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12 December 2017

Behind the Curtains

Before I left for India, I ordered a few books as is my wont. One of these was a book I've long wanted to read – the first biography of Shashi Kapoor. My sister told me it had been delivered; unfortunately, I was in Kerala at the time. By the time I came to Bombay, the subject of the biography was no more. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that I should have ordered the book just before his death. Somehow, I feel a sense of guilt... like I am responsible for his demise... 

Perhaps it was that sense of guilt that made me hesitate to begin reading the much-awaited biography. It is not as if I didn't know he was ailing. Yet, it was difficult to accept that Shashi Kapoor was no more, even if his death was probably a welcome release.  

Shashi Kapoor: The Householder The Star is an attempt to let the reader 'meet' the man behind the celebrity. Strangely enough for a biography, Chhabra makes no attempt to allow Shashi Kapoor's voice to be heard – perhaps the actor's illness precluded any interviews. Instead, he depends on the voices of Kapoor's relations – daughter Sanjana, son Kunal, nephew Rishi, one-time co-star and niece-by-marriage, Neetu Singh; his friends and colleagues - Simi, Amitabh Bachchan, Shyam Benegal, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, etc., and interviews with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, along with inputs from Dev Benegal and Hanif Quereshi.

Chhabra begins by charting Shashi's journey in films, from his debut as a younger Raj Kapoor in the latter's directorial debut, Aag, to the countless bad films he did in commercial Hindi cinema, to his part in international cinema via the James Ivory-Ismail Merchant films. He also chronicles Shashi's interest in theatre, and his attempt to provide patronage to countless theatre artistes, as well as his interest in sponsoring good content through his production house, Vidushak Arts, and later, Film Valas. The narrative of Shashi Kapoor's life would be incomplete without a mention of his wife, Jennifer Kapoor, nee Kendall, and Chhabra painstakingly records the blinding romance between the two, as well as Jennifer's influence on Shashi's personal and professional life. 
Each chapter of the book ends with extensive footnotes, and that's a welcome surprise. By all accounts, Shashi Kapoor comes across as a sophisticated man, a committed actor, a generous producer, and a loving husband. He was also a man who never took his stardom seriously; disparate accounts confirm that the actor treated every member of the unit the same way, even putting everyone up in the same hotel when he was producer.  

There are detailed analyses of Film Valas' productions such as 36 Chowringhee Lane, Kalyug, etc., as well his films with Ivory-Merchant productions – The Householder, Heat and Dust, In Custody, etc.  
However, for a book that purports to talk about Shashi Kapoor, the 'star', there's precious little detail about his mainstream films – Deewar, Trishul, Pyar ka Mausam, Aa Gale Lag Jaa -  which are but mentioned in passing. Even the photographs come from the Merchant-Ivory archives, thereby precluding any stills from his mainstream films.

I was so hoping to unequivocally like the book that it pains me to list its negatives. For a self-confessed fan, Chhabra makes the silliest of errors – Shashi's first appearance on screen was not Awara, but Aag. When Shakespearewallah was being conceived, Shashi was not a ‘prominent star’. 

While Sharmila is quoted many times in the book, there isn't any attempt to focus on Shashi's films with her. Nor, while off-handedly mentioning that Shashi had the most films (18) with Rekha, Chhabra seems to not have the inclination to interview her about her former co-star. 

With a title like 'The Householder, The Star' on expects a bit of information on Shashi's personal relationships – apart from a couple of notes by Kunal and Sanjana on their father, there isn't any attempt to explore Shashi's personal relationships with his parents and brothers. 

Shashi Kapoor, The Householder, The Star is a perfect example of 'too little too late' (the same feeling that Shashi is said to have felt when he received a national award for New Delhi Times). For a book that purports to be a biography, it doesn't give you a sense of who the actor really was; 'gentleman' is such a generic phrase. You're left with the sense that there's more to the story than has been told.

It would have been interesting to know more about the films he did, and why he did them. How did he end up doing the role of Ravi in Deewar (a role refused by many other actors), for instance? How did he feel playing second fiddle to a man who had once acted as an extra in his movie? Or, why did Hrishikesh Mukherjee replace him so abruptly on the first day of Anand’s shoot? How was his contretemps with Girish Karnad during the making of Utsav resolved? What about a detailed analysis of his three careers that of a mainstream Hindi film hero, that of a lead and supporting actor in Indie films, that of the producer? I would also have liked to know more about Shashi's commitment to the theatre; did he get that from his father, or was it Jennifer's influence, or a bit of both? 

Truth be told, Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star is a good introduction to the actor's foray into international cinema. Other than that, it has very little to do with either Shashi, the householder, or Shashi Kapoor, the handsome, charismatic, star we gazed at with adoration.

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