Book excerpt | Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star5 min read . Updated: 13 May 2016, 03:58 PM IST
Why Raj Kapoor gave his younger brother this nickname at a time when his schedule was filled with (largely terrible) commercial films
‘My father-in-law used to call Shashi Uncle “taxi" back then,’ Neetu Singh Kapoor says. ‘Ki kisi ko bhi apni gaadi main bitha leta hai!’ (‘He’d seat anyone and everyone in his car.’)
Neetu speaks figuratively, of course. Raj Kapoor used the word ‘taxi’ to describe his brother when he was desperately trying to get dates from Shashi Kapoor for Satyam Shivam Sundaram—a film that ostensibly explores the distinction between physical and spiritual love, but, in fact, represents Raj’s love for the singer, Lata Mangeshkar. While actors were queuing up to play the lead role in the film, Raj strongly felt only Shashi could play his younger self in this somewhat autobiographical tale. So he looked at his brother’s schedule and coolly appropriated all the dates he had given other filmmakers. ‘He also insisted that on the days I was to shoot with him, I wouldn’t shoot with anyone else,’ Shashi tells film critic, Deepa Gahlot. ‘To accommodate Rajji, I had to work round the clock, doing four to five shifts a day, sleeping in a car.’ His frenetic lifestyle, which made a car his semi-permanent address, led to the nickname, ‘taxi’.
But ‘taxi’ came to become Shashi’s moniker for other reasons, too. Author Bunny Reuben suggests that both Shashi and Zeenat Aman (Shashi’s co-star in Satyam Shivam Sundaram) were subject to Raj’s tongue-lashing when he learnt of their shooting calendars. ‘You people aren’t stars,’ Raj scolded. ‘You are all taxis. Someone puts your meter down—you go there! Then someone else puts your meter down—and you go there. Two hours here…two hours elsewhere. Taxis! That’s what you artists have become.’
The pain of his older brother and father-figure publicly admonishing him stayed with Shashi for many years. ‘That hurt him,’ Madhu Jain says. ‘He was very sensitive, he would never forget anybody who said anything about him, especially if it was Raj Kapoor.’
All the same, there was little Shashi could do to change his film schedule. The late 1970s—the decade that would define Shashi’s career in India—would see the actor taking on a mindboggling number of projects, hopping from studio to studio and playing a range of characters. In fact, Samir Ganguli, who directed the star in Sharmeelee, says that the shift system in Hindi cinema started because of Shashi. ‘[He] was one of the busiest actors in those days,’ he contends.
Despite an overfull diary, Shashi never let his directors down. Samir states, ‘[He was] absolutely punctual. At times, because of his hectic schedules, he would get delayed, but none of us would really mind because we knew that once he arrived on the sets, he would never hesitate to deliver what was required of him.’
But Shashi’s chock-full roster came with a definite drawback—one that Neetu, who acted in ten films with the star, got to witness first-hand. ‘I was very young and I joined the industry at a phase when we did really bad movies together,’ she says. ‘We would do three shifts. I didn’t know main kiska character kar rahi hoon, kya kar rahi hoon. (I didn’t know what character I was playing, what I was doing.) Shashi Uncle also would come to the sets and ask, “Haan kya linein hai?" (“So what are the lines?")’
A harried Shashi, who could barely keep pace with his film commitments, found it near-impossible to stay abreast of plots or characters. Sanjna Kapoor remembers learning of this during long family drives from South Bombay to Juhu to visit Prithviraj Kapoor. ‘When Papaji was alive—and every Sunday we’d go to see him, if my dad was in town—I would ask my father to narrate the story of a film he was acting in. And he would make it up. He had no idea. He had absolutely no clue!’
If the 1970s saw Shashi at his busiest, the decade also saw him acting in films that were exceptionally violent and regressive. Chor Machaye Shor—one of the few films Shashi acted in with Mumtaz—is packed with truly offensive situations. In fact, as critic Todd Stadtman points out, it has ‘something of an obsession with rape’. Vijay (Shashi) is thrown into jail on a trumped-up charge of raping his girlfriend, Rekha (Mumtaz). When he escapes prison, he decides that since he has been falsely implicated, he may as well prove his accusers right—leading to a horrifying scene where Vijay declares his intention to rape his girlfriend. Soon after, Rekha, attempting to shame Vijay, bares her breasts to him, and Vijay, ‘proving himself to a good Indian boy, immediately covers his eyes and insists she cover up’—making this, at once, a wholly unintelligible and terribly disquieting film. While there are a few bearable moments, entirely on account of the songs—‘Ghungroo Ki Tarah’ and ‘Ek Daal Par Tota Bole’, among others—the shock ending, where our ‘hero’ wins his girlfriend’s fidelity after attempting revenge-rape, erodes whatever little the music could salvage.
Then, there is the exceptionally bad Immaan Dharam—one of the many Salim (Khan)–Javed (Akhtar) scripted films Shashi Kapoor acted in—that even the audiences rejected, making it the only flop for the scriptwriting duo. The plot is patchwork of inexplicable events—a blind Shyamlee (Aparna Sen) is almost raped; an alcoholic Jenny (Helen) is compelled to meet her fate and die; and touts Mohan (Shashi) and Ahmed (Amitabh Bachchan) become penitents on the path to contrition, thanks to a self-righteous Kabir (Sanjeev Kumar).
Sanjna, on catching her father in these films, says, ‘I remember asking my mother, “How could he work in such crap?" Really, I am not a great feminist, but there is a whole period of Hindi cinema which upsets me so much—not only the violence, but also the way women are treated.’ Then, Jennifer Kendal Kapoor explained to Sanjna that her father would have continued being a stage actor if it were financially viable. ‘But he had a family and the family expanded. With that, the lifestyle changed and got cushier. If you decide to go to London every summer, and maintain a house in Goa, you have to earn a certain amount of money. You are sucked into this cycle and you can’t get out.’
Anil Dharker goes on to say, ‘I think Shashi took everything in his stride. He accepted it right from the beginning—this is what commercial cinema used to be and when you said “yes" to a role, you did what was asked.’
While the 1970s were littered with a number of forgettable films starring Shashi, there were a few watchable ones, too, among them Sharmeelee. This is undeniably Raakhee’s film since she plays a double role, but the movie also managed to establish Shashi as a star, giving him a chance to show off his uber-charming self while singing ‘Khilte Hain Gul Yahan’, ‘Oh Meri Sharmeelee’ and the heartbreaking ‘Kaise Kahen Hum’. Besides, he also gets to display his acting range, as he transforms from a young man in love, to an alcoholic who is crushed when married to the wrong twin, to a spouse who learns to overcome his prejudice.
Excerpted from Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star (by Aseem Chhabra, 196 pages, ₹ 395), with permission from Rupa Publications India.