*Remembering Shashi Kapoor*
by Simi Garewal.
Dec 6, 2017.
It's like I've always known Shashi! You see, I arrived in Mumbai to join Bollywood when I was 15. I'm not sure if the Raj Kapoor family adopted me or I adopted them, but soon I felt I was a part of their family. So, I met Shashi often, as I did all the other Kapoor family members. But Shashi always came across as different! In the sense, his bothers Rajji and Shammiji were flamboyant showbiz people. Shashi, on the other hand, was always quiet and quite 'unfilmi'!
There were some offers even way back then for casting us, from Ismail Merchant and others, but they didn't work out till Siddhartha. Shashi was incredibly professional. Punctual, polite to everyone on set — he was a perfect co-star. Most supportive and encouraging to me when I needed it. One couldn't ask for more.
I must add, Shashi is that rare person in captious Bollywood whom no one spoke a word against. He was never rude, never misbehaved nor interfered. You could not fault him on any count and that's a badge of honour.
I recall Shashi and I travelled to New York for the opening of Siddhartha. The long flights together gave us a chance to talk non-stop in between catching up on sleep. We were received by st-r-e-e-t-c-h limousines which became our mode of travel. Shashi would sink into the leather seats and laugh, "Sheer luxury. I could get so used to it," he'd say. There were large hoardings of us on the streets and he would point, "Slow down. Look!" (Pity we had no mobiles then).
It was 1972. We had gone for the Venice Film Festival. It was a great meeting ground for renowned world filmmakers and international media and Shashi simply shone! Everyone would gather at the bar by midday. Everyone drank; I was the only teetotaller. "Come on Simi, you can't just sip on Cokes — I'll get you a cocktail," Shashi insisted. "No please I hate alcohol." "Just try it na," he persuaded me, "Take a sip. Chuck it if it's awful." And he introduced me to a Bellini (champagne and peaches). I loved it! Shashi seemed in his element there. I saw his sophistication, his savoir faire, which I could never see in India. He was the only actor who knew how to order food and wines in a restaurant, knew how to eat and had perfect table manners. No other actor has ever had his level of international style.
Women were always hitting on Shashi, falling all over him, openly, even in front of their husbands! Shashi was so cool in the way he handled them, that it made them get even more moony-eyed and bolder. I remember an Italian lady left her table and came to ours; ignoring us she literally clung to Shashi. Her husband arrived and yelled at his wife — she screamed back at him and a fight ensued. It was amazing to watch how expertly Shashi handled her — and deposited her back to her husband. She left the restaurant still blowing kisses to Shashi!
The 'Siddhartha' night will remain with me as long as I live. Shashi and I walked from our hotel Excelsior Palace to the theatre. Shashi, in a dark Jodhpuri, looked exquisite beside me. I had on my Siddhartha head jewellery and wore a long train on my evening coat and some young Italian boys picked up the edges and trailed behind me all the way. The paparazzi went mad!
After the screening, we went up on stage and received a standing ovation. The applause continued for fifteen minutes — going on and on — wave after wave. We'd take our 'last bow' — and the applause rose each time... the audience didn't want to let us go. It was magical. Surreal. 'Siddhartha' won the Silver Lion Award in Venice.
Conrad was a generous host. We'd dine out each night at Harry's Bar. Mostly we'd travel by motor boat, but this last night, we came out of Harry's Bar and Shashi said 'Hum to aaj gondola men jayenge' (Funny thing — when we were abroad, Shashi often spoke to me in Hindi). So we got into a gondola and of course the gondolier sang for us. Then Shashi, our mild, ever-dignified, always-so-proper Shashi, stood up and started a peculiar half-Hindi duet with the gondolier! Each Italian line was followed with a made-up Hindi line! He was so funny — I couldn't stop laughing. Then Shashi started belting out Shammi Kapoor songs with abandon, on top of his voice! Now, Shashi CAN'T sing! But passing gondolas cheered and clapped. It was like a comedy scene from a film.
A few years ago, Shashi and I were honoured with awards for 'Siddhartha' in Delhi. We watched the film with the audience and as the scenes unfolded Shashi whispered to me, "You know, I can't remember a thing about 'Siddhartha'. Not a thing. It's all a blur to me".
It saddened me deeply; and that night his words kept haunting me. I thought, is it all really a blur ? Is Venice a blur too ? The standing ovation ? The gondola ? After 'Siddhartha', we got many offers to work together, but only 'Naach Uthe Sansaar' and 'Kabhi Kabhie' worked out. 'Ahsaas' was a lovely film we shot for Ramesh Sippy, I don't know why he shelved it.
As an actor, Shashi's proclivities were always too refined for Bollywood. Maybe that was Jennifer's influence. He hated all the naach-gaana stuff but acquiesced just to keep working and earning.
You see, as I've always believed in my Rendezvous shows, to really understand a man you have to know his wife...Here was a young Shashi who saw this beautiful woman on stage and fell in love with the 'pari'. He pursued her with the tenacity of youth. Jennifer became not just his wife, but also his muse, his greatest influence and definitely the anchor of his life. They lived in their own little world away from the razzmatazz of Bollywood. Shashi always sought Jennifer's approval. Her opinions mattered. For a Shakespearean actor of Jennifer's calibre — the Bollywood of that time was pretty lowbrow, to put it mildly. Especially the 'naach-gaana' stuff — and Shashi began to feel that too. Even though Prithviraj Kapoor started as a stage actor, Shashi's foray into art cinema and theatre was a distinct manifestation of Jennifer's influence.
Who was the real Shashi Kapoor? It was hard to tell. Jennifer occupied, or Shashi himself seceded a large part of his personality to her and they merged. And then, when the anchor died, Shashi was rudderless. With Jennifer gone, Shashi struggled, but couldn't find himself. That vast area of his personality that was Jennifer, now lay empty. A void. I met him in London over dinner with Ismail Merchant and could see he was floundering; he was different, not himself. Shashi eventually gave up the inner struggle and almost became a recluse.
Sometimes, years would go by without our meeting; but Shashi was my friend so he remained in my radar. We met last at an award function. At the far end of the corridor there was this figure in a wheelchair. Sanjna said to me, "He's had a stroke, so one side is paralysed. He also had a heart attack and lots of problems. He doesn't remember people. So don't be upset. I'm just warning you."
It didn't matter if Shashi remembered me or not, I still had to go to him. I bent down to look into his tired face. His eyes lifted and focused on me and he said: "Hello Simi." I felt like laughing and crying. I just wanted to hug him. I'm grateful he was bestowed with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award and I hope it meant much to him. He looked healthy and wonderful while receiving it — just like my Siddhartha.
Now, to know that he has gone forever fills me with a deep sadness. No one can fill the empty space he leaves behind. His sheer beauty. His gentle demeanour. And also, at times, a wicked sense of humour! He has touched so many hearts through his films and his passion for cinema. And that's where he will remain — on the silver screen — and in our hearts.