Shashi Kapoor: Theatre actor who became a Bollywood stalwart

Marcus Williamson
Kapoor in the 1983 Merchant Ivory film ‘Heat And Dust’: Rex

Shashi Kapoor, who has died aged 79, was the Bollywood star who played in more than 150 films during a career that spanned half a century. Debuting on stage, Kapoor – popular for his smile, good looks, charm and lack of machismo – made his name in movies, as an actor, director and producer.

Kapoor was born Balbir Prithviraj Kapoor into a theatre family, the son of Ramsarni Devi and the actor Prithviraj Kapoor, in 1938 in Kolkata. Opting not to continue his education, he began his theatrical career with his father’s Prithvi theatre company, following in his brothers’ footsteps. And despite all his subsequent successes in film, theatre remained his first love.

Aged 18 in 1956 he met 23-year-old English actress Jennifer Kendal, in Kolkata, while she was playing Miranda in The Tempest, as part of Shakespearean company, run by her father, Geoffrey Kendal. His company, Shakespeareana, toured India throughout the Forties and Fifties, bringing the Bard’s plays to everyone, from schoolchildren to royalty. Shashi himself was in a play called Dewar.

In her 1998 memoir White Cargo, Jennifer’s sister Felicity Kendal wrote: “Before the performance, Shashi peeped through the tabs to look at the audience and size them up ... He saw in the fourth row of the stalls a young girl with long fair hair. She was dressed in a black-and-white polka-dotted summer dress with a halter neckline – daring – and she was pretty, laughing with her girlfriend and fanning herself with her programme. Shashi, according to Shashi, instantly fell in love.”

The couple married two years later, to the dismay of Jennifer’s father, who wanted her to return to England.

Kapoor with his wife Jennifer Kendal in the 1970 film ‘Bombay Talkie’. The couple went on to build the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai (Rex)

Kapoor recalled that his transition from theatre into film was for two very practical reasons: Prithvi Theatre had closed due to his father’s ill health and Kapoor now needed money to look after his young son, born in 1959. “When I came into the movies it wasn’t to be a star, it was just to get a job,” he said later.

Although he had already appeared in films as a child, his debut adult role was as the lead, Dilip Rai, in Dharmputra (1961), directed by Yash Chopra. The first Hindi film to tell the story of the partition of India was critically well received but flopped at the box office.

There followed a decade during which he made some 30 Hindi films, alongside the greatest Bollywood stars of the era, including Amitabh Bachchan. “Shashi Kapoor and I became inseparable in many successful ventures that followed,” Bachchan said. “Leading ladies would shy away from our projects by proclaiming that there would be nothing left for them to do once SK and AB were there together.” The two actors were cast as brothers, friends or rivals in a number of films.

The Indian Express said of Kapoor: “Shashi was too westernised, having trained in classical English theatre, to receive wide acclaim on the Hindi screen”. So the early Seventies found Kapoor moving away from commercial Hindi movies into more experimental fare, such as the Merchant Ivory production Bombay Talkie (1970). This English-language film stars Kapoor as a famous actor who falls in love with a British author researching Bollywood, played by his wife.

Then in 1978 he went a step further, establishing his own production house, Film Valas. He produced features including Junoon (1978), winner of the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, and the English-language 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), for which Kendal received a Bafta Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination.

Kapoor and Kendal built Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, established in 1975 in memory of Kapoor’s father, who had died three years earlier. The theatre remains a thriving testament to the couple’s love of the stage. However, 1984 brought tragedy, when Kendal died from cancer, aged just 51. Kapoor was devastated and the grief took a heavy toll on his health.

Kapoor and his daughter Sanjana at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai where he received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2015 for his contribution to Indian cinema (AFP/Getty)

Kapoor was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, in 2011 for his contributions to cinema. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, paid tribute, saying: “Shashi Kapoor’s versatility could be seen in his movies as well as in theatre, which he promoted with great passion. His brilliant acting will be remembered for generations to come.”

He is survived by his sons Kunal and Karan and daughter Sanjana, all of whom became Bollywood actors.

Shashi Kapoor (Balbir Prithviraj Kapoor), born 18 March 1938; died 4 December 2017