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A perfect yodel to the dancing rebel

Published : Feb 27, 2016, 9:16 pm IST
Updated : Feb 27, 2016, 9:16 pm IST

Books about filmstars tend either to be hagiographic in content and style, written by fan girls/boys or diluted because the subject did not cooperate with the writer. Both leave the reader unsatisfied.

Books about filmstars tend either to be hagiographic in content and style, written by fan girls/boys or diluted because the subject did not cooperate with the writer. Both leave the reader unsatisfied. The ones that work the best are where the star and the biographer have a comfort level and the latter knows how to draw the former out. It is clear from the beginning of this book that Shammi Kapoor and Rauf Ahmed had an easy rapport and the star, who had all the time in the world when he was being interviewed, was in an expansive mood. Ahmed had almost shelved the project when Kapoor died in August 2011, as the writer realised he had not asked him a lot about the 1950s, the earlier part of his career. But, says Ahmed, Kapoor’s wife of 42 years, Neela Devi, proved helpful since she was “literally a walking encyclopedia” of her husband’s career. The weakness however shows. Much of the book assesses Kapoor’s career in the 1960s, a stretch when he was a hugely successful star, but about which much is already known. A Kapoor buff can easily access online resources, including a several part video series on YouTube where he talks about his films, and get much the same information as in the book. However, this is where experience scores. Rauf Ahmed is not only one of the most well-known film journalists in the country, his own career spans several eras which he has written about with great understanding in the many magazines he has edited. Also, and this is important, while film gossip ruled the day when Ahmed was an editor, he continued to examine the film industry in an intelligent and perceptive way. This is what distinguishes this book from many others which have been flooding the market. We learn of Kapoor the strong and strapping teenager, a bit shy and under the shadow of his elder brother Raj Kapoor. While Kapoor elder had shown a great interest in cinema, the younger sibling was into books and showed academic acumen when he passed his matriculation — Raj Kapoor had failed. Shammi Kapoor speaks a lot about his school and college days and then his apprenticeship in father Prithviraj’s theatre company, which toured the small towns of the country performing their famous plays. But how long could you keep him away from an industry where his father and brother were already working An opportunity came and he jumped at it. There was the prospect of good money and also to work with a young star who had captured the hearts of the country — Madhubala. That is when he also bought his first car, setting off a life-long affair with the automobile. There is much about the 1950s, mostly based on Kapoor’s stories and anecdotes, which centre around his persona as a “Ladies’ Man”, a leitmotif that continues through the book. But Ahmed — and the star himself — is also candid about his long stretch of dud films, raising the question why he was finding it difficult to connect with the audience (except, of course, with young ladies). The reasons were many and, in fact, fairly obvious. Shammi had nothing to offer. The industry was dominated by the big three — Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and his own brother Raj Kapoor. Then there was Ashok Kumar and many other actors who were all vying for the second-rung films. Shammi Kapoor, with his lanky good looks and moustache, was a Raj Kapoor clone acting as a prop for heroines in indifferent films. He had no unique characteristic to offer. A lucky break came when Dev Anand turned down a film to be directed by Nasir Hussain because, apparently, he did not want to act opposite a newcomer, Ameeta. That story is well known but Ahmed, ever the journalist, chases it down by asking Ameeta to clarify. Whatever the cause of Dev Anand’s lack of interest, the producers offered it to Shammi Kapoor because he fit their budget; or rather, they offered him peanuts. Kapoor demurred but then took it and the film went on to become a hit — Tumsa Nahin Dekha. On the way, Kapoor had got married and also shaved off his moustache. Along with his friends, he also came up with a new personality — the “Rebel Star”, a la James Dean. The Indian hero was a softie, a milquetoast who wallowed in self-pity. Kapoor brought exuberance to his on-screen presence; an enormous physicality, willingness to dance and jump around which was novel. What Ahmed doesn’t discuss is that while the Shammi Kapoor style was a novelty, he also walked down the path laid down by Dev Anand, that of the urban hero, most comfortable in a Westernised environment, with its drawing rooms, picnics and night clubs. It is no surprise that Kapoor picked up many a role that Dev Anand rejected. Dev Anand himself owed much to Ashok Kumar. Kapoor put his own stamp on it, but the dye had been cast. Kapoor in his turn spawned the likes of Jeetendra and Rajesh Khanna and even many of the big stars of today borrow liberally from him. Shammi Kapoor’s favourite directors and their movies are examined in great detail — Shakti Samanta (Kashmir ki Kali, An Evening in Paris), Nasir Hussain (Tumsa Nahin Dekha), Subodh Mukherjee (Junglee), Vijay Anand (Teesri Manzil) — as are his heroines, including his tiff with Saira Banu. Particularly charming and touching is the longish portion on Geeta Bali, a feisty woman and actor whose demise sent her husband into a long bout of depression. We also get to learn a lot about his reclusive second wife Neela Devi, though much of that could easily have been left out. A small quibble, which no doubt Ahmed the editor will agree with. A few silly errors have escaped his eagle eye — China Town’s heroine was not Padmini and the song Thande thande pani se is not in Laat Saheb. And why no index, without which it becomes difficult to reference One more crucial point — it has long been said that Kapoor developed his own style of dancing and went along with his (considerable) musical instincts when he got on to the floor. This completely ignores the immense contribution of the great choreographer Herman Benjamin, who was Kapoor’s favourite dance director and who was responsible for one of his best-known numbers, Aaj kal tere mere pyar ke charche from Brahmachari. In no way do these minor lapses take away from what is one of the best books on a star — comprehensive, knowledgeable and engagingly written. I am reminded of other books on actors, directors and others which are weakened by the over-theorising of amateur authors and also of books where the star has exercised immense control over the way he is presented. I am fairly sure that had Kapoor lived, he wouldn’t have wanted to make any changes in it, even if it doesn’t always show him in a sympathetic light. This one is a keeper for all those interested in popular Hindi films of the 1960s, a period when Kapoor reigned supreme and which is sadly ignored by writers and academics.

Sidharth Bhatia is the founder editor of and author of several books on cinema