It is rare in the film industry, rife as it is with ego hassles, intense rivalries and cut-throat politics, that nobody has one word to say against Shashi Kapoor. He is a star and a gentleman, and the industry broke that mould after Shashi Kapoor.
After he retired from films, he would be found sitting in his favourite seat at his beloved Prithvi Café and interact casually with people who came to watch plays. The regulars were used to his presence, and they would greet him and go on, but it would be amusing to see a first timer or out-of-towner see a star like him this close. He smiled, shook hands and let him take pictures with him. Even when he is wheelchair-bound and unable to speak much, that sunshine smile and kindly expression remain intact.
Journalists who covered the film beat when he was at his peak, would vouch for his pleasant and considerate behavior, a total contrast to some of his swollen-headed, tantrum-throwing contemporaries. His directors were impressed by his professionalism – even in the days when he did multiple shifts and was called “taxi” by his brother Raj Kapoor (the only film in which he directed his kid brother was Satyam Shivam Sundaram in 1978); his co-stars loved him, and, of course, audiences flipped for his impossibly good looks that often overshadowed his talent.
His father Prithviraj Kapoor ran a theatre repertory called Prithvi Theatres and Shashi grew up in the quiet, green suburb of Matunga in Mumbai, amidst the din, chaos and excitement of rehearsals. From the age of four, he started appearing in his father’s plays. When he was older, he served as stage manager, production manager, costume and light designer, and, eventually actor. He also acted as a child star in films like 'Aag' (1948) and 'Awaara' (1951), in which he played a young Raj Kapoor. But his father had made it clear that his sons had to make it in the industry on their own, he would not launch them.
After working as an assistant director in films like 'Post Box 999', 'Guest House', 'Dulha Dulhan' and 'Shriman Satyawadi', Shashi Kapoor reluctantly gave up theatre to make his way into films as his family was growing. He debuted as leading man in Yash Chopra’s 'Dharmputra' in 1961. The actor who would go on to become a romantic heartthrob, played a Hindu militant in the film, who does not know that he was adopted from Muslim parents. In spite of the failure of this film, and the few that followed, like 'Prem Patra' and 'Char Diwari', he acted in over 150 films in a long and successful career.
He was one of the first few Indian actors to star in English films, made by the Merchant-Ivory team of producer and director, with whom he did films like 'The Householder', 'Shakespearewallah' and 'Heat And Dust'.
'Waqt' (1964) was a multi-starrer hit, but his first major solo hit was 'Jab Jab Phool Khile' (1965), in which he played a simple Kasmiri boatman, opposite Nanda, with whom he formed a popular screen pair and did films like 'Neend Hamari Khwab Tumhare' (1966), 'Raja Saab' (1969) and 'Rootha Na Karo' (1970). His other famous leading ladies include Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore (with whom he did 12 films), Rakhee, Hema Malini, Rekha, and Zeenat Aman.
In the 1960s he did popular films like 'Pyar Kiye Jaa', 'Aamne Samne', 'Haseena Maan Jayegi', 'Pyar Ka Mausam' and 'Abhinetri', playing a variety of romantic leading men. His success continued into the early seventies with a list of hits – 'Sharmilee', 'Aa Gale Lag Ja' and the international film 'Siddhartha' based on Herman Hesse's cult novel, in which he played a young man searching for the meaning of life.
This period was dominated by the superstardom of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, still Shashi Kapoor held his own, giving hits like 'Chor Machaye Shor' and 'Chori Mera Kaam', but many of his solo hits started flopping, so he had the foresight (and a lack of ego) to start doing parallel leads in hits like 'Roti Kapda Aur Makaan', 'Kabhi Kabhie', 'Trishul' and the superhit 'Deewar' (1975) in which he played a cop and spoke Hindi cinema’s most memorable line, “Mere paas maa hai.” He won the Filmfare best supporting actor for this one, and did a record eleven films with Amitabh Bachchan.
Around this time, he and his wife Jennifer started dreaming of, and planning to build, a theatre in Mumbai, as a tribute to Prithviraj Kapoor. His father had always wanted his traveling repertory to have a home. When he shut down Prithvi Theatres due to ill health, he bought two small plots in the beachside suburb of Juhu, one of which was used as a godown and the other called the Prithvi Jhopda in which he lived.
Shashi Kapoor worked multiple shifts in films to raise money to build Prithvi Theatre, which was inaugurated on November 5, 1978 (two days after his father’s birth anniversary, due to a last-minute glitch). Even Shashi could not have imagined the impact it had on the city’s theatre scene, which bloomed on getting such a well-managed and welcoming space. Today, 37 years later, Prithvi Theatre remains Mumbai’s prime cultural landmark, that has encouraged and nurtured talent over the years, and continues to do so.
In 1984, a few years after successfully running Prithvi Theatre and earning the love and lifelong gratitude of the country’s theatre community, Jennifer Kapoor passed away, leaving her dream in the hands of Kunal and Sanjna who took it forward brilliantly.
Perhaps tired of the mindless commercial films he was forced to do, work that did not match with his mindset (he was well-read and well-traveled), Shashi Kapoor set up his own production company Prithvi Valas and produced 'Junoon' (1978), directed by Shyam Benegal. The film, based on a Ruskin Bond story, had him playing an impassioned Pathan who falls in love with a British girl, during the 1857 Mutiny, which earns the wrath of his own people. His company produced some great films like 'Kalyug' (1980), '36 Chowringhee Lane' (1981), 'Vijeta' (1982), 'Utsav' (1984) and 'Ajooba' (1991), the only film he also directed. Unfortunately, all of them flopped and put him into a financial mess. Nobody heard him complain of his huge losses and all praised his generosity as a producer.
His career as a leading man also started tapering off, though good films like 'Kala Pathhar', 'Silsila', 'Basera', 'Namak Halal' did come his way. He started putting on weight, which the Kapoor men were genetically predisposed to, and soon shifted to doing character roles. After such a glittering career, he was finally given his due as an actor, winning the National Award in 'New Delhi Times' (1986), for the role of an idealistic journalist, who is disillusioned by the rising political corruption in which the media is involved.
After this, the roles that he got were the usual father, uncle and police commissioner type that are earmarked for stars who can no longer do romance or action; still he excelled in international films like 'Sammy And Rosie Get Laid', 'The Deceivers' and in old friend Ismail Merchant’s 'In Custody', in which he played an old, world-weary poet. The last few films he did, 'Jinnah' and 'Side Streets' (1998) were also abroad. After this he decided to retire and was never tempted to make a comeback.
Along with the many awards he won for his work as actor and producer, in 2011, he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan by the Government Of India for his contribution to cinema. However, his contribution to theatre is equally significant.