Aseem Chhabra is a senior journalist who writes on a variety of topics like arts, entertainment, social and political issues. Chhabra’s writings regularly feature in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Courier-Journal, Time Out, New York. His recent book, Shashi Kapoor, the Householder, the Star gives a glimpse of Shashi Kapoor’s life and film career. He speaks to Guardian 20 about the legendary actor and how no other contemporary could match his generosity in India cinema.
Q. What inspired you to write about Shashi Kapoor?
I have been a fan of Shashi Kapoor since my teenage years when I watched films like Sharmeelee and Deewar. And in the 1970s I saw many of his earlier films Jab Jab Phool Khile and The Householder, which was the first project he did with the Merchant Ivory Productions team.
I have lived in the US for 35 years and all this while I was also following most of Shashi Kapoor’s films that he made outside India or with non-Indian production companies — Heat and Dust, In Custody, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Jinnah. So in a way this book marries my life in India and the US through Shashi Kapoor’s films.
In the recent years I sensed the current generation had forgotten Shashi Kapoor’s contribution to cinema. So I wanted to tell the story of a man — a movie star, an actor, his commitment to good cinema as he produced films and acted in indie projects, his love for theater, and Shashi Kapoor the householder — husband of Jennifer Kendal Kapoor and father to three children, Kunal, Karan and Sanjna.
Q. How did you manage to write a book without speaking to the actor you wrote about?
Well, I had to use whatever resources I had. I read many books and articles that mention Shashi Kapoor and his films. I also searched for interviews with Shashi Kapoor. I interviewed a range of film people who knew Shashi and worked with him, plus I watched about 40 films of his — several of them for the second or third time. I am a film journalist so then I also used my own knowledge about Shashi Kapoor and the Hindi film industry.
Q. You conducted the interviews with many people like Dev Benegal, Anil Dharkar, Sharmila Tagore Simi Garewal and many actors. How difficult was it to pen down so many views with different perspectives about the same person?
It was a challenge, but again having been a journalist for many years, I have a sense of how to incorporate different voices in articles. This was a longer project but still I enjoyed the process of revisiting the interviews I had done and then adding those voices, their thoughts about Shashi Kapoor in my different chapters.
Q. What was the best part that you discovered about the actor while writing this book?
I think the most important thing I learned while writing this book was what a good soul Shashi Kapoor is. I only knew him as the star, the actor and the producer of some remarkable films. But every person I talked to told me that Shashi Kapoor’s heart is in the right place, how he treated everyone on the sets — from a junior technician to the biggest star in the same way. He is one of those rare Hindi film personalities who respected everyone, and was kind and caring. That is the man I want to celebrate through my book.
Q. In your book, apart from great looks and personality, Shashi Kapoor was known for his generosity among his contemporaries. Do you think any actor at present has the same traits like him?
Shashi Kapoor was an extremely generous person who would host parties for his entire cast and crew. Aparna Sen told me about the Sunday evening parties he would throw for the 36 Chowringhee Lane team and he would fly to Calcutta just for that. Likewise during the Kabhi Kabhi shoot in Kashmir he would host donga (Kashmiri boat) parties and encourage junior actors and technicians to mingle with the big starts.
Q. What makes him different from all the actors we have in the film industry?
Shashi Kapoor was not just satisfied with being a movie star. He used his money to fund some of the most remarkable art-house films of the 1970s (Junoon) and 1980s (Kalyug, 36 Chowringhee Lane). Very few Hindi film actors really invest in real art. They may produce films but they are motivated by profits first. Shashi Kapoor lost a lot of money in the films he produced and yet he continued to support the cause of good cinema until he could not afford it anymore.
He also used his money to build Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai — which is a unique art space that encourages young and new talent. It is the only space of its kind in Mumbai.