On Stage

January 2018

An odd thought struck me when I went to Prithvi House in Juhu to bid farewell to the mortal remains of Shashi Kapoor: Here was the man universally regarded as Indian cinema`s handsomest star, but his sensibilities were so very different from Bollywood`s. In fact, in thought, and later in deed, he was what one would call an ‘NCPA man’.

I first met him when he was the busiest actor in cinema: it was said that he had signed 140 films simultaneously. “Is that true?” I asked him. “Who`s counting?” he said with a puckish smile. “I am a Taxi Hero. You hail me, and I put my meter down.” Perhaps there was a bit of cynicism there: Hindi cinema at that time generally stuck to the tried and tested formula. If you were a star, as Kapoor undoubtedly was, you played yourself in every film; Shashi with the looks that made every woman swoon, was typecast as the romantic hero, so what difference did it make how many movies he shot at the same time?

Luckily a few directors like Yash Chopra, Prakash Mehra and, of course brother Raj Kapoor, saw that under the dashing exterior there was a real actor wanting to get out, and so came about films like DeewarNamak HalaalKabhi KabhieTrishna and New Delhi Times. The Ismail Merchant-James Ivory team put Shashi on the international map with wonderful movies like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah and Heat and Dust.

At the absolute peak of his career, Shashi Kapoor did the unexpected: he turned Producer. This, of course, isn`t unusual because stars turn producers of films they act in so they can earn their fees plus a large chunk of the film`s box-office profits. But Shashi seemed to turn producer in order to lose money! At least it would seem so because the films he made with directors like Shyam Benegal (Junoon, Kalyug), Aparna Sen (36, Chowringhee Lane) and Girish Karnad (Utsav) were far ahead of their time. In today`s era of multiplexes, these outstanding movies would have more than recovered their investment.

What drove Shashi Kapoor into these uncharted waters? What made him build Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, the place where Mumbai`s theatre has found its heart and soul? His wife Jennifer Kendal, who died tragically young at 46, was undoubtedly a central influence. But there were other influences too: there was his father, Prithviraj Kapoor and his travelling  theatre company Prithvi Theatres, which played often in Mumbai’s Royal Opera House. Prithviraj Kapoor was a star of silent cinema, but a devotee of theatre, and put money earned from films into his plays. Like father, like son?

Then there were the Kendals, English actors Geoffrey and wife Laura, who toured India with their troupe called Shakespeareana. Shashi joined them as a young actor playing many bit roles. (His best role in the company was undoubtedly falling in love with and marrying the Kendal`s daughter, Jennifer). I remember as a child going to their performances in make-shift venues in a small town in UP. English actors! Shakespeare and Shaw!! Everyone was thrilled beyond words, and we all flocked in large numbers to see them, in Macbeth, PygmalionMerchant of Venice and many other plays which are now part of my childhood enchantment, as they must be of so many others who were around that time. From Shakespeareana Shashi must have imbibed the central lesson of theatre that the play is the thing; acoustics, stage, lighting, design and a play’s many other accoutrements are important, but secondary to the plot and the words. And if you really love theatre, money ranks even below ‘secondary’: I doubt the Kendals made much, but I doubt that that even bothered them.

I am happy to say that Shashi and Jennifer became my friends. After Prithvi Theatre was built, Jennifer often talked of her dream of starting a theatre repertory company at Prithvi, a group of actors, directors and technicians (like Prithvi Theatres or Shakespeareana) who would together form a permanent professional company, and do plays the year round. If the terrific films Shashi made had made money, if death hadn`t cruelly snatched Jennifer away, perhaps that dream would have come true. But at least Shashi made sure that Prithvi Theatre survived, run by Shashi and Jennifer`s children Kunal and Sanjna (love and passion too can be inherited); a beacon of light and hope in the general gloom that envelopes our nation’s encounter with culture.

If it all seems hopeless, it isn`t. The examples of Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor and our own NCPA`s Jamshed Bhabha and Khushroo Suntook show that it only needs a few driven individuals to build institutions that last. You and I can be the supporting cast that help the institutions they founded to endure and move forward. That supporting cast needs to grow, and grow and grow. How we do it is up to us.