Here's why Shashi Kapoor was special for Indian cinema
A gentleman in real life, Shashi Kapoor was an effortless and versatile theatre and film actor, and a visionary with a sense of purpose. From producing Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani's films to rejuvenating Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre, Shashi Kapoor's role in India's social and cultural revival is unparalleled. In an era when women directors were a rare breed in the world, Shashi Kapoor produced Aparna Sen’s directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane.
Shashi Kapoor passed away on December 4, after prolonged suffering with liver cirrhosis. In a year that took away legends like Kundan Shah, Om Puri, Vinod Khanna, Tom Alter, and Reema Lagoo; Shashi Kapoor’s demise comes as a major blow to Indian cinema and film-lovers across.
Shashi Kapoor was the last surviving of the three brothers who shaped Indian cinema through the 50s until 80s. While Raj Kapoor mastered the craft of storytelling and drew deepest human sentiments, and Shammi Kapoor became the greatest entertainer earning himself the nickname Elvis Presley of India; Shashi Kapoor had a subtler, quieter career, but of no lesser legacy.
A gentleman in real life, Shashi Kapoor was an effortless and versatile theatre and film actor, and a visionary with a sense of purpose. We have tried to bring together 10 reasons why Shashi Kapoor was loved so much, and will be remembered and revered by generations to come.
A talented child actor
Shashi Kapoor’s father Prithviraj Kapoor was a celebrated playwright and ran the Prithvi Theatres. At a very young age, Shashi Kapoor started acting in plays and travelled with his father and his theatre group. He also started working in films as a child. His most popular performances as child actor were in Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951), where he played the younger versions of his elder brother Raj Kapoor.
Pioneered method acting in India
In an era where actors were quickly typecast, Shashi Kapoor remained a true method actor. In the 116 Hindi films he performed in, he was comfortable playing both the lead and supporting roles. While his stardom only grew, Shashi Kapoor’s sole focus was to immerse into each of his characters and make the best out of them. His most successful films include Deewar, Namak Halal, Sharmeelee, Waqt, Vijeta, Kalyug, Trishul, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, and Shaan.
Among India's first actors to go international
Shashi Kapoor started acting in English language films in 1961, when he was only 23 years old. His theatre background gave him the edge to take up complex role and play them effortlessly. His best-known collaborations were with the Merchant Ivory Productions, run by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Shashi Kapoor played the lead role in The Householder in 1963, which was the first film made by the production company. He went on to act in many notable British and American films including Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, Heat and Dust, The Deceivers, Side Streets, Pretty Polly, Siddhartha, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Muhafiz.
Revived Mumbai’s theatre culture
Arguably, Shashi Kapoor’s single greatest contribution to India’s cultural scene was the revival of Prithvi Theatre. His biggest collaborator in life was Jennifer Kendal, whom he had met during his tours with Prithvi Theatre group during the 50s and got married to. Prithvi Theatre group had, however, shut shop in 1960. The duo didn’t just revive Prithvi Theatre, but also opened their theatre in Mumbai’s Juhu area. They encouraged and mentored theatre practitioners from all across India. Jennifer Kendal’s demise in 1984 came as a major blow to Shashi Kapoor, who slowly stopped acting in cinema and became a solitary person. He, however, continued to frequent the Prithvi Theatre and encourage young talent.
Pioneered arthouse films in India
Between 1978 and 1984, Shashi Kapoor ventured out into film production. During this period, he produced Shyam Benegal’s Junoon and Kalyug, Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta, Girish Karnad’s Utsav. During an era when women directors were a rare breed all over the world, Shashi Kapoor produced Aparna Sen’s directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane. The films produced by Shashi Kapoor went a long way in blurring the lines between arthouse and commercial cinema in India.
India's first crossover star
Shashi Kapoor has been widely regarded as India’s first crossover star. He was a man who comfortably wore many caps – that of a theatre artist, film actor, producer, and a public intellectual. A recipient of Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, Shashi Kapoor was also honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 2011 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2015.
A celebrated actor and superstar
Despite his busy schedule, in which he worked in British and American films and theatre, Shashi Kapoor played many memorable roles in Bollywood films. In an era dominated by megastars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Jeetendra, Rishi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar, Pran, and Dharmendra; Shashi Kapoor remained a popular and versatile actor. The only actors who were paid more than Shashi Kapoor in the 70s were Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna.
Created one of the most loved pair on screen
An extremely popular pair among audiences, Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan co-acted in 12 films. Many of these these films including Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Deewaar, Kabhi Kabhie, Trishul, Kaala Patthar, Suhaag and Namak Halaal were instant hits. While Amitabh Bachchan maintained his angry young man's role, Shashi Kapoor complemented with his versatility and performance.
Despite struggling with obesity and failing health, Shashi Kapoor’s love for theatre and the big screen kept him engaged way into the 90s. His last major works include Gulliver's Travels (1996), Jinnah (1998), Side Streets (1998). One of his final masterpieces was Ismail Merchant’s In Custody (Muhafiz) released in 1993, where Shashi Kapoor plays an ageing Urdu poet well past his days of glory, living a decadent life. Depicting the clash between modernisation and tradition, Muhafiz was acclaimed by critics and film-lovers alike.
A true gentleman
What set Shashi Kapoor aside from many of his contemporaries was his humility. He was a loving husband, a courteous gentleman, and a visionary artist. “He was god's good man. He was such a beautiful human being beyond anything else,” Shyam Benegal told PTI after his demise.
Remembering his first meeting with Shashi Kapoor in 1969, Amitabh Bachchan wrote in his blog: “Shashi Kapoor!” was what one heard as he extended a warm soft hand out to you in introduction; that devastating smile complimenting the twinkle in his eyes. He needn’t have done so. Everyone knew him. But this was his infectious humble self.”