Whether it was the famous Merchant-Ivory combination (from Householder to Heat and Dust) or the noted Conrad Rooks (Siddhartha) or even the British filmmaker Hanif Kureishi (Sammy And Rosie Get Laid), foreign directors have considered only one Hindi film star, Shashi Kapoor, good for major roles.
Shashi’s famous savoir faire was, however, conspicuous by its absence when he was a school dropout doing small roles in his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s theatre company.
His initial performances as a child artiste were in Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951) where he played the younger version of the characters played by his older brother Raj Kapoor. From the age of four, Shashi had started acting in plays directed and produced by his father Prithviraj Kapoor, while travelling with Prithvi Theatre. He worked in 19 films as child artiste from 1944–54. He got an opportunity to work as an assistant director in the film Post Box 999, the debut film of Sunil Dutt, and worked as an assistant director to Ravindra Dave in Guest House (1959) which was followed by movies such as Dulha Dulhan, Shriman Satyawadi where Raj Kapoor was the lead hero.
On his first date with the girl of his dreams, Jennifer Kendall, Shashi even had trouble pronouncing ‘bowl’ at the restaurant. But their love surmounted cultural barriers and at 20, Shashi was wedded to his English rose. Soon afterwards, the enormous hospital bills incurred for son Kunaal’s birth motivated Shashi Kapoor to continue working in films - more seriously. “I always wanted to make films, not star in them. But when I started looking around for any kind of work that would pay me a little more, I landed up with jobs as an actor”. (Jan 1982)
As the demagogic rabble-rouser, the fanatic Hindu who discovers he is a Muslim by birth, Shashi gave a remarkable performance in his first lead film, the Yash Chopra directed Dharamputra (1961). But the film flopped, as did Chaar Diwari and Yeh Dil Kisko Doon and Shashi’s nascent career ran aground.
The only person who continued to have faith in him was Nanda. And it was with her in Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) that Shashi finally claimed the spotlight. As the poor Kashmiri houseboat owner whose romantic dreams about his ‘memsaab’ are jaundiced by harsh reality, Shashi alloyed charm with a soft-eyed vulnerability that worked on women like an elixir.
A dashing debonair, Shashi was quite a style icon of his time. His bow-tie suits and trendy scarves were a hit in the Bollywood fashion circuit in the '60s and '70s. The late '60s saw Shashi winning attention in English films like Pretty Polly and Bombay Talkie, but on this side of the Red Sea, his career had once again hit a low patch. Sharmilee could not stem the decline. It was with Chor Machaye Shor (1974) that Shashi regained his stardom. But by now the actor in him had become so insecure of the swings of fortune that he started signing films in a frenzy. At one stage in the mid-70s he was reputed to have had an unprecedented 150 films on hand! Big brother, Raj Kapoor, finding it increasingly difficult to get Shashi’s dates for Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), branded him ‘a taxi’ – available on call but equipped with a ticking meter.
Shashi survived innumerable flops during the mid-'70s because of his teaming up with Amitabh Bachchan in stellar ensemble productions like Deewaar, Kabhi Kabhie and Trishul.
But like Victoria de Sica and Orson Welles before him, Shashi Kapoor worked in commercial fare to finance cinema he cared for. Shashi now teamed up with art world giants, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Girish Karnad to make quality films like Junoon, Kalyug, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Vijeta and Utsav. Unfortunately, as he explored exciting new ideas, his finances ran out. Concurrently his film career dwindled and Shashi lost his wife Jennifer (“the only woman I ever loved in my life”), leaving a huge void in his life. He put on weight and developed a cynical outlook to most things sundry. Despite his own films winning many awards and acclaim, he openly criticised the award system. ''I am not hurt, I am disappointed, I ‘m amazed at the press and the overrating that it gives to a lot of these institute and drama school actors. I am amazed at the tom-toming and the awards that are given year after year to these people. Kya hai bhai? What is so bloody great?'' (April 1986) Finally, after an unfocused decade spent in searching for motivation, in 1994, came Ismail Merchant’s In custody, and Shashi plunged into the role of the dissolute poet. It was a testament to his acting calibre. But his view of acting in the 90s was far from favourable. “Today actors are working in a circus, not in movies.” (June 1996)
Like the films Shashi produced, In custody may not have made any money, but it resuscitated the creative muse of a person who had lost his real life inspiration. His last film appearances were in Jinnah (1998), a biographical film of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in which he was the narrator and another Merchant Ivory production titled Side Streets (1998).
Though he bid adieu to acting in late '90s, he was seen in the limelight at the Shashi Kapoor Film Festival held in Muscat, Oman (September 2007). At the 55th Annual Filmfare Awards, Shashi Kapoor received the Lifetime Achievement Award and arguably delivered the shortest speech ever made by any recipient. ''Thank-You,'' he said.
Today, 4th December 2017, the legend breathed his last- but will forever remain in our hearts