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January 07, 2018

Shashi Kapoor: Remembering The Cinematic Icon

Text by Madhu Jain

Shashi Kapoor was the last of the romantic heroes on screen, and the perfect gentleman off it, says Madhu Jain, reminiscing about a time before Tinder and YouTube

There was something about Shashi Kapoor. He was the kind of heartthrob you could fearlessly take home to mother, but chances were that mama would also fall in love with him. Actually, make that grandmother, too. I have seldom come across such collective grieving on social media, accompanied by sighs and confessions about the actor being their first crush.

What surprises me the most is that the arc of ‘mourners’ has been a very wide one: from those in their early teens to the ones in their sunset years. From bluestocking women cloistered in the ivory tower of academia and feminists to teenagers whose ‘encounters’ with this Kapoor have primarily been on YouTube. Included are a few men, I am sure. Last evening a friend told me that many men like him also had crushes on him, and were feeling very sad indeed.

Crushes and blushes
Ah, the word crush — it is a word that is almost extinct in our times of revolving-door relationships and Tinder — not to speak of the many burgeoning social media sites and apps set to introduce potential mates and lovers. The Crush and The Blush have all but vanished in our more cynical times, when innocence is not a virtue to be emulated but mocked. And, love is just something to be consumed like everything else on offer in the malls. It is love in the time of violence going by the myriad honour killings and murders by spurned lovers or stalkers. So, can I safely surmise that this outpouring of grief reveals the soft core buried under all this calculated cynicism?

Arguably, Shashi Kapoor was the last of the romantic heroes on screen, and the perfect gentleman off it. What intrigues me is the fact that he made those with whom he was interacting, even in passing, feel like they were on a one-to-one exchange. I know many actors and politicians have the ability to make the person they meet with feel that he or she is the only person in the world who exists at that moment. I certainly felt that way (and please do excuse the boast) when I was lucky enough to shake hands with the late president John Kennedy at a reception in the White House for the offsprings of diplomats. But despite being the fledgling teen that I was, I realised that the person whose hand he shook after mine would also be made to feel that she was the only one who existed in the world, during that moment at least, for the impossibly handsome American president with his cornflower-blue eyes and bronzed skin. Of course, I did not wash that hand for a couple of days. It is much the same with our equally, if not more-impossibly-handsome, Shashi Kapoor with his dimpled cheeks and a smile that reached his mischievous eyes, exposing his crooked canines. Without his imperfect teeth, he would have been too perfect, unreal, like a male Barbie doll.

But there is a big difference: the actor and film director did remember. He was known for going up to people and asking: “Haven’t we met before?” The thing is that it was not a line: the perfect gentleman with a phenomenal memory did remember! He would even tell the person where and under which circumstances they had met.

This is a quality that is, sadly, fast disappearing — the one of acknowledging people who might be perched on lower rungs of the ladders of power or of social ‘standing’. Delhi, and Mumbai to a lesser extent, overflow with those who look through you, even though you may have a shared past and are more than acquaintances. Temporary amnesia is a contagious malady that is increasingly afflicting our socialites.

Elephantine memory
Modesty is another attribute equally in short supply — one that Shashi Kapoor had oodles of. Years ago, I was commissioned to write an authorised biography of the actor. When I asked him, he politely demurred. He suggested I look at his father Prithviraj Kapoor instead, who deserved it more, he felt. Shashi preferred to talk about his siblings, or his wife Jennifer. I seldom heard him utter the ‘I’ pronoun. Eventually, the book that emerged was a biography of the family: The Kapoors. The First Family of Indian Cinema.

When I was introduced to him decades ago in Ginza, a popular Chinese restaurant in Delhi, he rose to shake hands and said: “Haven’t we met before?” Seeing my confused expression, he added: “We met in Khandla many years ago.” You could have knocked plus-size me down with a feather. He was right: some of us had gone to Khandla looking for Parikshit Sahni. And here I quote from the book: ‘We were hopelessly lost, until we saw a tall man walking down the road, the mist playing hide and seek with this figure in a white kurta pyjama. I rolled down the car window to ask for directions…. In impeccable, pucca-sahib English he obliged. There was something familiar about his voice. Curious, I rolled down the window further to stick my head out: the bemused smiling face of Shashi Kapoor came into view, And then that face with its trademark smile — one that has launched a million crushes — disappeared into the night.’

The matinee idol remembered decades later a face passing in the night. Shashi Kapoor not only had an elephantine memory, but the grace to acknowledge those he came across, however long ago and insignificant. Shashi Kapoor’s passing has made many of us tap into the sensitivities we may have possessed in an earlier passage of our lives, making us shake off the carapace of indifference under which we hide our vulnerabilities.

And, an era has passed.

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