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When Shashi Kapoor was a journo  

Shashi Kapoor  

It was 1983. Ramesh Sharma was ready to take a shot in the dark—approach Shashi Kapoor to play the lead in his film titled New Delhi Times. The movie planned to explore the story of an upright newspaper editor, Vikas Pande, who sets out to investigate a statesman’s assassination. Ramesh says, ‘I flew to Bombay — a very, very nervous man. This was my first feature film; I was young, practically out of college, and I had no idea what I would tell this “star” called Shashi Kapoor.’

When Shashi Kapoor was a journo  
 

An anxious Ramesh met Shashi for dinner at the Golden Dragon restaurant in the Taj Mahal Hotel. All of a sudden, halfway through Ramesh’s conversation with him, Shashi approached the Hindi film actor, Jeetendra, seated at the next table with some friends. Ramesh says, ‘Shashi introduced me as the director of his next film. I was flabbergasted because I had just started narrating the story! But then, I was also happy.’

A now-buoyant Ramesh went on to reveal the rest of the film’s plot to Shashi — of journalist Vikas Pande’s detection of a much larger political conspiracy while trailing the statesman’s assassination; his struggle to ensure that his exposé wasn’t quashed; and his later discovery of the slimy nexus between politicians and media barons. ‘Shashi loved the story,’ Ramesh tells me. ‘Really, Shashi was a darling. He treated me like a professional and an equal, as if I had made a dozen films.’

When Shashi Kapoor was a journo  
 

But then, there came the pivotal question. Ramesh says, ‘Shashi asked me what the budget for the film was. I bit my tongue and muttered, “Rs 25 lakh.” Shashi looked at me, aghast, and finally asked, “Ramesh, are you serious?” I told him that it was all I had and that everyone was working for practically no salary.’ Shashi subsided into silence. Then, he asked the young director how much money he had in his pocket. ‘I told him I had a couple of thousands. Shashi said, “Give me one hundred and one rupees.” I was quite confused. Then, he added, “This is my signing amount. Today is jumma — an auspicious day — and you have signed me on.” That was it. He hadn’t even read the script.’

When Shashi Kapoor was a journo  
 

It was now time to discuss the star’s salary. But by this stage, Shashi was so intrigued by the project that he voluntarily chose to work for merely one lakh rupees — the same amount B.R. Chopra had paid him almost two decades earlier for Waqt. However, in return, Shashi posed two conditions (which came to be met). Ramesh remembers the first stipulation: ‘Shashi said, “I normally don’t do this and you will keep the terms of payment to yourself; do not tell any other director or producer because they will assume I am desperate for work.”’ Then came the second condition. Ramesh says, ‘He wanted to stay at Delhi’s Taj Mansingh Hotel. He offered to pay for his own food, drinks and telephone calls, but the location was non-negotiable. He told me, “When people meet me, they should know that Shashi Kapoor’s standards haven’t entirely dropped.”’ Later, there was also talk of a third proviso — that Shashi would get a back-end share of five per cent from the film.

What made Shashi accept Ramesh’s movie? In an interview with The New York Times’ Lawrence Van Gelder, Shashi hints at the rationale guiding his decision: ‘I have not done many politically motivated films,’ he says, while describing New Delhi Times as a Watergate-like movie in the world of investigative journalism.

With Shashi on board, Sharmila Tagore was signed on to play Nisha, a successful lawyer and the protagonist’s wife. It was also decided that the film would be shot in Delhi in July and August 1984. But the plan got derailed more than once.

To begin with, Shashi found himself in the middle of a terrible personal crisis. Ramesh got a desperate call from the star one day. Jennifer was unwell, he said, battling cancer in London; he could not leave her side. ‘He kept begging, saying he couldn’t do the film,’ Ramesh remembers, ‘but I told him I would wait for him.’ Jennifer passed away in early September 1984.

Soon after, there came a national catastrophe. Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the capital began reeling under anti-Sikh riots. ‘Delhi was a complete mess,’ Ramesh says, ‘and we had to postpone the film yet again. But, at least, this gave Shashi some time to recover. As we’d later learn, he’d never fully mend — but, by the bye, he was in a position to meet people.’

Eventually, shooting began in January 1985, and the location was shifted from Delhi to Film City in Bombay. In hindsight, Ramesh thinks his decision to wait it out was wise, particularly since it meant that he could work with Shashi. ‘He was a professional to the core,’ Ramesh says. ‘He would always come on time. His lines would be ready. And he was, for the most part, a one-take actor — very instinctive. I had no problem with that man!’ It was Ramesh’s decision to give Shashi a moustache in the film. ‘He was a handsome guy and I didn’t want his looks to distract viewers from his character. Also, I felt that the moustache would grant him intellectual gravitas.’

New Delhi Times proved to be a taut political thriller with finely-etched characters, and a rare plot that considered loaded subjects like journalistic objectivity and media corruption. But the film ran into all kinds of trouble. There was a lawsuit filed against it by someone who took offence to a dialogue where Vikas/Shashi tells Nisha/Sharmila that all lawyers are liars; someone else tried to get the film banned for depicting a politician instigating communal riots. When New Delhi Times was scheduled to play on Doordarshan, it was pulled out at the last minute because of the legal battles that confronted it. To make matters worse, the film was heavily pirated; after the first week, it became difficult to fill large single-screen theatres. Ramesh rues: ‘If we had multiplexes then, as we do today, New Delhi Times would have played much longer.’

When Shashi Kapoor was a journo  
 

New Delhi Times had already gone over-budget because of two postponements — instead of the original Rs 25 lakh, it eventually cost Rs 35 lakh. Now, assailed by a spate of lawsuits and piracy concerns, the film gasped for survival. Ramesh, who kept in touch with Shashi, recollects that the actor would occasionally ask him: ‘Kuch aa raha hai five per cent?’ (‘Is the five per cent coming my way?’) Alas, there was no money to share.

Over the years, New Delhi Times has gone on to receive largely positive reviews; critic Khalid Mohamed says: ‘Only a scant few films have achieved a semblance of truth-telling while discussing the Fourth Estate. Of them, Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times, a probe into the nexus between politicians and media barons, has been the most incisive yet.’

In 1986, New Delhi Times won the Indira Gandhi Award for the best first film of a director, and Shashi’s performance, which was widely appreciated, garnered him a National Award for best actor — the only time he won this honour. But for Shashi, it was too little, too late. He went on to tell journalist Jyothi Venkatesh:

“I only wish they had given [the award] to my wife Jennifer when she was alive for her performance in my film 36 Chowringhee Lane. Frankly, the awards mean nothing to me at this stage when I do not have her to share it with me.”

(Excerpted with permission from Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star , by Aseem Chhabra, Rupa Publications, 2016)


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