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Kapoor and Son

How Prithviraj Kapoor's youngest son, Shashi, became India's first international star

Sonal Pandya

The first thespian of Indian cinema, Prithviraj Kapoor was an unmistakable force in the early days of Hindi films. A veteran of stage and screen, Kapoor was a part of the Imperial Film Company which produced the first feature talkie in the country, Alam Ara (1931). Prithviraj Kapoor's initial career was iconic for several other reasons as well. He joined the Grant Anderson Theatrical Company where he acted alongside English actors in plays written by William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. In Debaki Bose's Seeta (1934), he played Rama to Durga Khote's Seeta was the first Indian film to be screened at an international film festival at Venice in 1935, winning a Honorary Diploma for the director.

Prithviraj was the first in his family to act in an English film when he acted opposite Sadhona Bose in The Court Dancer (1941). Directed by Sadhona's husband Modhu Bose, The Court Dancer was distributed by Columbia Pictures in the U.S. in 1944. Prithviraj Kapoor's sons, Raj and Shammi, both became actors. They learnt the ropes at Prithvi Theatres, a repertory company founded by Prithviraj in 1944, which travelled the country with its productions. Both of them eventually graduated to the silver screens where they honed their talents and became stars.

Meanwhile, Shashi Kapoor, his youngest child, also quietly followed Prithviraj into acting, mirroring his love for the stage. Kapoor's career faced many ups and downs. He had hits like Jab Jab Phool Kile (1965) and Namak Halaal (1982) at the same time as flops, Farishta Ya Qatil (1977) and Touhean (1989). Yet, he went one step ahead than his famous father and had a parallel career in international films. The Householder (1962) became his first English film as an actor, based on the novel by Ruth Prawer Jhavbala. Produced by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who were Shashi's great friends and collaborators, the film wasn't well received at the box office.


That didn't deter them from making their next feature, Shakespeare Wallah (1965) based on the family he married into, the Kendals. Shashi's wife, Jennifer Kendal and her family were a part of a theater company, Shakespearana, that toured India during the 1940s and 1950s. Along with Madhur Jaffrey and Utpal Dutt, Shashi Kapoor acted opposite his sister-in-law, Felicity Kendal in the film. Shakespeare Wallah (1965) was screened across the globe, from Berlin to London to New York.


Other international filmmakers also noticed Shashi Kapoor. The Oscar-winning director of Patch of Blue (1965), Guy Green cast him and Hayley Mills in the romance Pretty Polly (1967), based on a story by Noel Coward. Director Conrad Brooks brought him on for the film adaptation of the Herman Hesse novel,  Siddhartha (1972). Co-starring Simi Garewal, the film was a hit at the box office.

Despite all these international offers, Shashi Kapoor came back to Merchant-Ivory on Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1984). In Bombay Talkie, Shashi didn't have to do much research for his role of a Hindi film star. Aparna Sen played his onscreen wife, while his real-life wife Jennifer played an English writer with whom his character has a torrid affair. But the real accolades were received with the James Ivory-directed, Heat and Dust (1984). Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Shashi acted along newcomer Greta Scacchi and Julie Christie.

Heat and Dust was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 and became Merchant-Ivory's first successful production. Shashi Kapoor was praised for his performance by the sharpest film critic of the time, Pauline Kael who wrote, "Shashi Kapoor is marvellous as a man who adapts to whatever happens (or adapts up to a point)."

His international film led him to become an art-house producer for films like Junoon (1978), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Kalyug (1980), Vijeta (1982) and Utsav (1982). Alternate parts in other films like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988), The Deceivers (1988) and Dirty British Boys (1997) followed. Shashi Kapoor even played the narrator in Jamil Dehlavi's Jinnah (1998) starring Christopher Lee. The 1990s reunited him with Ismail Merchant for the Hindi-English bilingual, In Custody (1993), which got him Special Jury recognition at the National Film Awards. The New York Times hailed his performance as the run-down poet Nur, "the greatest role in the long career of Shashi Kapoor."

In Side Streets (1998), he essayed the part of a former film star, reliving his glory days and trying to find that next big part. Directed by Tony Gerber, it became his last film. Shashi Kapoor is still a presence at Prithvi Theatres, built with Jennifer Kendal in his father's memory.  The legendary theatre first opened its doors on 5 November 1978, six years after Prithviraj's death and is now run by his grandson Kunal Kapoor.

Prithviraj Kapoor shared a close relationship with him, the one son who inadvertently followed in his footsteps. As he slipped into a coma on his deathbed, he waited until Shashi returned from filming Siddhartha in England to breathe his last. In 2015, Shashi Kapoor was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award for his contribution to Indian cinema. He was the third in his family to be honoured after his father and eldest brother Raj.