It was a bleak December day the day Shashi Kapoor left us.
Every Indian publication wrote a loving tribute to the Bollywood icon detailing his many accomplishments from his symbiosis with Amitabh Bachchan and the great films like Sharmelee that came out of it to his ardent support of non-commercial, experimental Indian cinema- something that no other major Bollywood star at that time did.
Few if any publications however mentioned his many contributions to world cinema specifically his successful partnerships with the prolific British production duo, Merchant Ivory.
Shakespeare Wallah, his first film with the powerhouse duo, is not only a cinematic masterpiece but also contains one of the actor’s finest performances while his difficult role as both a morally and sexually ambiguous nawaab in Merchant Ivory’s arguably most completed work, Heat & Dust, was nothing short of brilliant.
Finally, his stint with Stephen Frears, another British cinematic legend who later went on to direct the famous biopic, The Queen, and the excellent, beatnik-esque High Fidelity, in the form of the film Sammy & Rosie Get Laid is also highly noteworthy.
So why did Indian journalists neglect to mention Shashi-ji’s British films in their eulogies/obituaries?
Here are the following possibilities:
- Few Indians know Shashi Kapoor’s British films – Merchant Ivory films are not that popular in any country let alone India which is vehemently proud of its cinema, whether Hindi or regional. Shashi Kapoor’s films like Deewar and Namak Halaal were golden jubilee hits but his British films didn’t make dents of any size in Indian multiplexes.
- Journalists didn’t wish to tarnish Shashi Kapoor’s squeaky clean image in India – Whether intentional or not, Shashi Kapoor cultivated a squeaky clean boy-next-door image in his Bollywood films where the most sexual he performed on-screen was perhaps twirling Parveen Babi around on the dancefloor. His British films on the other hand were more libertine, shall we say? Indian journalists probably thought it best not to focus on those films so as to not tarnish his “clean” image among the Indian audiences who grew up with his films, most of whom are senior citizens now.
- The journalists themselves don’t know these films – Unless these journalists are cinethusiasts, given that these films weren’t released in Indian theaters, it is very possible that they themselves don’t know these films and thus feel hesitant to talk about them.
ARTWORK BY RACHNA RAVI