Member of the famed Kapoor family, youngest son of legendary actor Prithviraj Kapoor and brother of Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor had a remarkable journey in both mainstream Hindi cinema and parallel cinema in half a century of his acting career. His acting in English-language films in the sixties, in collaboration with Merchant-Ivory productions – the third member of the group was the writer Ruth Praver Jabhwala – included ‘Householder’ and ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ which were not only successful, but also earned Kapoor international acclaim. Later he also acted in Bombay Talkie and The Heat and Dust, in which acted opposite his wife Jennifer Kendal.
The Householder was a delightful comedy, set in Delhi, in the lanes and narrow alleys of Daryaganj, with a stupendous view of Zeenat Mahal, the mosque built by Zeenat Begum during the Mughal times. The story was about a newly married couple – played by the dashingly glamorous man, Shashi Kapoor and Leena Naidu, a beautiful French-Indian actress – and their ever interfering mother-in-law. The film had the legendary cameraman Subrata Mitra that is still remembered for its outstanding cinematography.
Shakespeare Wallah was about a group of travelling theatre players, an idea that remarkably coincided with Shashi Kapoor, who was married to the English actress Jennifer Kendal, daughter of actors Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Kendal, whose theatre company toured India performing mainly Shakespearean classics. The story of their work and travels inspired the making of the second Merchant-Ivory production, Shakespeare Wallah. Kendal died of cancer in the eighties which shattered him.
Shashi Kapoor also starred in the iconic film Siddhartha, directed by Conrad Rooks that won critical acclaim in the seventies. The English-language film Siddhartha, based on the classic novel by Herman Hesse, set up during the time of Gautama Buddha in ancient India, was about a young man, Shashi Kapoor in the lead role, leaving his family for a contemplative life to join a group of ascetics, along with his friend. The two set out in the search of enlightenment. Then, restless, Siddhartha discards asceticism for worldly pleasures. Later on overcome by guilt and also bore and sickened by lust and greed, he moves on again and near despair, Siddhartha comes to the bank of a river where he hears a unique sound, the song of thousand voices, and where he meets a ferryman, who guides him towards his destiny, and to the ultimate meaning of existence.
While he acted in mainstream Hindi films, many of them hugely successful, Shashi Kapoor’s dedication to quality cinema and theatre remained his life-long inspiration, thanks to his wife’s commitment to English theatre, he produced critically acclaimed films such as Junoon, Kalyug, 36 Chowringhee Lane and Utsav. Junoon that means Obsession, was directed by parallel cinema’s great Shyam Benegal and won numerous awards. The film, based on a Ruskin Bond story, was set around the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s first war of Independence of 1857. The film is still remembered for its superb soundtrack, composed by Vanraj Bhatia, and cinematography by Govind Nihalani.
Suave, urbane, sophisticated, Shashi Kapoor’s extremely handsome persona created an aura around him. He may have acted in usual run-of-mill mainstream cinema, potboilers that appealed to the masses, many of them eminently forgettable, but he maintained his charm, innate decency and sophistication in most of the films he acted. Unfortunately, reduced to a wheel chair and barely able to slip a few incoherent words, he is a pale shadow of his once glamorous past. Age and time are cruel, harsh and unforgiving and spare none, not even the yesteryear cine greats.
Shashi Kapoor remains dedicated to theatre and despite being on wheel chair, never misses a play at the Prithvi Theatres, named after his father Prithviraj Kapoor. We wish him many, many years of good health and great happiness.