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08.12.2017

Three years ago, an editor got in touch to ask if I was interested in writing a film book, about any subject of my choice. It was the summer of 2014. I had lived in the US for 33 years, working for about half that time as a journalist, mostly covering film. I jumped at the idea of writing the biography of a Bollywood star, even as I worried about the challenges of working on this book from New York City. We floated several ideas for a subject, but it took a few months before I thought of writing about Shashi Kapoor.

I had been a fan for as long as I could remember. In 1971, I skipped a school drama rehearsal to see him in Samir Ganguly’s Sharmeelee at Regal cinema in Connaught Place. I watched his early 1960’s films on Doordarshan: I’m still drawn to Jab Jab Phool Khile, in which the handsome young Shashi Kapoor plays a poor shikara-walla who falls in love with rich city girl Nanda. I saw all his work in the Yash Chopra productions of the 1970s, from Kabhie Kabhie (1976), in which he played a jovial Punjabi businessman married to Amitabh Bachchan’s first love; to Deewar (1975) in which he played an unforgettable upright cop.

No actor made it seem easier to exist in two different worlds. In Bollywood, he was a bona fide movie star: handsome, utterly charming, and a fine actor whose talent shone even when he was playing supporting roles to Bachchan's angry young men. But at home, he was husband to Jennifer Kendal Kapoor, who came from theatre.

I saw the then-scandalous Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) in Srinagar with my father – he loved the film, while I found it sexist and regressive; I remember the movie less for Shashi than for how offended I was with the way Raj Kapoor exposed Zeenat Aman in the film to titillate the audience. Before I left for New York in 1981, I even saw Shashi’s first home production – Shyam Benegal’s spectacular period piece Junoon (1979) at Archana cinema hall in south Delhi.

No actor made it seem easier to exist in two different worlds. In Bollywood, he was a bona fide movie star: handsome, utterly charming, and a fine actor whose talent shone even when he was playing supporting roles to Bachchan's angry young men. But at home, he was husband to Jennifer Kendal Kapoor, who came from theatre -- much like Shashi's own family -- and created a life for the couple and their children as intelligent and grounded as she herself was.

Years later, as a journalism student at Columbia University, I went to a retrospective of films produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by his American partner James Ivory. Among the films I watched for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art were three early works of Shashi Kapoor – The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Bombay Talkie (1970).

It was a magical experience sitting in the dark theaters at MoMA, connecting with my Indian roots and my love for Hindi cinema, through these rare American productions featuring Shashi.

It was a magical experience sitting in the dark theaters at MoMA, connecting with my Indian roots and my love for Hindi cinema, through these rare American productions featuring Shashi. Later, in the fall of 1983, James Ivory’s new film Heat & Dust opened at the prestigious Paris Theater, and the lines to enter the hall snaked around Fifth Avenue. Inside, on the giant screen, Shashi loomed over us, playing a regal maharaja having an affair with a British officer’s wife.

And so it turned out that I was planning to write my biography of Shashi Kapoor long before I had even thought of it. Over the years, stories of him cropped up again and again as I followed the works of Merchant and Ivory and interviewed them, as well as the wonderful actress Madhur Jaffrey, who also lives in New York City, a number of times. Tale after tale about the Merchant Ivory films included instances of their running out of money and Shashi stepping in to float the productions. (For their first two films – The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, Shashi even agreed to defer his actor’s salary.)

When I decided to write Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star, I wanted the book to be more than just a biography of a former star, who by 2014 was unwell and lost in the haze of dementia. Shashi had not acted in films since 1998, and I feared that younger people was largely unaware of his contribution to cinema and theater, and that he was India’s first crossover artist.

I did not cover all his films in the book; that was not the point. I wrote the book to connect my life in New York with my childhood and teenage years in India, through my love for films, for Bollywood, and especially for this most unusual of movie stars. I wanted to honour an actor who had enriched my life in two countries, halfway around the world from each other. No one could have bridged the distance with more elegance or more charm.

Aseem Chhabra is an entertainment writer and a film festival programmer based in New York City. Find Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star, here.

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