Dadasaheb Phalke laureate and Padma Bhushan Shashi Kapoor was not just known for his talent and the work he did. In fact, he could fulfill what he wanted to do in life, like getting multiple assignments to earn enough money at peak-time and putting it all back into movies and theatre, because of his temperament and approach to his career. Quite naturally, the son, the human being and the actor in him were majorly shaped by one man—his father Prithviraj Kapoor, right from his childhood.
Shashi’s first-ever conscious memory of his father was when he was about five. “That was when I got to watch my father’s film Sikander and his own play, Prithvi Theatres’ Shakuntala, in which he played Dushyant,” recalled Shashi. “I remember being completely fascinated and amazed. Even at that age, I could not but marvel at the difference between the humble giant who was my father at home and the powerful persona that I was watching on screen and on stage.”
Shashi went home, completely fascinated by his art as well as the storytelling, and this was the beginning of his inclination and inspiration to become an actor. From this, the gentleman Kapoor ultimately learnt never to take work home and became the first star to reserve Sundays for family and not work on that day. Soon, with his father’s consent, Shashi began doing small roles in his plays. He was six.
Said Shashi, “Prithviraj had a gentle and unique technique of teaching. It was a tradition at Prithvi Theatres that 4 to 5 hours of talking sessions were held daily with my father. We would all listen as he spoke –about everything, including Life and acting.” This is where Shashi realized that to be a good actor and professional, one had to be a good human being.
Some 150 people worked at Prithvi Theatres, and they came from all conceivable religions – Hindu, Muslim, Parsis, Jews, Sikhs and Christians. From here, Shashi learnt to treat everyone with complete respect, and at par with himself. “When Prithvi Theatres started out in 1944, my father was already a colossal star in the movies, yet never did he look at anyone as lesser than him,” said Shashi. “I was intelligent enough to make out that this humility and respect for everyone was not for effect. He was like a monarch who never gave the impression that he was lowering his status in treating you at par – his principle was to raise you to his level and look at you as someone equal to Prithviraj Kapoor!”
As Shabana Azmi said later of Shashi as producer, “During the outdoors of Junoon, from actors to unit hands, everyone was given accommodation in the same hotel.” Another lesson learnt.
Due to his innate sense of equality of all religions and classes, it never mattered to Prithviraj that Shashi’s love was a foreigner. And there was so much camaraderie between Jennifer and him that when Shashi broached the idea of reviving Prithvi Theatres after his father’s death, his wife gave her all to fulfill the dream and also looked after it till she was alive, with Shashi being overtly busy (except on Sundays!) to earn the much-needed money for it!
“It was also amazing that one of the topmost film stars of that time could be such a mammoth success on stage simultaneously!” said Shashi, who similarly balanced his plays and his stints as a child actor in films and later his leading roles in Hindi and English movies and his passion for producing meaningful cinema and promoting theatre. “Here I would like to mention what I learnt from my father as an actor: to never differentiate between the two mediums except in the technical sense,” said Shashi.
Worldwide, drama was over-the-top then and based on the Corinthian style that Parsi and Marathi theatre also followed in India. Prithviraj was the first to start and promote a natural style of acting. “He advocated this modern style in the firm belief that a good actor can convey everything even with his back to the audience!” recalled the star. “For his times, this was not just progressive but also revolutionary because all actors then would face the audience – but father would never allow this! And I think this benefited me hugely as an actor.”
“Despite some deliberate theatrical turns in plays and films, seven other plays staged by Prithvi and most of his other film roles were contemporary, and his natural acting style became very conspicuous in those times.” Once again, Shashi emulated this principle, losing out on multiple film acting awards (until Deewaar) because of his easy and natural style!
Last but not the least, Shashi (like his brothers and sister Urmila) also inherited his taste for great food!
In his last phase when he was dying of malignancy in hospital, Prithviraj told the doctors that he would leave the hospital if they insisted on their rule of not allowing visitors. He wanted his friends, his associates and even his fans to meet him, some of whom would come from remote areas of Punjab. This is exactly what an ailing Shashi Kapoor, though he had memory issues, also followed—every evening, he would be brought to the Prithvi Theatre to meet and interact with admirers, colleagues and everyone who wished to meet him.
Shashi graphically remembers his father taking him aside after he quit college to become a full-time actor, and telling him, “Education does not stop with an end to college. It ends with life itself, for it is a musalsal (continuous) process.” And Shashi learnt the best things from his father as he continued to evolve, like always paying for his ticket for plays he watched at Prithvi!