29 March 2015

Shashi Kapoor, the perfect partner

My Mirror column today: 

Whether paired with Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi or his wife Jennifer onscreen, the understandably secure Shashi Kapoor always made for a compelling foil in the movies.

I think he's completely deserving of it, but Shashi Kapoor might seem an unusual choice for the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Unlike his larger-than-life father, Prithviraj, whose grand passion for theatre and cinema started the Kapoor clan off on their path to show business, and unlike his two elder brothers Raj and Shammi, both of whom - though not comparable - carved out distinct, individual niches for themselves in an unforgiving film industry, Shashi has always been the perfect foil. Never an actor who sought to have the spotlight turned solely on him, he has always been someone who gave himself wholly and freely in partnerships. And rarely, in the world as in cinema, is that quality given the applause it deserves. 

One of his earliest romantic pairings, with the lovely late actress Nanda, lasted through the whole decade of the 60s, with seven films, starting with Char Diwari (1961) and ending with Rootha Na Karo (1970). The most successful of these, of course, was Jab Jab Phool Khilein (1965), in which he went from being a carefree Kashmiri boatman singing 'Pardesiyon se na ankhiyan milana' to being the wealthy Nanda's uncomfortably suited-booted husband, singing 'Yahan main ajnabi hoon' at the sort of piano-centred party that Hindi cinema so often used to depict the terrible un-Indian debaucheries of the rich. In an interview in the 90s, Shashi said Nanda was his favourite heroine. Nanda, who was by far the bigger star when they started acting together, returned the compliment. The figure of the ghuta-hua poorer man to the little rich girl of 60s cinema was one Shashi repeated the following year, in Waqt, where he played Sharmila Tagore's educated-but-poor lover who must work as a driver to support his mother. 

A very different sort of partnership, with Amitabh Bachchan is, of course, legendary. The two did so many films together that Jaya Bhaduri once apparently referred to Shashi as her "soutan", because he spent more time with her husband than she did. The Amitabh-Shashi on-screen relationship ran the gamut, from estranged brothers (most famously in the 1975 classic Deewar, but also in other films like 1979's Suhaag), to servant and master (Namak Halal, 1982), blue collar worker and white collar boss (Kala Patthar, 1979), sometimes even sort-of-rivals for the love of a woman (Kabhie Kabhie). Much as I loved watching Shashi's sunny, ethical engineer play off the brooding Amitabh in the fictionalised prevention of a real-life mining tragedy that was Kala Patthar, my favourite of their performances together is probably the ridiculously enjoyable Do Aur Do Paanch, in which they play rival thugs who've taken jobs at a school, pretending to be music teacher and sports teacher respectively, in order to kidnap a little boy. 

Amitabh being the spotlight-grabber that he is, it took a persona as secure as Shashi's to remain completely unthreatened. Which he did, despite the conspiracy theories floated in film magazines of the time, about Shashi's role having been cut down to size in Deewaar. In a short but rather remarkable 1975 interview to Bikram Vohra in Filmfare, Shashi categorically refused to add any fuel to that fire: "[I]t's ridiculous to say that Amitabh's role [in Deewaar] was engineered to show me up. After all, before I took the role I knew I was playing the second lead. So the idea of a conspiracy against Shashi Kapoor is Bullsh*t. And in any case why do we have this hang-up in our country? About always coming out as heroes. In the West great names like Olivier, Burton, Harrison frequently played second roles. There's nothing demeaning about that." 

Another of Shashi's most interesting - if somewhat unlikely - romantic pairings was with Shabana Azmi. The films they did together that remain embedded in my mind are both literary adaptations. They played husband and wife in the memorable Junoon (1978), Shyam Benegal's adaptation of Ruskin Bond's A Flight of Pigeons, and many years later, in the 1993 In Custody (Muhafiz), the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Anita Desai's novel by the same name. Shabana plays the neglected, petulant wife in both films, but Shashi's roles could not be more stunningly different: a fiery young 1857 mutineer called Javed, and an aged, overweight poet whose world is crumbling. As an aside: it's funny to think of the fact of these actors as people who've known each other for ever - that same Bikram Vohra interview from 1975 has Shashi tossing off a remark about how he told Shabana that she's a great actress but not very goodlooking (as opposed to Parveen Babi, to whom he apparently said the opposite). 

But perhaps Shashi's oddest and most interesting film pairings were with his wife Jennifer Kendall. The first one I recall is also in Junoon, where as the troubled Javed, Shashi becomes obsessed with the teenaged Ruth (an exquisitely young Nafisa Ali) and his potentially dangerous attentions are only kept at bay by Jennifer, playing Ruth's mother Miriam. The second is in the 1970 Merchant Ivory production Bombay Talkie, where he played a Bombay film star who has an affair with the visiting American novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer). These were not performances that let on that the two actors were, in fact, husband and wife. 

I don't know very much about their real-life relationship, but the same 1975 interview paints a picture of the Jennifer-Shashi household as one where Shashi was forced to eat organic breakfasts at 7.30 am, and occasionally, at least, have vegetarian stints. This seemed unbelievable to the Filmfare journalist in 1975. But it fits perfectly with Sanjana Kapoor's memory of growing up in a house where three things were banned: aerated cold drinks, comics and film magazines. Clearly, Shashi's lifelong ability to keep the Hindi film world he was born into at a safe, sane, distance owed something to Jennifer. But that would need another column.

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