Actors-turned-producers are now the norm, but there weren’t too many of them around in the 1970s. The cinematic alternatives to the Mumbai entertainment industry were largely funded by government bodies like the National Film Development Corporation. Enter Shashi Kapoor.
In 1979, the popular actor, inspired by the Merchant-Ivory Productions films he had appeared in, embarked on the first of six projects under the Film-Valas banner. The name was inspired by “Shakespeare Wallah”, the title given to Shashi Kapoor’s father-law Geoffrey Kendal (also the subject of Shakespeare Wallah, a movie by James Ivory, and starring Kapoor).
Shashi Kapoor and his wife, Jennifer Kendal, wanted to make accessible arthouse films, says their son, Kunal Kapoor. Starting with Junoon, through 36 Chowringhee Lane, Kalyug, Vijeta and Utsav, and ending with Ajooba, Film-Valas briefly but indelibly contributed to the cinematic landscape. However, the company earned more praise than profit, and its poor state of finances forced Kapoor to set aside his dreams of producing.
Shashi doesn’t give interviews any more on account of his poor health. Kunal, who runs an advertising film company as well as the family owned Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, was an actor and assistant on his father’s productions. He spoke of his father’s passion for cinema, a grand folly that resulted in a handful of beautiful movies.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Our family always had breakfast together, and the conversation was about either food or films. Dad was always looking for ideas. He used to get prints from the Film and Television Institute of India sent over to the Liberty preview theatre in Bombay. All my parents did when they went to England was to watch two films and a play every day.
The first step was to open a distribution company. He distributed the Japanese anime film, A Thousand And One Nights. It was an adult film, it was very sexy. It had Aladdin stranded on an island with women and they were all naked. It was a disaster.
Dad also set up Vidushak Arts, a small unit inspired by Ismail Merchant (of Merchant-Ivory Productions). He got a camera, lights and recording equipment. Films like Hum Paanch and a couple of Shyam Benegal’s films were made with that camera unit.
He started a friendship with Shyam, which is how Junoon happened. It was a period in which my mother was personally interested. She did the costumes for the movie. Junoon cost Rs.34-odd lakh. It was a happy experience even though he didn’t make any money on it. Junoon eventually covered its investment. It would have even made a profit had he been a good businessman.
My dad was the world’s worst producer— he never said no. It wasn’t about a brand or anything, it was just him. He wasn’t doing it for the money. He distributed (Raj Kapoor’s) Bobby in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh through a partnership. But he didn’t make any money out of it. He wouldn’t even know how much money he had in his pocket.
Then there was Kalyug and 36 Chowringhee Lane. Aparna (Sen) came to them with the story. They loved the script, and they wanted Shyam to direct it, but she said she was going to. That was a suicidal film—it was in English, made for between Rs.18-24 lakh. (Its) cinematographer Ashok Mehta wasn’t cheap to work with. Vanraj Bhatia gave the music—whatever was state-of-the art had to be used. Dad never compromised.
The movie was a regular release. It did well critically. Mom got a Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination alongside Vanessa Redgrave.
Vijeta happened, and Utsav. Girish Karnad had written a great script. Dad wanted Amitabh (Bachchan) to play the part he eventually played. But Amitabh couldn’t do the role. The movie got postponed because of dates. In January, Dad went to Delhi for a film festival, where he met Dilbagh Singh, chief of air staff of the Indian Air Force. The Air Force was celebrating its golden jubilee. Dilbagh Singh said, I will give you whatever you want to make a film promoting the Air Force. Govind (Nihalani) too wanted to do something on the Air Force. Vijeta happened overnight. We started shooting in April. The Air Force provided the facilities, but Dad paid for the film.
Dad always supported the directors, he never fought with them. I thought Vijeta was too long. We had our own Steenbeck (editing machine). I re-edited Vijeta by 22 minutes. Govind threw a fit, so 12 minutes were put back in. Vijeta would have made money had he been Ismail Merchant or Ekta Kapoor. It struck a chord, but it wasn’t marketed well.
Utsav started on a disastrous note. A set near Udupi in Karnataka was blown off in a cyclone. The income-tax department raided Rekha on the first day of the shoot. It cost Rs.2 crore, though it was originally supposed to be about Rs.1.2 crore. Utsav also had an English version, so there were two takes of everything. We dubbed the film in London. My Mum was in hospital at the time (Jennifer Kendal was suffering from cancer, and died in London in 1984).
Dad also made a huge set at Filmcity in Mumbai, which he offered to the authorities to convert into a tourist attraction, but it was demolished.
At that time, nobody in the international market was interested in that period in India. The movie was neither arthouse nor commercial. I imagined it to be a Douglas Fairbanks kind of adventure. I think Girish (Karnad) should have made the film more glamorous and sexy. There was some nudity in the English version. In the Hindi version, some of the positions that Amjad Khan (who plays Vatsyayana) sees were cut out. I am restoring both versions.
Dad was financially wiped out by Utsav. Instead of filling our coffers, it worked us into a completely negative zone. The film did well in Hyderabad, though.
Then, Ajooba happened. Dad had gotten a little frustrated at giving other directors everything on a silver platter. He needed to do a commercial film to get out. I was 26 at the time. An Indian distributor in Moscow, Maganbhai, took me under his wing and said, let’s make an Indo-Russian film. Mosfilms was involved, as was Gorky Film Studio, which did kids’ films. The principal star cast would be Indian, the bulk of the shooting was supposed to happen in Russia. Dad decided that he was going to direct the movie. We did an extensive recce in Kashmir and Rajasthan. The Russian guys came over for a meeting where I remember saying, let’s call off the film, it has already gone over budget. The movie didn’t work, Dad got carried away.
Amitabh took the distribution rights for the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh territory. The movie was a hit there and nowhere else! Amitabh Bachchan was destined to make money, but Shashi Kapoor was not.
Ajooba wasn’t and isn’t a good film. We didn’t let him make another one after that. We were so much in debt. Sanjna (Kunal Kapoor’s sister) was still a child. Karan (his brother) and I were supporting the house. I started making commercials. We are all bad businessmen. We are brilliant at spending money.
I have a script that I want to direct myself. It’s an expensive film to make, and I need a new cast. But I won’t fund it myself. I will get a studio to put in the money.
As told to Nandini Ramnath.