Shashi Kapoor: an actor, a gentleman and a man of integrity

A man apart: Shashi Kapoor and Rinku Jaiswal in Subodh Mukherjee's production Mr Romeo .  

Over the last few days, several media tributes have made the point that the late Shashi Kapoor was the quintessential gentleman both on and off the screen. Indeed he was; but what's more important is that the gentlemanliness was accompanied by a rare integrity. Unlike some of his colleagues from equally cultured backgrounds, Kapoor never aligned himself politically for personal benefit or shied away from taking a stand — one that was unequivocal but never milked for publicity.

Taking a stand

There's this story, for instance, that very few people know. During the second phase of the Mumbai riots in 1993, a Muslim friend living in the same building that Kapoor did in South Bombay was forced to leave with her family when the murder and mayhem reached even the doorsteps of the sheltered elite. While they were gone, the managing committee held a meeting to pass a resolution that no Muslims would henceforth be allowed to live in the building. The only person who fought this and eventually walked out of the meeting angrily was Kapoor. I can’t think of too many celebrities who’d have stuck their necks out like this, and if they had, not dined off it for the next hundred years.

Kapoor’s reluctance to trumpet his actions/achievements was in evidence pretty much everywhere. Shabana Azmi, in a recent tribute, spoke of how he was the man who solved the Gita Nagar slum impasse by meeting the chief minister but quietly vanished when Azmi was thanking all her supporters. A friend of mine, an associate editor with a leading film magazine, once told me that Kapoor had refused to accept the publication’s Lifetime Achievement Award several times on the grounds that he had done nothing to deserve it. What does one call this — objectivity, self-deprecation? All I know is that in a self-obsessed, hungry-for-credit-and-publicity industry, he must have been the only one to turn down an honour like that. Yes, he did finally accept (though I'm not sure he was then even in a position to make that decision). And it was wonderful that he did, poignant though it was to see this once-amazingly handsome man frail and wheelchair-bound.

‘Hi, I’m Shashi Kapoor’

This tendency of Kapoor to downplay himself perhaps accounted for the way he introduced himself to people — with a disarming line that was the polar opposite of the average public figure's 'Jaante nahin main kaun hoon?' arrogance. Fourteen years ago when I was introduced to him at the Marrakesh Film Festival, he was with a group of people (none of them as famous as him as far as I can remember). While everyone nodded or greeted us, the actor smiled and said, "Hi, my name is Shashi Kapoor." No, it wasn't fake humility (though for a moment I did wonder if he was being droll); it was a down-to-earth greeting from a down-to-earth man... and as I realised much later, a takiya kalaam of sorts.

The same unpretentiousness had been in evidence many years earlier when he gave me and two friends who knew him a lift. Well past his prime then, he was still extremely charming, conversing with us indulgently on this and that and flashing that lovely smile. My friends got down at Mahim. I had to continue till Bandra, and being generally socially awkward and particularly tongue-tied in his presence, remarked on the music playing on his car deck because I felt obliged to say something. Shashi Kapoor turned around from the front seat and said, rather surprised, "You understand Urdu? You like ghazals?" "Very much," I replied. "Oh, that's nice. I didn't think youngsters would care much for them," he said and went on to talk about Urdu poetry, its sukoon and depth. "There are ghazals on the melancholy pleasure of unrequited love...would one even consider that a form of love today?" he asked rhetorically. Thinking back, I wonder what he must have made of the Yo Yo Honey Singh kind of toxic baseness that passed for music in his last years.

Real and reel

Was it because Shashi Kapoor was so cultured and decent in real life that film-makers extended that decency to his on-screen persona? Think of Kabhi Kabhie where he berates himself for being a “ghatiya aadmi” for feeling jealous of his wife's ex-lover. Or Trishul where Amitabh Bachchan's deviousness in stealing his car keys to prevent him from joining his girlfriend is actually made light of despite the provocation. Or the very meaningful musical exchanges in films like Prem Kahani between his wife/girlfriend and her ex, where he merely looked on in smiling blissful ignorance. This kind of song sequence, a speciality of past Bollywood, is supremely ridiculous but Shashi Kapoor in the role of the good-hearted simpleton (perhaps a lasting carryover from Jab Jab Phool Khile) made it halfway-believable.

One last point: “Mere paas maa hai.” This has to be one of the most parodied dialogues in the history of Hindi cinema but the next time you see Deewar, do watch the last minute of that scene carefully... how Kapoor, with only reaction close-ups and one line in his kitty, pulled it off despite being pitted against Amitabh Bachchan's fire and brimstone and aggressive dialogue. With a lesser actor, that line could have fallen flat but Kapoor's unwavering gaze, his unmistakable sincerity and the honesty in his face made it one of the great moments of popular cinema.

Thank you for the magic, Shashi Kapoor.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 11:31:57 PM |

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