Shashi Kapoor – a Stylish Lover Boy, but an Underrated Actor Who Could Have Been a Lot More

While the veteran actor gave some unforgettable performances, he did not always get roles that challenged him.

The last of the three Kapoor brothers, who strode across the Hindi film industry for three decades, is gone. The debonair actor, who had remained out of the limelight for years, was 79. Shashi Kapoor was the youngest after Raj and Shammi Kapoor and though he made his adult debut in 1961, he really came into his own in the 1970s when he was one of the busiest actors around. So busy in fact, that his own brother Raj Kapoor found it difficult to get time from him for his film Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Kapoor was known for his good looks and was often underrated as an actor, being cast again and again as a charming lover boy in innumerable 1960s romances. It was only in the following decade that he got roles that exploited his talent. He was part of many multi-starrers, often playing a ‘parallel’ role to the bigger star Amitabh Bachchan but stood out for his quiet grace and dignity in films like Deewaar.

Kapoor made his debut in his brother’s film Aag (1948) as a child artist and then worked again with him in Awaara as the kid who grows up to be a delinquent. At the same time, he was part of his father’s traveling theatre group, Prithvi Theatres. He worked as an assistant director in a few films and finally got an opportunity to act as the lead in Dharmputra (1961) as the fiery young Hindu boy who discovers a life-altering secret about himself.

In 1965, he appeared in films such as Waqt, directed by Yash Chopra and Jab Jab Phool Khile, both blockbusters, but for the most part his films were routine, frothy confections of that period, shot in the hills and involving little more than romancing the heroine.

But Kapoor, by then married to his childhood sweetheart Jennifer Kendal, made a big shift to English language films produced by the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory duo, starting with The Householder (1963). His charming looks, fluency in English and ease in that milieu made him the perfect candidate for their cross-cultural movies. He acted in five of their productions, ending the partnership with In Custody/Muhafiz (1993), where he played an ageing Urdu poet.

A still from The Householder.

The 1970s saw a sudden spurt in his career, beginning with Sharmilee (1971) and then continuing with box-office hits such as Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973) and Chor Machaye Shor (1974), but it was in Deewaar, as the principled younger brother of the criminal Bachchan that he really stood out. His line, “Mere paas maa hai’ in answer to Bachchan’s claim of being successful, is still remembered and repeated.

Bachchan and he became a team, acting in eight films together including the huge hit Kabhi Kabhie (1976).

It was around this time that Kapoor decided to turn producer, committing himself to producing quality, art house films – Junoon (1978), Kalyug (1981) and Utsav (1984) followed and were greatly appreciated by the critics, but did modest commercial business. He then tried his hand at directing, making the big budget blockbuster Ajooba (1991), a fantasy film with Bachchan in the lead, which sank at the box office, causing him immense financial distress.

Post the Ajooba debacle, Kapoor acted in a few forgettable films and then faded away from public life after last appearing in Jinnah (1998). He concentrated on Prithvi Theatre, a drama space in Mumbai’s Juhu managed by his son Kunal and was often spotted there in his wheelchair, but never gave interviews.

Films like Deewaar, Kalyug and New Delhi Times showed what a good actor he could be, though he did not always get roles that challenged him. He leaves behind his sons Kunal and Karan and daughter Sanjna.

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