By Mayank Chhaya-
Cutting a dashing figure in a three-piece pinstripe suit Shashi Kapoor stood in the large porch of a famous bungalow in Bombay’s Juhu area. His right hand was in the pocket of his pleated trousers and left dangling from a lower pocket of his fully buttoned-up vest. The only detail missing was a retinue of obsequious servants. In the city’s polyester humidity Kapoor did not seem to be breaking into a sweat.
As I alighted from a taxi outside the iron gate of the bungalow ‘Radhika’, he appeared to sense that I was the journalist he had given an appointment to that morning. As I climbed up the few steps he stretched out his hand and said, “I am Shashi Kapoor. I am an actor.” “Mayank Chhaya,” is all I said. That I was a journalist was implicit.
I knew about Kapoor’s habit of always introducing himself by name but the way he did it with me came across as mildly mischievous humility. I was amused, especially by the part “I am an actor.” Later, he wove that reference into a context while talking about his much written about insanely busy career as an actor. He shot continuously in three shifts, prompting his more illustrious eldest brother Raj Kapoor to somewhat chidingly describe him as a “taxi”; as in someone who plied the roads being hailed by anyone and everyone as long as it paid.
He had seen me get out of a taxi earlier. “”Raj ji (Raj Kapoor) mujhe aaj kal taxi hi kehte hain, (Raj Kapoor calls me a taxi these days). I am, of course, an actor,” he said.
By the time I met him in 1986—and the only time I did—Kapoor was one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars but wore his success lightly. He looked a tad older than his 48 because he had become somewhat neglectful of his own health after the death in 1984 of his wife Jennifer, whom he dotted on. Without being prompted by me he pointed at his portly bearing and said, “This is not for a role. Jennifer would not have let me become so fat.” He joked that his body worked for that particular role because he was playing a wealthy businessman in a movie whose name he did not seem to remember.
“I am an actor who does what is expected of him by the director,” he said.
Without the famous last name, Kapoor might have remained just a trophy star leveraging his remarkably good looks but he came from Hindi cinema’s most illustrious family where his father, Prithiviraj, and brothers Raj and Shammi had been among the biggest names. He drew upon his considerable talents to give some truly memorable performances. (I refuse to enumerate them here. It is just too much detail.)
I remember having observed that his eyelashes were so lush that he could lend some to some of his fellow actresses without noticing the difference. He guffawed. He said he had inherited his father’s features. Shashi Kapoor frequently looked like a spitting image of Prithviraj Kapoor.
From what I remember the most of that interaction was a star untouched by the trimmings of his success. Being the youngest of the three Kapoor brothers, Shashi had seen glamor for such a long time—his whole life, really—that its lures had no effect on him. That unselfconscious attitude mixed with his extraordinary good looks and charms made him even more likeable than he might have been otherwise.
One of the questions that I remember was about how he managed to juggle so many assignments without messing up the details of a particular character. I was taken aback by his candor when he countered, “What details? You just create them as you go along.” Lest anyone underestimate his craft, it was the response of someone who had been at it from his childhood and had internalized the process. At the same time, he was quite humorously self-aware of how much of his work in the 1980s was eminently forgettable. “I need money to make my own, more credible movies. It is a good balance. I respect this work and that,” he said.
Although Kapoor’s career was full of instances of his impressive acting chops, he never really projected himself as a brooding, serious artist. He knew that acting was predominantly about being in the moment and not necessarily a doctoral dissertation.
I spent about two hours on the set of the movie he was shooting that day and whose name he appeared not to remember. I watched him give perfect single takes with rather involved lines and emotions. During one of his many returns from these takes he remarked that that ease of remembering lines had come to him having seen his father theater stage days. Performances were always in the Kapoor ecology and for Shashi Kapoor, being the youngest of the three brothers, particularly so. That was one main reason why he never seemed like a labored, rehearsed performer.
All stars the world over often come to be distilled into a few memorable scenes and lines. For him it was from the 1979 movie ‘Deewar’ (The Wall) where he was paired with Amitabh Bachchan and with whom he did more than a dozen movies. The scene and the lines are so iconic for Hindi cinema audiences around the world that they need no introduction. For me it would be enough to say “Merey paas ma hai. (I have mother with me).” The measured, succinct tone with which Kapoor, playing a morally upright police officer, delivered that one line in response to a rather grandiose boast by his wayward, smuggler brother, Bachchan, remains one of Hindi cinema’s most defining moments.
Even though “Merey paas ma hai” has now become a cinematic cliché in India, it is also a great example of a no-fuss actor-star delivering from the gut of his lifelong exposure to the craft.
I surprised Kapoor by deliberately not asking about that line. “You have said and done it. There is nothing more to dwell on,” I said. On that note, we shook hands. That was 31 years ago.(Now 36 years ago) I never met him after that.