Shashi Kapoor, an actor from the Indian film industry’s famous Kapoor family who was equally adept at doing commercial and artistic roles, was born Balbir Raj Prithviraj Kapoor on 18 March 1938 in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
Since he was a small child, he started acting in plays made by his father, Prithviraj Kapoor, as part of the Prithvi Theatres. He later appeared as a child actor in films such as ‘Aag’ (1948), ‘Sangram’ (1950), ‘Awaara’ (1951) and ‘Dana Paani’ (1953). His role in ‘Awaara’ as the younger Raj (whose adult avatar was played by his brother Raj Kapoor) was particularly striking.
He worked as an assistant director in some films as well. He met the British actress Jennifer Kendal, who was part of a travelling theatre group, in Calcutta. They married in 1958.
Shashi Kapoor’s first film in a lead role was the Yash Chopra-directed ‘Dharmputra’, in which he played the role of a Hindu fundamentalist. He, uniquely among popular Hindi film actors, acted in several English films in his career.
Among these was ‘The Householder’, a Merchant Ivory film. A simple domestic drama, the film has Shashi Kapoor playing the role of Prem Sagar, a teacher who has to adjust to a newly-married life with Indu, played by Leela Naidu. ‘Shakespeare Wallah’, another Merchant Ivory production, is a story of a British theatre actress who falls in love with an Indian man, played by Shashi Kapoor.
Describing his choice of films, the film critic Dinesh Raheja wrote on rediff.com: “[Shashi] Kapoor believed in pushing the envelope, while remaining rooted in commercial cinema. Right from the 1960s, Shashi did pivotal roles in some much-discussed English films like [Ismail] Merchant-[James] Ivory’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ and ‘Heat And Dust’, as well as Conrad Rooks’ ‘Siddhartha’, becoming one of the most recognisable Indian actors in the West. Rooks’ ‘Siddhartha’ was esoteric and a little opaque, but fuelled by its bold scenes, it became a cultural landmark.”
In Hindi cinema Shashi Kapoor acted alongside many heroines, among them notably Nanda. Their films together included commercially successful ones like ‘Mohabbat Isko Kahete Hain’ (1965), ‘Neend Hamari Khwab Tumhare’ (1966), and ‘Rootha Na Karo’ (1970). He acted with Raakhee in films such as ‘Kabhi Kabhie’, ‘Pighalta Aasman’ and ‘Trishna’. With Sharmila Tagore he acted in films such as ‘Aamne Samne’, ‘Aa Gale Lag Jaa’ and ‘New Delhi Times’. He also worked with Zeenat Aman (‘Deewaangee’, ‘Roti Kapda Aur Makan’, ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, etc) and Hema Malini.
The 1986 Hindi film ‘New Delhi Times’, directed by Romesh Sharma and based on corruption in the media, fetched Shashi Kapoor a National Film Award for Best Actor.
One of Shashi Kapoor’s most remembered role was in the 1975 blockbuster ‘Deewar’, directed by Yash Chopra. Here Shashi Kapoor played the role of a committed cop pitted against his brother (played by Amitabh Bachchan) who is part of the underworld.
Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor went on to act together in films such as ‘Trishul’ and ‘Namak Halal’. Asked about his equation with Bachchan in an interview to The Hindu in 2003, Shashi Kapoor said: “We both are disciplined actors. Even as human beings, we knew how to maintain professional ethics that did not exist at that time. We respected each other’s talent and wouldn't step on each other's toes. We didn't have egos then.”
Shashi Kapoor, who also tried his hand at production and direction, stopped acting in films after the 1990s, partly on account of his poor health. His image in the popular imagination continues to be of a charming, suave and unconventional actor.
Also on this day:
1939 — Goundamani, Tamil film actor and comedian, was born
1965 — Alisha Chinai, Indian pop singer, was born