One of the most celebrated and influential screen icons of Hindi cinema, Shammi Kapoor typified the indomitable spirit of the Sixties. As an ardent lover on screen, as a man of action, and as a comedian, he paved the way for a unique expression of masculinity in cinema. He was modern, cosmopolitan and somehow always on the move. His energy and charm remain unforgettable. The son of Prithviraj Kapoor and brother of Shashi and Raj Kapoor, he breathed his last at the Breach Candy hospital in Mumbai on Sunday, aged 79.
When any film star of this stature dies, their celluloid moments are inevitably recalled by the present in a desperate rush to keep the legend alive. Recalling memory is subjective and fans and admirers will remember the actor for many things. But Shammi Kapoor will always remain significant for the way he brought about a fundamental change in the pulse of song picturisation. Kapoor's ability to handle western instruments on screen and his remarkably funny and unselfconscious facial gestures, only added to the affective universe of the songs. It is this combination that made him the icon of the Sixties as he flamboyantly breezed his way across prime locations in India and the world. Romance with Shammi Kapoor was a kinetic event that was orchestrated with the best possible music.
The mad sound of “yahoo” in Subodh Mukherjee's Junglee (1961) in some ways embodied what was unique in the star's screen biography: Kapoor was constantly on the move, using virtually all means of transportation. In Tumsa Nahin Dekha, he was on a tonga energetically singing “Yun to humne lakh haseen dekhen hai, tumsa nahin dekha,” while Kashmir ki Kali saw him dancing on a shikara or swaying gracefully to “Deewana hua badal.” In Lekh Tandon's Professor (1962), Kapoor danced his way on a train with actress Kalpana through lush valleys with snow-capped mountains displayed all around. In Shakti Samanta's An Evening in Paris (1967), Kapoor opened the film with a bevy of women on both sides as he looked straight at the camera and sang “Aao tumko dikhlata hum Paris ki ek rangeen shyam, dekho dekho dekho, dekho, dekho an evening in Paris.” We are literally introduced to the French capital by night with the actor moving through its streets with his quintessential swaying walk. In the same film, he hung from a helicopter to woo his leading lady, Sharmila Tagore. Shammi Kapoor could devour space with his brisk, speedy and choreographed movements. He was physically agile and tall and could make the screen explode with his energy.
Kapoor entered the film industry towards the end of the black and white era and literally danced through its heady transition to colour. If he was not jumping around in some outdoor location, then Bombay cinema's quintessential 1960s nightclub just drew the actor into its fold. In this invented space designed to evoke the erotic charge of the decade, Shammi Kapoor played the band and the saxophone in Nazir Hussain's Teesri Manzil (1966) and Dil Deke Dekho (1959); the piano and the accordion in Bhapie Sonie's Brahmchari (1968); the guitar in Chinatown (1962). Kapoor's easy handling of these instruments along with his hyper-energetic dancing style made him the Elvis Presley of India. Even in his choice of shimmering jackets, Kapoor was inspired by Presley's persona. Kapoor could twist, skip, shake and sway to music. Though heavy set by the end of the decade, he was light footed and literally sprang into action with music. Kapoor's style was at once playful and sensual. Mohammad Rafi sang virtually all of Shammi Kapoor's songs adding to his lively performance.
The 1960s exploded all over the word through music, fashion and youth culture and Shammi Kapoor emerged as a star marked by this time. His work with director Nazir Hussain was critical to his stardom because it was this partnership that made him get rid of his mustache and also shed the serious image with which he had made his debut. Hussain's breezy, light approach to filmmaking and his love for music and locations was just what the actor needed. Together they made several major hits that finally established the Shammi Kapoor persona for generations of film goers.
Kapoor got to act with all the leading ladies of the decade — Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore, Saira Banu and Rajashri. He was wild, flamboyant, erotic and with a touch of madness. Films do date and so do actors. But Shammi Kapoor can never go out of style for he was Hindi cinema's first poster boy.
(The author is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and author of Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City)