In recent days, several media tributes have made it clear that Shashi Kapoor was the quintessential gentleman both on and off the screen. In fact it was; but the most important thing is that chivalry was accompanied by uncommon integrity. Unlike some of his colleagues of equally educated origins, Kapoor never politically aligned for personal gain or avoided taking a position, one that was unmistakable but never milked for publicity.
Take a position
There is this story, for example, that very few people know. During the second phase of the Mumbai riots in 1993, a Muslim friend who lived in the same building as Kapoor did in South Mumbai was forced to leave with her family when murder and chaos reached even the gates of the protected elite. While they were gone, the steering committee held a meeting to approve a resolution according to which Muslims would not be allowed to live in the building. The only person who fought this and eventually left the meeting angry was Kapoor. I can not think of too many celebrities who would have stuck in this way, and if they had, they did not have dinner for the next hundred years.
Kapoor’s reluctance to proclaim his actions / achievements was evident almost everywhere. Shabana Azmi, in a recent tribute, spoke of how he was the man who resolved the impasse in the slums of Gita Nagar by meeting the prime minister, but silently disappeared when Azmi thanked all his followers. A friend of mine, associate editor of a major film magazine, once told me that Kapoor had refused to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award of the publication several times because he had done nothing to deserve it. What is this called: objectivity, self-deprecation? All I know is that in an obsessed industry, hungry for credit and publicity, he must have been the only one who rejected an honor like that. Yes, he finally accepted (although I’m not sure he was even able to make that decision). And it was wonderful that he did it, touching even though it was to see this once incredibly handsome frail man in a wheelchair.
‘Hi, I’m Shashi Kapoor’
This tendency of Kapoor to underestimate himself perhaps explained the way in which he presented himself to the people, with a line of disarmament that was the polar opposite of the average public figure ‘Jaante nahin main kaun hoon’. arrogance. Fourteen years ago, when I was introduced to him at the Marrakech Film Festival, he was with a group of people (none of them as famous as he is for what I can remember). While everyone nodded or greeted us, the actor smiled and said, “Hi, my name is Shashi Kapoor.” No, it was not false humility (although for a moment I asked myself if I was being funny); it was a foot-in-the-ground greeting of a man with his feet on the ground … and as I realized much later, atakiya kalaamof type.
The same lack of pretension had been evident many years before, when he gave me and two friends who knew him. Well past his best moment then, he was still extremely charming, chatting with us indulgently about this and that and showing that charming smile. My friends went down to Mahim. I had to continue until Bandra, and being socially uncomfortable and particularly with the tongue in his presence, I commented on the music that was heard on the cover of his car because I felt compelled to say something. Shashi Kapoor turned around from the front seat and said, quite surprised, “Do you understand Urdu? Do you like ghazals?” “A lot,” I replied. “Oh, that’s fine, I did not think the kids would care too much,” he said and continued to talk about Urdu’s poetry, his sukoon and depth. “There are ghazals in the melancholic pleasure of unrequited love … would anyone even consider that a form of love today?” he asked rhetorically. Thinking about the past, I wonder what he did with the toxic baseness of Yo Yo Honey Singh who went through music in his last years.
Real and reel
Was it because Shashi Kapoor was so cultured and decent in real life that the filmmakers extended that decency to his person on the screen? Think of Kabhi Kabhie, where he scolds himself for being a “ghatiya aadmi” for feeling jealous of his wife’s former lover. Or to Trishul, where Amitabh Bachchan’s cunning stealing the keys of her car to prevent her from joining her girlfriend, is actually taken lightly despite the provocation. Or the very significant musical exchanges in films like Prem Kahani between his wife / girlfriend and his ex, where he simply looked with a smiling and happy ignorance.This type of song sequence, a specialty of the past Bollywood, is supremely ridiculous, but Shashi Kapoor in the role of the good-hearted simpleton (perhaps a lasting handover of Jab Jab Phool Khile) made him half believable.
One last point: “Mere paas maa hai.” This has to be one of the most parodied dialogues in the history of Indian cinema, but the next time you see Deewar, look carefully at the last minute of that scene … how Kapoor , with only close-ups of reaction and a line in his kitten, he managed it despite being faced with the fire and brimstone of Amitabh Bachchan and the aggressive dialogue. With a minor actor, that line could have fallen, but the unwavering gaze of Kapoor, his unmistakable sincerity and the honesty in his face made it one of the great moments of popular cinema.
Thanks for the magic, Shashi Kapoor.