When Jennifer Kapoor helped out Ismail Merchant on Bombay Talkie

Shashi Kapoor’s wife, a former actress who handled his costumes on Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and Kalyug (1981), would have turned 84 today (28 February). Producer Merchant wrote about the time she helped him out of a tight spot and saved his film with Shashi, Bombay Talkie (1970).

Sonal Pandya

Actor Shashi Kapoor worked with his wife Jennifer Kapoor, née Kendal, on five feature film projects. Jennifer has a small cameo in Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the film about her travelling theatre family and acted with Shashi in Bombay Talkie (1970), Junoon (1978) and Heat and Dust (1983). Shashi produced Aparna Sen’s directorial debut in English, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1983) for which Jennifer received a BAFTA nomination in 1983 for her lead role as Violet Stoneham.

Shashi played a married film star who has an affair with Lucia Lane (Jennifer, his real-life wife) in Merchant Ivory’s Bombay Talkie. Shashi had worked with the international company in The Householder (1962) and Shakespeare Wallah (1965). However, these films were not successful at the box office and did not make much money.

With Bombay Talkie, Shashi turned distributor with his production and distribution company, Filmvalas. For his prior collaborations with Merchant Ivory, author Madhu Jain revealed in book, The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, Shashi “had deferred his payment for the films he had done for Merchant and expected to be paid before he began work in Bombay Talkie.”

Jennifer and Shashi in Bombay Talkie

Unfortunately, Merchant could not pay Shashi and instead turned to Jennifer for help. He wrote in his memoir, My Passage From India: A Filmmaker's Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond, “I simply did not have the money to pay him. But Jennifer had a soft spot for me and… lent me the money to pay Shashi. So, in effect, I used Shashi’s own money to settle my debt with him. Of course, I returned the money to Jennifer as soon as I was able to, but the whole transaction remained a secret from Shashi.”

Funnily enough, Jain noted that Shashi’s father, the illustrious thespian, Prithviraj Kapoor, was in a similar situation years ago. Prithviraj turned down the film of a producer friend as he hadn’t given him the Rs5,000 he owed him from an earlier film. The producer requested Prithviraj’s wife, Ramsarni, for the money and Prithviraj returned home with the money to hand his wife, not knowing their secret agreement.

It was yet another coincidence that tied father and son together. And Jennifer saved the day and Merchant’s movie by lending him the money. Bombay Talkie led to the next Merchant Ivory production, Heat and Dust (1983) which was screened at the Cannes International Film Festival that year and turned the tide internationally with accolades for both Shashi and the production house.