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Total Recall

When Shashi Kapoor reminisces about films and life, well, expect the unexpected. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN writes.

Shashi Kapoor: There's plenty to laugh about

"WHAT? NO song, no dance, no boy-meets-girl, and you're married in the very first scene! Disastrous," scolded brother Raj. "Crazy!" shouted brother Shammi. But young Shashi went ahead with first film "Char Diwari", his father's advice ringing in his ear, "An actor must try all kinds of roles." Anyway he was desperate to get work. "A sword of Damocles hangs over the heads of actors all over the world," sighs veteran actor Shashi Kapoor, son of the legendary thespian Prithviraj Kapoor. "I wasn't a great actor on the stage or the screen, but for 40-odd years I have been singularly fortunate in getting work, from the first flop to Ismail Merchant's "Muhafiz", my last film 14 years ago." He is grateful to the film industry and for being born into a family of actors, surrounded by artistes.

Any complex about following megastar brothers into Bollywood? "With a 14 and seven-year age gap, there was no need to compete with them," he says, with a charming smile so typical of his silver screen days. "My contemporaries were Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Joy Mukherji and Feroz Khan. I could deal with them!" Instead of smoothening the trail, his family background aroused animosities. But came success, and the very people who had made him wait endlessly, or turned him out of studios said, "We knew you'd be a star way back then!"

Return to theatre

The years of retirement have seen Shashi return to his first love — the theatre. He has been active in promoting Prithvi Theatre, built to commemorate his father's memory, nurtured wholeheartedly by wife Jennifer, son Kunal and now daughter Sanjna. In Chennai to promote the Prithvi-Magic Lantern hosted Footsbarn from France, Kapoor is happy to recall the past with enquiries about director Sridhar (I hear he is not well), and tributes to Sando Chinnappa Devar (did some good films with him). He remembers staying in an Egmore hotel, and as a paying guest with a German family on Pantheon Road ("Rs. 20 per day, delicious meals").

As an actor Shashi Kapoor sailed on many streams simultaneously. He could do "The Householder" (Merchant Ivory) or "Junoon" (Shyam Benegal) as also a "Sharmilee". He lost money on the six films he produced, "just managed to get back the investment in `Junoon'. But then one of them, `36, Chowringhee Lane,' was my finest film." You don't have to remind him that he did not act in it. Wife Jennifer did, and gave a brilliant performance under newcomer Aparna Sen's direction.

"I wasn't comfortable running around trees or dancing," he confesses. But old timers enjoyed the ιlan with which he swung easily into the typical romance rhythms in "Jab Jab Phool Khile". "Just copied my Kashmiri assistant Maqbool," he smiles. Kapoor is probably best loved for those Salim Javed scripted blockbusters like "Deewar". Did he imagine then that Amitabh Bachchan would turn into a superstar? He sits up, eyes agleam. "He wasn't very good on the amateur stage. But in 1970 I saw the lanky, gangling youth standing next to Jennifer Kapoor beside the funeral pyre, in the last shot in Bombay Talkies. I dragged him out. He was upset. `I'm getting pachaas rupye (Rs. 50)', he said. No, I said, you must wait for a good role. Don't you think I was right?" He had the same feeling when he saw an awkward youth giving a difficult shot in "Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman" — Shah Rukh Khan. Perhaps the intuition worked only with men. When he dismissed the heroine as fat and ugly after "Sawan Bhadon", it was wife Jennifer who predicted that the duckling would turn into a swan.

Back to Amitabh and Shashi ruminates, "We had him in Prithvi Theatre to recite Kaifi Azmi's verse in homage. The voice! What timbre! Mind you, it's the same voice dismissed initially as too deep to be distinct! Manmohan Desai who swore by him later, had called him wooden. `He can neither dance nor sing, give me a Raj or Shammi Kapoor,' he said." Kapoor adds, "But I'm so glad he didn't stop with `Amar Akbar Antony' stuff but also did a `Black'." (Yes, Mr. Kapoor, by now we know that an actor must try everything.)

Father figure

Then, unexpectedly, he looks down at his own bare feet and says, "I see you've also taken your chappals off. I like it." Hurriedly you tuck your feet under the sari pleats and plunge into questions about his fraternal ties. "I'll tell you," says Kapoor settling himself more comfortably. "As a child Shammi would pull me out of school and take me to his outdoor shoots. His first secret marriage to Geeta Bali pained my mother, a loss of face before the clan. The second time he asked my mother to arrange his marriage. Neela bhabhi was fantastic, she opted not to have children of her own so that she could be a mother to her stepchildren. But Shammi became religious and we drifted apart. As for Raj Kapoor, it took me 16 years to exist as a hero before he cast me in "Satyam Sivam Sundaram". I was at my busiest and I sent my secretary with my diary. What more can Shashi do for a father figure? He took out huge chunks and Shashi was left to struggle with 18 hours a day on three different schedules. On top of that, he disapproved of my desperate scuttling between shoots (Tum kitne log ke liye kaam karte ho, how many people are you working for) and called me "taxi", while my co-star Zeenat (Aman) naturally became "luxury taxi"! I never told him that he was responsible for my gruelling routine."

Why did he give up acting? "I realised I was growing old in `New Delhi Times', and beginning to get fat. I should decide to do character roles or call it quits. I did play Rekha's father (she'd been my partner earlier) once, even a villain. But tell me honestly, are there any interesting roles for me now?" Is he grumbling about the quality of film making today? "No," he says. "Some good, some bad, but I think fewer interesting films than before. I like Aparna's (Sen) efforts, she's doing `Park Avenue' now in Bhutan, and Rituparno Ghosh is good. We have fine actors such as Manoj Bajpai, Rani Mukherji... Institutions are bringing out some sound professionals." A moment of quiet before the reverie ends. The last words sound like a soliloquy. "I don't miss acting, really. I like to watch the scene now, to be surprised by youngsters coming up with new ideas." There is an epilogue though. The three brothers began as stage actors. Why is it that Shashi Kapoor alone built a theatre, and has continued to promote the theatre movement? He looks up and chuckles, "My brothers married wonderful women. But I married a theatre girl."

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