Bombay Diary 17th June 2016

India must be the most movie-crazy, star-obsessed country in the world. Yet, how many books are there on Bollywood heroes and heroine? Very, very few. One of the reasons could well be ‘Access’: cinema correspondents of newspapers or editors of film magazines cultivate movie stars, and in turn, the stars begin to trust a chosen few of them. In this mutually beneficial relationship, trust is extremely important, and a tell-all book would end that relationship forever.

What about an authorised biography? I have known Shashi Kapoor for very many years and over our meetings over lunch or dinner, heard such interesting stories that I was itching to write them down. Publishers were more than keen to bring out the book, so what was the hitch? Shashi himself: ‘If I tell the complete truth about people I have known, I will hurt them. If I don`t tell the truth, what`s the point of the book?’ That was his logic. I tried to tell him that there was a middle way, but there was no convincing him. Now Aseem Chhabra, an India columnist based in New York, has done it. His book Shashi Kapoor, The Householder, The Star treads that middle path, so that while it is an unauthorised biography, there is nothing in it which could raise the subject`s hackles.

Proof of that was in the book`s release by Literature Live! Evenings at Mumbai`s Sofitel Hotel in BKC last Saturday: present on the stage was Shashi Kapoor`s son Kunal, which gave the book a kind of informal approval. With him were Shyam Benegal, Aseem Chhabra, Malavika Sangghvi and me. During the hour long inter-action, many anecdotes were shared, none better than Kunal`s reply to Malavika when she asked, “Was Shashi a tolerant father? Could you, for example, bring your girl friends home?” “Not on your life!” Kunal said. “The difference in age between my Dad and me was only 20 years, so if at 21 I brought a girl friend home, and she saw my Dad, do you think she would want to look at me again?”

Benegal talked about Kapoor as producer. (Shyam directed Junoon and Kalyugfor Shashi`s production house, Filmvalas). “Once we had agreed on the script – during which process Shashi would, of course, give ideas and make suggestions – but once we had agreed on details, Shashi would not interfere at all. He respected the fact that on the floor, it`s the director who is in charge.” There was another telling revelation: “Quite often, I would visualise a scene in a way which would save money. ‘But this scene needs much more!’ Shashi would say. He is the only producer I know who would actually want the director to spend more money !”

Someone from the audience wanted to know if Kapoor got his due as an actor or if he was always underrated. The general consensus was that his acting talentswere recognised. For example, he got the National Award for Best Actor for New Delhi Times and a special Jury Award for In Custody. Also perceptive film critics recognised the important role he played in one of the most successful acting partnerships ever in Indian cinema, the one between him and Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan may have had the more showy roles, but he also shone because Shashi gave him just the right degree of support, never trying to upstage him. If at all people underrated him as an actor, I said, it was because he was far too good looking!

When you look back at film like Junoon and Kalyug again, you notice two things. First, and most obviously, what a fine actor Shashi was in his prime. And second, the films he produced (there were six in all if memory serves right), how far ahead of time they were. If they had been made today, they would have had a great multiplex audience and would have made a tidy profit. Instead of which, in the single screen cinemas of old, they all made losses.

Great looker, fine actor, wonderful producer, warm human being… We ran out of adjectives describing Shashi Kapoor. The sad thing was that he was unable to be there because of his health and so couldn’t hear us going on about him this way. Just as well, I suppose. If he had been present, he would have just asked us to shut up and not embarrass him, and that would have been the end of the evening