In 1994, at the Paris Theater in New York City, a fundraiser for the chair of Indian Studies at Columbia University, screened the film “In Custody” starring Shashi Kapoor as an aging Urdu poet. Kapoor came in person, and fans rushed to crowd him and greet the one-time matinee idol of Bollywood. Kapoor laughed and joked with them and signed autographs.
In 2005, Kapoor was among the chief guests at the India Day Parade in New York City. That year, Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of Desi Talk and recipient of India’s Padma Shri award, was the president of the Federation of Indian Associations which organized the parade. “He (Kapoor) was a big hit because not only Indians but other Americans recognized him from his films,” said Dr. Parikh who had several one-on-one dinners with Kapoor in the following years whenever the actor visited New York. “He was a very humble, practical, and realistic person. We always discussed how to promote his Prithvi Theater in Mumbai,” Dr. Parikh recalls.
Aroon Shivdasani, who was one of the organizers of the Columbia University event, and is now the executive and artistic director of the Indo-American Arts Council, also waxed eloquent about the actor’s humility and good nature of the man who died Dec. 4, and left behind a legacy of classic films acclaimed in India and abroad.
Ironically, on the year of his death some of Kapoor’s seminal films made their way back to New York and theaters around the U.S., through an American company that bought them from the original producers, the late Ismail Merchant, and James Ivory, of Merchant-Ivory Productions which is based in New York.
“Everyone talks about Priyanka crossing over from Bollywood to Hollywood, or Irrfan Khan. But Shashi was definitely the first crossover artist,” Aseem Chhabra, author of the book, ‘Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star’ told Desi Talk.
In 1963, The Householder, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala’s novel-turned-film, was playing in New York City theaters; In 1965, Shakespeare Wallah came to American screens. Then Bombay Talkies played in this country in 1970; and Heat and Dust in 1983.
“Shashi Kapoor was playing in U.S. theaters around the country decades ago,” Chhabra contends. “It’s very commendable he made these kinds of films which didn’t fetch him much (money). And that’s why he did so many Bollywood films,” Chhabra said.
“I think of him as an institution,” said Princeton University professor of history Gyan Prakash, who studied Bollywood, introduced it in his courses, and recently had one of his books, Mumbai Fables, turned into a movie, Bombay Velvet. Kapoor, he said, came into cinema from theater, and remained a patron of theater throughout. “Shashi did the crossover through theater. He took to acting through theater,” Prakash said. One of his less remembered classics, Prakash says, was “Dharmaputra” (1961) set in the Partition time, where Kapoor plays the son of a Muslim couple brought up by Hindu parents, who later joins the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, only to find out his Muslim origins at the end. “He was wonderful in that,” Prakash says.
Today, the Indian star who made his mark in the 1960s in Merchant-Ivory films, and in the 1970s and 1980s in Bollywood, is making a resurgence in the United States.The Cohen Media Group, an indie distribution company, which purchased a collection of feature films, documentaries and shorts produced by the James Ivory- Ismail Merchant team, is releasing some of Kapoor starrers this year in U.S. theaters. The collection was sold by the only surviving member of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team still around, James Ivory, whose company Merchant-Ivory Productions informed Desi Talk, he was out of the country but keen to talk about Kapoor at a later date.
The CMG is re-releasing those old classics after restoring some to their former glory, enough to bring back the famous sparkle in Kapoor’s eyes. The company tweeted Dec. 4, the day Kapoor died, and put his photos alongside – “We are saddened to learn of the passing of SHASHI KAPOOR, an iconic and versatile actor – and star of several Merchant Ivory classics, including Heat And Dust (left photo) and Shakespeare Wallah (right photo). #ShashiKapoor
Madhur Jaffrey, who played Kapoor’s love interest in Shakespeare Wallah, and lives in New York City, could not be reached by press time.
This May, Heat and Dust played in the Quad Theater in West Village, and was sold out. As recently as this November 10, Shakespeare Wallah came to U.S. screens in restored form. “Elegant and atmospheric, Shakespeare Wallah was the feature film that really put Merchant Ivory Productions on the international movie map, winning them great critical acclaim and now recognized as a classic,” announced the Cohen Media Group on its publicity site for release of Shakespeare Wallah.
An older generation remembers Kapoor’s visits to the U.S. “I did spend time with him when we screened Ismail merchant’s “In Custody,” recalls Shivdasani reminiscing about Kapoor in 1994. “In Custody” won the President of India Gold Medal for Best Picture in that year.
By that time, the suave man who defined “handsome” had become overweight. “He was unable to move around but he was sooo popular – everyone at the premiere made a bee line for him,” Shivdasani told Desi Talk. “He was surrounded by adoring fans and he smiled, chatted, signed autographs….,was just wonderful! No arrogance at all – none of that celebrity hauteur,” she said.
In 2001, the IAAC screened Kapoor’s film “Shakespeare Wallah” at the organization’s first film festival.
“Audiences loved the ease with which he communicated with them. They enjoyed his urbane character…….they also identified with him in a manner they couldn’t with other Desi actors,” contends Shivdasani, adding, “Shashi’s roles in Merchant-Ivory films also made him a familiar figure with their sophisticated audiences (in this country). He will be missed.”
“The films being screened today are sold out,” said Chhabra, who was able to see Heat and Dust in the West Village. “It’s fantastic that Shashi Kapoor films are playing around the United States today and it’s not just Indians who go to see them. It’s also not just older people who go to see them. Younger people are discovering Shashi Kapoor,” he enthused.
Upon his death Dec. 4, the Merchant Ivory website featured some tweets from fans. Freesia @Lali1526 said #ShashiKapoor just a few days ago I watched #heatanddust @MerchantIvory #ShashiKapoor was a delight. He is a royal in the movie and after he passes on the tale no longer seems interesting…
Tony Gerber @MarketRoadFilms said, RIP #shashi_kapoor you graced the screen & elevated everything u touched. Thank u for trusting a young director. I learned so much from u. #sidestreets @Lynnbrooklyn @rleefine @MerchantIvory @rosariodawson
And Vani Tripathi Tikoo had this to say – All his Association with @MerchantIvory with Amazing films like #Householder #Muhafiz #Shakespearewallah were films that defined the Global Connect of Indian Cinema his craft went beyond the Commercial films that he Acted in with great ease #ShashiKapoor #RIP