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Of Jennifer, Utsav and more

Shashi Kapoor isn't the kind to live in the past. But memories have a way of landing bang in the present demanding attention, BAGESHREE S. discovers, in conversation with the yesteryear star

(Photo: Courtesy Roli Books)

Shashi Kapoor in a villain's role in Prithvi Theatres' Kisan.

"MERE PAAS maa hain," doesn't exactly sound like a line that would leave women swooning all around a guy. But Shashi Kapoor — the mama's good boy who was pitted against the charismatic bad boy Amitabh Bacchan in Deewar — had an enviable female fan following in the Seventies and Eighties. When he appeared in Stardust, bare-chested by a pool, smiling with a drink beside him, the glitzy magazine's mailbox was choking with frenzied fan mails demanding reprints of the picture in the subsequent issue.

So what was it about the man that sent many a heart thumping? Was it his chiselled (some would say effeminate) features that looked perfect in profiles and black-and-white pictures and those dimples? Was it the very fact that he was an odd sensitive, soft guy in an era dominated by angry young men? (Pssst... We learn that Jennifer Kendal, who later married him, thought he was gay when she first saw him!) Was he a metrosexual male long before the word was coined?

Never an angry man

Shashi laughs heartily. "Oh god! I don't even know what the word means!" And adds a correction: he started acting in films a good 10 years ahead of Amitabh, and so, he wasn't exactly an upstart in the era of angry young men. "Yes, I was never angry. Like your own Anant Nag. All I can say is that I enjoyed doing all that I did and did it passionately." He is, after all, essentially man of theatre, who started out as a child actor in his father's Prithvi Theatres. And passion is what drives theatre. "As Frank Sinatra once put it, we are `one-take people'."

Shashi doesn't like to dwell too much on all that, though. He now spends a lot of time with several cancer institutes; it's a malady to which he has lost his wife, father and mother. "I am an old man now," he says. "I have been lucky and led a full life. Imagine being born into a theatre and film family, having a great wife, a great family... I would have no regrets if I died tomorrow."

But memories don't die easily. They insist on re-visitations like ghosts. Shashi knows that. The senior artistes in Prithvi Theatres, started by his father Prithviraj Kapoor, knew it too. "They often told me that the chunha, their word for make-up, you once put on the face never goes away. I now know what they meant." That explains why we have Shashi revisiting his father and his own days in the theatre company in The Prithviwallahs (Roli Books). The well-produced tome chronicles how his father started the Prithvi Theatres in 1944, how Shashi and his family built a permanent structure for it in Mumbai in 1978, and how it is now run by his children. Theatre was a junoon to his father, says Shashi. "That's a subtle word that means an obsession bordering on madness," he explains. You ask him why the book chooses to be entirely laudatory, with no mention of differences of opinion, ego clashes, run-ins between father and son and so on. "I was the youngest son. My father was already 47 when I joined the company. By then he was a man full of wisdom... the kind you don't see very often now. Moreover, we had no time for quarrels!"

Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

The chunha you put on your face in theatre stays with you for life, says Shashi.

Not that it was a picture-perfect family without ego clashes. Eldest brother Raj Kapoor was a mere 17 years younger than his father and 15 years younger than his mother. Of course there were clashes, more like fights among siblings. "When Raj went out with my mother, people thought he was going out with a girlfriend!" Shashi laughs. But wasn't Shashi the renegade in the family, marrying a firang, acting in firang plays and films? Given the Kapoor tradition of women not working once married, Jennifer must have been a culture shock to the clan. "This business of Kapoor women not being allowed to act is media-constructed," insists Shashi. You remind him about Randhir Kapoor's wife Babita and Rishi's wife Neetu Singh. "They both chose not to act," he insists again. Babita had reached the peak of her career and Neetu had been an actress since she was a child. Both were tired of it all for their own reasons.

Memories not only re-visit, but also set off a chain of fellow memories. Talk of Jennifer and it brings Shashi to Bangalore and to MTR! Back in 1956, he had come to Bangalore as a "poor actor" with Jennifer's parents' company Shakespeareana. They lived in a guesthouse "run by a kind Anglo-Indian lady" and often visited MTR to eat "great idlis and dosas". Renting a bicycle then cost Rs. 1 per day. "But we often didn't have money for even that," he recalls. They went around schools and colleges staging Shakespeare's plays.

Utsav's shooting

Much later, when he came to Bangalore in the early Eighties for the shooting of his home production Utsav, he tells you that he wanted to cast Amitabh in the role of Samsthanak in the film. "That was the time he had met with a major accident in Bangalore and I had to finally play the role myself." Having watched him in that fantastic role, you can't imagine anyone else doing it, you tell him. "But I can," he says. "Amitabh has unmatched comic timing."While in Bangalore to launch The Prithviwallahs, the memory of MTR's aroma dragged Shashi right back to the old place near Lalbagh. He starved on the plane and headed right there to eat rava idlis and dosas. "The ghee-rich food isn't good for me," he admits, pointing to his generous girth. "That's why I washed it all down with sugarless coffee!"

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