Kapoor the star on the screen in many films, including some I have mentioned above. But what I liked the most about Shashi Kapoor was that he used his star status and invested money in some of the best films made in India in late-1970s and1980s – Junoon, Kalyug, 36 Chowringhee Laneand Vijeta. That to me is his greatest contribution as a star.

Q How much of his no-fuss, no-airs approach to his cinema career was shaped by his seven years at Prithvi Theatre from 1953?

A Shashi Kapoor’s entire adult life was shaped by his years at Prithvi Theatre where the most important thing he learned from his father was to treat everyone equal – whether it is a big star like Amitabh Bachchan or a junior technician. That is the reason why until today Shashi Kapoor is well loved in the Hindi film industry. He was genuinely kind and caring towards everyone.

Q Is it your sense that Kapoor could have just as easily chosen a career in stage over cinema but for the money that the latter promised and he needed?

A Yes, that is clear from my interviews with his children and also everything I read about him. Shashi Kapoor was a reluctant film actor. But he made big compromises early on because he had to earn money to support his family. The remarkable thing that is that he never regretted his decision. As Sharmila Tagore told me, once he would take on a project he would not spend time mulling over how bad the film was, etc. He did what the directors and producers asked him to do.

Q One curious area of Kapoor’s career that has drawn me is his movies in the West. My sense has always been that he could have been a true global star in the mold of Omar Sharif. You specifically mention how his father-in-law Geoffrey Kendal felt Kapoor should have taken up a career in the West. Why do you think he chose not to more than he did?

A I think Omar Sharif is an interesting case. In casting Omar in big films, Hollywood accepted a very foreign looking, although very handsome and talented actor. I don’t know why Shashi did not get the same opportunities after a film like Heat and Dust. But then despite its success and critical acclaimHeat and Dust was never as big as say Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. What worked for Shashi was that he did get occasional work from foreign productions throughout his career – from Siddhartha in 1972 to Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in 1987. When the Pakistani filmmaker Jamil Dehlavi was looking for an actor with an international stature to play the narrator opposite Christopher Lee’s Jinnah, he immediately thought of Shashi Kapoor. And Jinnahwas one of Shashi’s last films.

Q What do you remember of having watched ‘Heat and Dust’ during its opening week in New York? What were your feelings watching Shashi Kapoor on big screen in New York?

A I think there was a real sense of excitement even when I stood in the line outside the Paris theater in Manhattan. The fact that I was going to watch a film with a Hindi movie star who I greatly admired. Watching the film in the theater, I was able to connect that moment with my life in India, as a teenager when I saw films like Deewar and Sharmeelee.

Q Don’t you think ‘Heat and Dust’ should have propelled him to greater things in Hollywood?

A I agree with you. And it is really unfortunate. Heat and Dust made a star out of Greta Scacchi. Shashi got a lot of notice in the press, but that did not translate into more international work for him. But it was also the time when Jennifer was unwell. She died one year after the release of Heat and Dust. Shashi took a brief break but then he continued to work. New Delhi Times was shot immediately after Jennifer’s death and Shashi gave one of his finest performances in that film.

Also after Heat and Dust, the Merchant Ivory team began to focus on their British and American films and there was no work for Shashi in those productions.

Q How much was his intense preoccupation with Hindi movies responsible for not allowing him the freedom to pursue a bigger career in Hollywood?

A My sense is that Shashi Kapoor never went seeking work. He got a lot of work from the Hindi film industry and he did not say no to any filmmaker. Shashi started the shift system in the Hindi film industry and it made lot of physical demands on him. But then he did take whatever non-Indian work he got. He agreed to work in a film like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid even though at that time Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi were not big names.

(*Hardcover: 216 pages, Publisher: Rupa Publications (May 1, 2016),Language: English, ISBN-10: 8129139707, ISBN-13: 978-8129139702)

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