Book Review – ‘Shashi Kapoor: The House Holder, The Star’ By Aseem Chhabra

Book Review copy‘Mere Paas Maa Hai!’

Rupa 2016, pp 196,
Hardcover, Rs. 395

It was around 10 on a lazy Sunday morning, the year, 1970 or so. I was standing at my fourth floor Dhobhi Talao balcony, exactly opposite the Anjuman Fire Temple. My eyes strayed to a posh gleaming car as it pulled up outside the famed Baliwalla and Homi. A glamorous couple spilled out – it was Shashi Kapoor and his elegant wife, Jennifer. The crowd, which had gathered in no time waited patiently for the celebrity couple to emerge from the optometrists. The wait was long but rewarding. That was my first glimpse of Shashi Kapoor, the star.

There’s no doubt that the Kapoors – the first family of Indian cinema – have been some of the most remarkable figures of their generations. The personalities of Prithviraj Kapoor’s sons were distinctly dissimilar – if the amorous Raj was the Awaara Aashiq, the ebullient Shammi was the Budtameez Prince and the suave Shashi the Shakespearewallah Siddhartha.

Telling the story of the debonair Shashi is an attractive idea and with his book on Shashi Kapoor, with the nuanced sub-title, Aseem Chhabra, the New York based freelance writer and film journalist, has, to a great extent, rectified a major imbalance.

Shashi was the first major Indian star to do crossover and Hollywood films, long before actors such as Om Puri and Irrfan Khan.

By the author’s own admission, the subject of the book, born Balbir Raj Kapoor on 18 March 1938, could not be interviewed due to his failing health and dementia. Though Shashi’s childhood is dismissed in a couple of pages, Chhabra discusses, at some length, 28 of the 96-odd films the actor has worked in. Admittedly, not all of his films had accomplished performances.

The chapters devoted to the Merchant-Ivory films (of which Shashi was the first leading man), his films as a producer and his films of the 80s and 90s, e.g. New Delhi Times, In Custody, have great solidity and make for compelling reading. That enthusiasm, however, is not extended to films such as Jab Jab Phool Khile-1965, with which Shashi shot to fame, and which merits only a passing reference or Aa Gale Lag Jaa-1973, which finds barely a mention.

Nevertheless, the book is engaging, largely due to material culled from interviews with, amongst others, colleagues Amitabh Bachchan (with whom Shashi acted in 14 films); Sharmila Tagore (10 films); Shabana Azmi (8 films); filmmaker Shyam Benagal; close friend and confidante, Anil Dharker, who also headed the Film Finance Corporation; producer James Ivory; nephew Rishi Kapoor; and importantly, his children Kunal and Sanjna. For some reason, Rekha, with whom Shashi has done an astonishing 18 films, Rakhee (13) and Hema Malini (12) are missing from this list.

This book is also a buoyant account of Shashi’s resuscitation of Prithvi Theatres in 1978 after Papa Prithviraj had to shut shop in 1960 due to his ill-health. Having started acting on stage at the tender age of six, in Prithvi’s debut play, Shakuntala (1944), the young lad commenced his screen career as a child artiste in Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951) before graduating to adult roles in Dharamputra and Chaar Diwaari (1961).

The book poignantly chronicles his courtship with Jennifer Kendal (and how sister-in-law Geeta Bali lent moral and material support to the love-smitten Shashi); why Jennifer’s father detested the idea of his daughter marrying; and how Shashi worked in both, the Kendals’ Shakespeareana group as well as Prithvi Theatres.

Director Sameer Ganguli, who directed Shashi in Sharmilee-1971, observes that the shift system in Hindi cinema started because of Shashi, one of the busiest actors those days. But then, the actor was also guilty of having done some eminently forgettable films such as Jai Bajrang Bali-1976, Amar Shakti-1978 and Gehri Chot-1983.

Some lively insights embellish the book: for instance Shashi remarking on Hrishikesh Mukherjee — ‘he was never as noble a soul as Bimal Roy was’, or the author noting that ‘Shashi in more ways than one, was his father’s son’. Chhabra writes evocatively of Jennifer’s death in 1984 and how it had a direct bearing on Shashi’s health going downhill. But then, food, wine and women (and not necessarily in that order) have always taken a heavy toll on the Kapoors. Having seen it all firsthand, daughter Sanjna, citing examples, remarks of Shashi the producer — “papa would be extravagant to the point of being foolish”.

Apart from the absence of an index, the book has a few blind spots — the author is off-target when he mentions that ‘the 1933 Karma had Indian cinema’s first ever on-screen kiss’. Not so – kissing scenes were prevalent in those days. Even a year earlier, in 1932, Zarina had an incredible 42 kissing scenes between Jal Merchant and Zubeida! Chhabra also errs when he says that ‘Raj Kapoor in Bobby-1973 worked with composers other than Shankar-Jaikishan for the first time’. After S-J commenced their association with RK banner in Barsaat (1949) there was Ram Ganguli earlier in Aag (1948). Later, the RK banner had Salil Choudhary for Jaagte Raho in 1956. A year later, Dattaram was brought in for Ab Dilli Door Nahi.

Fortunately the book’s subject is gripping enough to withstand such minor lapses. Sadly, Shashi Kapoor today is a sad reminder of that flashing smile and those dashing looks which had made for a lethal combination for the fairer sex. But he will also go down in history for uttering that iconic and immortal line in Deewar – ‘Mere paas maa hai’.

A biography – not quite; affordable – yes: worth a buy and readable – certainly!

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