He was not exactly my generation. By the time films became an integral part of my life, the next generation of Kapoors had taken over. It was Randhir and Rishi Kapoor who were keeping alive the legacy of the first family of Hindi cinema. But the Shammi Kapoor songs lingered on and blared from loudspeakers during festive occasions in the small town of my childhood. ‘Aasman se aaya farishta’ was a perennial favourite and so was ‘Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra...there was ‘Zindagi ek safar hai suhana,’ from one of his last films as a hero, ‘Andaaz,’ but they gave that one to the rising superstar of the time Rajesh Khanna. I wish they had made Kapoor sing that one too. It epitomised the zest for life Kapoor brought to his onscreen persona.
Shammi Kapoor was truly an original. By the time I was in college, there was a Kapoor revival of sorts. We were all discovering him in the reruns of the cult films he made. Those days every town had a rundown theatre or two which specialized in old films and his yesteryear hits would run there for a week. The 80’s also had a booming parallel cinema movement with the so called serious actors. The most prominent among them Naseeruddin Shah never failed to acknowledge Kapoor as one of the influences who drove him to a career in film acting. It was a striking paradox. A legendary actor, trained in the craft from the premier theatre and film schools of the country paying a tribute to another who relied only on his instincts in front of the camera.
Shammi Kapoor never ran into the danger of turning into a serious actor. There is nothing to suggest he wanted to be known as one. Read any of the recent interviews of his before he passed away and you will discover that he was unapologetic about the films he made. They were mindless entertainers and rode on his star charisma as he wooed the pretty lasses ranging from an Asha Parekh to a Sharmila Tagore to a Rajashri with a mixture of arrogance and mischief. They may have started off by calling him a ‘Junglee’ but the supercilious air he carried with him seem to suggest that he knew they would thaw sooner than later. After all no other male of the species could dance the mating dance as well as him. Maybe like the peacock, he had ugly feet. But no one noticed. It was difficult to look away from the quirky head and hand movements he had the copyright over.
Unfortunately he belonged to an era when actors did not pay much attention to the greatest tool they possess, their body. They had personal hangers on but not personal trainers and by the time Kapoor was in his forties he looked it. He retired too early as a hero and moved into the character actor/cameo roles slot. Think about it, all our current superstar heroes ranging from the three Khans to Akshay Kumar to Ajay Devgn are perhaps older than Shammi Kapoor when he transitioned into the senior actor category.
If he was the spoilt brat as the hero, as a veteran actor he specialised as the aristocrat used to having his way, be it ‘Hero,’ ‘Vidhaata,’ ‘Betaab’ or ‘Prem Rog.’ Unlike his older brother, Raj Kapoor who Indianized the Chaplinesque tramp, it was difficult to imagine Shammi Kapoor as being poor. Even when he was projected as being deprived, there was something larger than life about him. Like in ‘Brahmachari,’ where despite all the travails, he takes on the onus of looking after an entire brood of orphans. They remade that as ‘Mr India’ later on but significantly the remake sparkled due to the chutzpah of the leading lady, Sridevi, overshadowing the hero Anil Kapoor who essayed the title role. No leading lady could do that to Shammi Kapoor. He could beat them in all departments be it the singing and dancing or the adaas and unlike his contemporaries Bishwajeet or Joy Mukherjee who specialized in a similar genre of films, he never looked effeminate even when fluttering his eye lashes.
Shammi Kapoor directed two films for an outside banner. They turned out to be duds. Unlike his two brothers Raj and Shashi, he never started a production house. Instead he discovered a life beyond films. He was among the first Indians to get on the internet. A search engine has the same name as the opening refrain of one of his most popular songs. Reportedly when Yahoo started its operations in India, they had Shammi Kapoor as the guest of honour for its launch. For a long time it led to the misconception Kapoor owned the company.
But he was that kind of a phenomenon. About whom stories would be told true and false and contradictions abound. Like how he was madly in love with his first wife, Geeta Bali, and yet wooed all his leading ladies with as much ardour off screen. Like how he had to be coaxed out of retirement for a swan song by his great grand nephew Ranbir Kapoor to do a significant cameo in Imtiaz Ali’s latest directorial venture.
Fitting that he bid adieu to show business and life by acting in a film called ‘Rockstar.’ He was one. And while he may no longer be with us, we can always meet him in one of the umpteen movie channels to sing along ‘Sar pe topi laal, haath mein resham ka rumaal, o tera kya kehna.’