I believe the skies opened up and it rained… as though grieving on behalf of all of us… his countless fans, admirers and colleagues. When I last met him in the ICU in hospital, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him again. He was a pale shadow of his former self… only the long lashes, curled up and thick, remained the same.
The phone rang eerily in my hotel room in Sydney. “Did you hear about Shashi Kapoor?” asked my goddaughter. “He’s gone?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered in a whisper. A cold shiver ran up my spine as I put down the phone.
Within minutes, my phone was flooded with messages… Shashi Kapoor was a dearly loved man and the obituaries came in earnest.
He was born to his mother after her child-rearing years and she was embarrassed to find herself pregnant. She tried all kinds of herbal concoctions to drop the child but he was determined to be born. Prithviraj Kapoor would say, “Shashiraj chhup ke baith gaya tha kyun ke woh mere naqshe qadam par chalega.” And his words proved to be prophetic.
Shashiji inherited a love for theatre from Papaji and would often say that he would have probably never joined films had Prithvi Theatre not closed down and if Shakespearewallahs had not moved to London. But he also inherited Prithviji’s humanity and compassion. My mother, Shaukat Kaifi, speaks of Prithviji’s compassionate nature in almost hagiographic terms, and Shashiji was truly his father’s son.
The number of people he helped financially and quietly, his concern for the well-being of those who worked with him, and his generosity were aspects of his personality he kept hidden from public view. In fact, he could be rough and scathing even. He never said a kind word to me, always ribbing me, but behind my back I would learn that he had praised my work and would often say that he was proud of me.
He taught me many things… how to avoid top light because it was so unflattering. I used to find it excruciating to face the harsh reflectors, and in outdoor scenes, my expression was inevitably the same. Whether it was a romantic scene, emotional or comic, my eyes would crinkle up. Like a strict teacher, he would force me to face the reflectors till tears rolled down my cheeks. “Film Institute mein gold medal toh mil gaya, yeh nahi sikhaya ke aankhein khuli nahi rahin toh expression kaise dikhega?” he would holler. And, finally, I did get trained to face the reflectors.
During the shooting of Junoon, he would scold me for listening to the Beatles between shots. “Why don’t you listen to Begum Akhtar instead? Shaukatji se kuchch toh seekha hota!“ My mother was known to get into her character, hours before a performance and would surround herself with stimuli that would help her inhabit the world of the character she was playing. I would make a face and reluctantly switch off the Beatles to put on Begum Akhtar. I never admitted to him that it did help.
I used to complain that he only scolded, bullied or made fun of me. But, in a crisis, he stood beside me, rock solid. In ’86, I had taken up the cause of slum dwellers in Colaba whose homes had been demolished to make way for an MLA hostel. We knocked on several doors, demanding alternative housing for them, before Anand Patwardhan and I, along with three slum dwellers, went on a hunger strike.
No actor had gone on a hunger strike before and our fraternity was confused about whether or not to express support for me. On the fifth day, my blood pressure started falling and my mother was worried. Shashi Kapoor turned up unannounced, wanting to know our demands. He left soon after and went straight to the chief minister, Shankarrao Chavan, telling him that the film industry had always supported the government in a crisis and now it was the government’s responsibility to reciprocate. The chief minister must not let the demands of one of its members go unheard. The CM summoned the housing minister, who came back with Shashiji to the Colaba footpath where we were, conceding alternative land for the slum dwellers and urged us to end the hunger strike with a glass of juice.
I was on stage, about to thank Shashi Kapoor for negotiating the deal for us, when I saw him step away from the media glare, slip away into an alley and disappear. “I had nothing to do with it. It’s their victory,” he said firmly, before driving away. The fact is that I don’t know how much longer we would have had to continue with the strike had Shashiji not intervened but he didn’t want any accolades and never spoke about it, ever. That’s the kind of person he was.
Was? I’m referring to him in the past tense but we will never really lose him because, in death, his spirit, trapped in a frail body, has been set free and will surround us like the air we breathe.
– Shabana Azmi