In the fall of 1984, two senior Congress leaders—let’s not name them here—met up with Shashi Kapoor at his room at New Delhi’s Taj Man Singh hotel and told him to join politics. They told the veteran actor how the Congress, led by Rajiv Gandhi, had won 404 seats in a 533-seat Parliament, the majority being 267. And then they added how Amitabh Bachchan, then a friend of the Gandhis, had joined politics and defeated the seasoned Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna by a little over 187,000 votes. And how Southern Telegu actor Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao had turned a politician and helped his seat, the Telegu Desam Party, win 30 seats, thus achieving the distinction of becoming the first regional party to become a national opposition party.
Kapoor was least interested. He told the leaders very curtly that he didn’t understand the politics of India, the politics of Bollywood and even the politics of his family. And that he would be a very bad choice for politics. He also asked the duo what would happen to his Prithvi Theatre if he got into politics.
I had gone to interview him, and was sitting on a sofa inside the room while the conversations took place in another room. Kapoor, who always lived larger than life, had a suite. Once the two left, he came across and sat next to me. And then he started talking. He said Indian movies were loved because they carried great messages, offering the example of Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili. And some of his own films like Kalyug and 36,Chowringhee Lane—one talked about corporate rivalry splitting families, the other talked about a couple’s neglect of an elderly, hapless woman, who once offered them her home to complete a major assignment.
Sentiments played an important role in his life. Shashi Kapoor, actually, expected the two politicians to know he had lost his wife, Jennifer, barely a month ago (7 September 1984). The two went back crestfallen, probably to tell the Congress high command that a top Bollywood star refused to join the party in power, without offering any reason.
That was Shashi Kapoor, Bollywood’s Lone Ranger, India’s answer to Stephen Boyd (who essayed the role of Messalla in the 1959 William Wyler epic, Ben Hur). Kapoor, who called himself a true Pathan, would never mince his words. As Vandana Kumari Singh, the affable niece of former Human Resources Development Minister and Congress leader, the late Arjun Singh, remembered. She was present in his suite at the luxurious Maurya Sheraton when Kapoor showed some people their place. It happened in May 1988, when Kapoor, along with other members of his family, was staying in Delhi because family patriarch and elder brother, Raj Kapoor was admitted at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Suddenly, director Pamela Rooks and her friend barged into Kapoor’s room, virtually uninvited, and were soon ordering food for people in the room, among them Singh and director Feroze Khan. Rooks ordered a number of Chinese dishes, including some pork specialities. She did not check whether Khan, a devout Muslim, would eat pork. She just ordered. And after Kapoor had fixed them some vodka from his bar, Rooks asked Kapoor what he was doing with Singh, then in her 20s. A red-faced Kapoor got up and told Rooks, “Aap hammein mehmaan nawazi to mat sikhaieye (You don’t teach me guest etiquettes). She is my guest and you two are gatecrashers. So why don’t you leave?” The two left in a huff and Kapoor and others had a great laugh.
Kapoor had had a bad day: he had twice shuttled from the hotel to AIIMS to meet his ailing brother, and was not in the mood to tolerate any nonsense from anyone. And then, he changed the mood of the room by breaking into a joke. It was also around the time Babita and Randhir Kapoor returned from the hospital, also remembering to replace the pork dishes with fish. Kapoor, unlike many Bollywood heroes of his generation, genuinely cared for his friends.
They loved him too. Among his millions of fans were two who I remember distinctly, one was nicknamed Tiger (I never asked him the real name) and then, there was Mahendra Nath. Both were diehard fans of Kapoor. Nath would watch Kapoor’s movies more than 100 times, and Tiger would be with him for long. Whenever Kapoor would come to shoot in the national capital, Nath would organise a lavish spread for the Bollywood star and his entourage. Nath, who passed away recently, would often tell friends how he knew virtually everything about Kapoor and his films, among them his role in his debut film Dharmputra in 1961, for which he refused to accept the prestigious National Award and said, with utmost honesty, that he did not consider his performance worth an award. Kapoor played the role of a young Muslim boy groomed by Hindu parents as a die-hard Hindu, in a film directed by Yash Chopra. Interestingly, it was the first Hindi film that depicted religious bigotry, fanaticism and communalism amidst the backdrop of Partition.
How many could refuse an award like that?
He was perfect in almost anything and everything. In blockbusters like Deewar, Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Kabhie Kabhie, as well as independent movies such as Siddhartha, Shakespeare Wallah and The Householder among others.
BALBIR RAJ KAPOOR
Shashi Kapoor, born on 18 March 1938 in Kolkata as Balbir Raj Kapoor, was the third and youngest son of the legendary actor Prithviraj Kapoor. His elder brothers, Raj and Shammi, were noted film actors.
The family lived in a yellow-coloured house near Kalighat, also famous for the Kali Temple and Nirmal Hriday, the first home founded for the poorest of the poor of the city by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Kapoor also had a stint in a Bengali film called Sriparna, starring Madhabi Mukherjee but the movie could not be released because of financial issues.
And then, it was in the same city that he met Jennifer, who had come to watch a Prithvi production. The two were introduced by Kapoor’s cousin at Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street, where the two stayed for their honeymoon. Kolkata and its people were close to Kapoor’s heart, he offered Soumitra Chatterjee a role in his movie, Kalyug, in 1981 that was directed by Shyam Benegal. Kapoor and Chatterjee had met at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival in 1965, where Satyajit Ray won the Silver Bear for Charulata.
In Berlin, Kapoor spent some quality time with Ray and the two bonded well, even after their return to India. Kapoor, whenever in Kolkata, would call on the legendary director at his home in Bishop Lefroy Road and even got Ray to score for Merchant Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah. And when Kapoor made his international debut with the Merchant Ivory film, The Householder, Ray helped source the composer for the film and edited the film himself. Kapoor bonded well with Aparna Sen and acted in two movies, Iman Dharam and Bombay Talkies with the versatile actress. Kapoor also bankrolled Sen’s maiden directorial venture, 36 Chowringhee Lane, featuring, among others, Kapoor’s wife, Jennifer. Interestingly, the Fairlawn Hotel is located perpendicular to Chowringhee Lane. However, there was no house numbered 36 on Chowringhee Lane, but only 35.
Very few actors have a fascination for any particular hotels, but Kapoor had a very, very special and soft corner for Fairlawn. The hotel management would offer him the suite number 17. The hotel’s faded sepia-toned colonial style often reflected in the Merchant Ivory pictures that Kapoor was associated with throughout his career. Even the Kendals had a long history with the Fairlawn; Jennifer’s father Geoffrey and his Shakespearean troupe used to board at this hotel, often struggling to clear bills that would spiral out of control. So what was the alternative? A quick, short Shakespearean play for the guests by the Kendals, at the end of which the bill would be waived.
But Kapoor was a straightforward person, would not mince his words just to please a towering personality. There were occasions when he would write to Satyajit Ray in Kolkata saying he did not like some of his movies. Ray, who had already lost his magical touch after his heart attack, would realise the meaning behind the letters and rarely discussed these in public. This probably explains why his friendship with Kapoor lasted for decades. Kapoor was always kind and considerate towards others, his staff stayed with him forever, and their children after them. Among them was the genial cook, Fuffa, who could produce some of the most amazing Dhansak (a Parsi dish) and roast turkey to perfection during the big, Christmas lunch Kapoor hosted for many years.
Kapoor backed some marvellous films in the 1980s such as 36 Chowringhee Lane, Junoon, Kalyug, Vijeta, Utsav (all flops) and then directed his own failed magnum opus, Ajooba. He could not recover the money lost. But he laughed over the losses, saying Indians watched some great cinema.