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Aseem Chhabra: People have forgotten Shashi Kapoor

The author of a new book on Shashi Kapoor talks to Cinestaan.com about the actor’s legacy in his own films and productions.

Sonal Pandya

Film journalist and New York Indian Film Festival director Aseem Chhabra’s book, Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star, details the ups and downs of the actor’s life and career. Chhabra writes how Kapoor became India’s first international star when he joined the Merchant-Ivory production of The Householder (1963). While maintaining his acting commitments in India, Kapoor took on international assignments in Britain and the United States. In 1979, he turned art-house producer with Junoon, the film adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s novella, A Flight of Pigeons.

With a foreword from filmmaker Karan Johar, the book includes insights from Kapoor's children, friends and colleagues, from co-stars Sharmila Tagore, Simi Garewal and Shabana Azmi, and from film collaborators Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani.

Cinestaan.com spoke with Chhabra in a telephonic interview about Shashi Kapoor as a family man, his choices as an actor and producer, and his masterful performances. Below are excerpts from the conversation:

How did you choose Shashi Kapoor as the subject of your book?

A lot of thought went into it. First, there hadn’t been a book on Shashi Kapoor. There was a book written on the Kapoors by Madhu Jain, it’s a very well-researched book and, in fact, Madhu herself, at one stage, had thought of writing a book on Shashi and he had discouraged her. I also felt that people had forgotten him. If you look at Amitabh Bachchan, they are only a few years apart. Amitabh continues to act in films, so even little children [know him], he acts in commercials and television shows. [For] Shashi Kapoor, only people in their 30s and 40s remember Deewaar (1975). His larger contribution to cinema and the films he produced, the international projects he did, I sense that people have forgotten that. That was the reason.

At many places in the book, you have referred to Kapoor as ahead of his time, both as an actor and a producer. Now many actors and actresses from India are straddling both Indian and international projects. Do you think if he had thought more about his career plan, he would have been more successful?

Well, I’m not sure it’s a question of career plan. [In] the early 1960s he met the Merchant-Ivory team, it just happened that they were looking to make their first films and made The Householder (1963). It’s the way things came his way, there were people even at that time in the 1960s and 1970s who wanted to make films in India and they were coming to Shashi. I think he had a lot of success as an actor.

As a film producer, the other issue was [that] this was before the multiplex days. When you have those huge 1,000-seat theatres and he is showing a film like 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) or Junoon (1979)... even now, [with] the films Anurag Kashyap makes, they will not play in such large theatres. The multiplexes always have this one theatre that has only 200 seats which can sustain the film for a week or two. So the circumstances have changed.

I would not agree that he didn’t plan his career as such. In fact, what is remarkable about him is that once he started working, he did, of course, take anything that came his way, but he was very clear that he would do all the commercial Hindi films and whatever money he made from those, he then started producing films with that money. So obviously, there was some planning that went into it.

Do you think theatre was his true love, like his father Prithviraj Kapoor?

That I think was true. Not just because of his father, it was also because of his wife [Jennifer Kendal] and father-in-law’s [Geoffrey Kendal's] influence. Clearly, theatre was his first love, that’s why much later in the early 1980s, he bought the plot of land which originally his father had intended to use for Prithvi theatres. He was not able to do theatre because you can’t sustain yourself as an actor and support a family; therefore he tried his best to do the kind of films he could do where he could at least get the artistic satisfaction from films like Shakespeare Wallah (1965). When he produced Junoon and Kalyug (1981), clearly, that was his aim that in cinema he could get that chance as an actor to explore his artistic talent which he could have done in theatre also. Even now, there are people who do only theatre, but it’s still not a viable profession as such in India.

Didn't you get a chance to interview him for the book? Do you feel it helped or hindered your book in any way?

That’s an interesting question. I can only conjecture, think in terms of what would have happened. How much different it would have been if I had worked with him. Shashi Kapoor gave a lot of interviews which I was able to access, there were a lot of videos in the extras of the DVDs of The Householder and Heat And Dust (1984) and Shakespeare Wallah. Shashi talks a lot about those films also and that helped me to understand what the times were like and the reasons why he did those films. It’s almost as if he was talking to me during the interviews.

Sanjana [Kapoor's daughter] was the first person I interviewed and she told me he had dementia. Then I heard from Rishi Kapoor [his nephew] that he cannot hear too well and doesn’t recognise people. I didn’t push then.

His children say he was a very devoted family man. For instance, Shashi Kapoor did not shoot on Sundays, which were reserved for the family. He went through a period where he was struggling financially, and it must have been difficult to turn down roles and money.

Financial difficulties he went through but [in the] 1970s, he did very well. In fact, Shashi is the one who started this shift system where he would shoot, like, two or three films a day. He was very busy and he would practically not say no to any film that came his way. The not working on Sundays also had to do with his wife. She tried to give a normal family household sense for the children’s sake. No matter how late Shashi came from work, he would be up and have breakfast with the kids before they went to school. He gained a lot more with the love of his children and giving them a normal life, instead of losing money as such.

Yes, they have mentioned in your book how they had a normal childhood and didn’t know their dad was famous until they grew up.

Yes, that’s what they tell me. They got a sense of it at some stage, but even then the kids had a very normal life. They used to take the BEST buses, Sanjana talks about that. Other star kids, their cousins, Randhir and Rishi Kapoor, I don’t know if they were taking buses or they were walking in the streets. But these kids could walk in the streets with their mother. In Bombay, people would just think [it was] some foreign lady walking with her children.

Probably because they were in South Mumbai, it might have made a difference.

Yes, it was very important for [Jennifer Kapoor]. I write about that in the book. Shashi would meet the Hindi film industry at work, but where socializing was concerned, it was very minimal with that world.

Shashi Kapoor in Junoon

Which of Shashi Kapoor's films (and, in turn, his performances) has yet to receive its due?

I watched Junoon twice last year. His son Kunal has started restoring all the six films that Shashi produced. I saw the restored version of Junoon at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last November and I was simply blown away. The [restored version] itself is so stunning to look at and Shashi’s performance is very strong. I think that one, Kalyug (1981) and New Delhi Times (1986), which some people may have seen on television, it hasn’t been available on DVD for a long time, I had watched many years ago on a VHS tape, those films are quite fantastic.

People will remember him from when he says, “Mere paas maa hai [I have our mother]”. That very powerful dialogue from Deewaar and some of the other Yash Chopra films also. But in the films that he produced, I think he was just fantastic. In Vijeta (1982), his and Rekha’s performances, because it’s a marriage that’s in real trouble and the reason why they decide to stay together [is] for the sake of their son. The stress and strain of a married couple who barely talk to each other and yet they are in the same room, it’s so brilliant and effective. So Vijeta, Kalyug, Junoon. I think he was just very, very good in those films.

Do you think he was more natural in films like Siddhartha (1972) or Muhafiz (1994) and maybe he was made to act a certain way in more of his commercial Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s?

I think that happens with all actors. The directors bring out the best in your work. In Kabhi Kabhie (1976), he was the kind of jovial, very friendly, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Even his first film [as a lead], Dharmputra (1961), if you watch that film, Shashi has a very interesting, restrained performance and then he gets angry at some stage... I don’t think he necessarily overacted, but his acting evolved a lot and it is also true when he acted in Shyam Benegal’s film Kalyug and Junoon and Muhafiz. That happens with many actors, even in current-day Hindi cinema. Kareena Kapoor’s best performance was with Vishal Bhardwaj in Omkara (2006) or with Sudhir Mishra’s Chameli (2004). When you get directors to push you, some actors can bring out their best.

Do you think any of the films he produced has the potential to be remade today?

I think Kalyug is a fantastic story, the Mahabharata story being told. Prakash Jha kind of did Mahabharata in Rajneeti (2010), the Godfather/Mahabharata, but Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad [who] wrote the script clearly put Mahabharata in a modern-day context, looking at two families, cousins, and they were rivals in business. That should be done again perhaps, instead of the very loud Ramanand Sagar-type of Mahabharatas that you get on television. 36 Chowringhee Lane is a lovely film, if it is remade, they will have to be very careful who the actress is because Jennifer Kapoor’s performance is outstanding. But those works need to be seen again, or maybe just the restored versions should be seen, not remake them necessarily. Once they are restored, they would be available to watch on DVD.

When you read more about Shashi Kapoor, you get the sense that he was not like other Hindi film stars. He travelled, he was well-read and very much a gentleman. Would that be a correct assessment?

Yes, I was surprised how everybody I spoke to had nice things to say about him. And everybody wanted to talk about him, that was the other part. We all kept saying what a thorough gentleman he was and how nice he was to the cast and the crew especially. He would walk up to ordinary people and introduce himself and sit and have a chai with them. It’s a very remarkable quality. That’s what I learned about him.

As a film-festival programmer, you get to see a lot of newer Indian films and talent. What films have you recently seen that you are excited about? Which films/directors show promise?

There is a film that has started travelling at film festivals recently. It’s called Lipstick Under My Burkha by Alankrita Shrivastava. It looks like it’s a very feminist film and looks at four women’s stories. I thought it was very interesting. I was at Goa’s Film Bazaar recently. I saw a beautiful film called Rukh by Atanu Mukherjee about a father and son [with Manoj Bajpayee]. Mukherjee’s a young Bengali filmmaker, it’s his first film, he went to the Satyajit Film Institute in Kolkata. [It’s a] very moving, beautiful story. Every so often you find gems. I think Konkona Sensharma’s film that she’s directed, A Death In The Gunj, is very good. It’s very impressive, especially the performances she gets out of Vikrant Massey, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Hopefully, it will get released in theatres soon.

Finally, what’s your favourite Shashi Kapoor film?
It would be a toss-up between Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) and Sharmeelee (1971), they are two very different Shashi Kapoors that you see in the films. But I can watch the songs of Jab Jab Phool Khile any number of times. He was young, he was very handsome and charming in the songs especially. Junoon is interesting; he’s a conflicting man who falls in love with this young girl. It’s a very interesting story.