Shammi Kapoor died on the early morning of the 14th of August 2011, succumbing to a chronic renal malfunction. Fortuitously, I was reading about one of the possible causes of the malady as being chronic adrenaline fatigue, a possibility that over excitable personalities often develop. Shammi’s hyperactive persona was his real self, something that his screen persona borrowed from, worked upon and then integrated into the cinematic form and stamped as a template. Interestingly, Shammi’s templates have been most used and continue to be used till data, the latest instance being Zoya’s film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.
I encountered Shammi Kapoor through the song Suku Suku. I was then suffering from typhoid and because of my intense weakness had to be carried by Chhotomama so that Ma could feed me porridge. On one such a day of intense conflict between food and my appetite, someone was called upon to entertain me with song and dance. This someone was my mother’s cousin, who the family knew as Khudu, from khudey, a Bengali word for small. Chhotomama was tall and I sat above heads of adults in my perch in his arms and all I could recall of Khudumama was his tuft of hair raised above the forehead like the hood of a cobra, bobbling waywardly as he did a twist while he sang Suku Suku. Sejomama quickly found a surface and played out the beat of the drums while Bachi and Bulimashi shook themselves converting the covered patio of Indulok into a dance floor. Sejomama also imitated the sound of the clarionet. Then they sang also sang Yahoo ! I always associate Shammi Kapoor to that morning when what began drearily for me with force feeding, quickly transformed into all sunshine and gaiety. Shammi had been just this for his fans, I suppose.
I distinctly remember Shammi’s era as a child growing up in Kolkata. It was the age of Trinca’s and its rock singers, of steamer parties with bongo drummers and clarionets; men with drainpipe trousers, women with high bouffet and skin tight kameezes that made my father’s mama, who I called Motadadu, Mota as in Gujarati meaning the older one, comment that women must have first worn the cloth and then got it stitched instead the other way round. Our local darzi, Ruhul made many such firoza blue and rani pink body hugging kameezes for Bulimashi. Beauty saloons such as Eve’s and Karabi specialized in switches and buns that would make one’s hair stand tall as an implanted bucket on one’s head. Swimsuits and bikinis were worn by women swimming in Calcutta Club’s indoor swimming pool. Shammi was an age; an age of unbridled joy and its uninhibited exhibition. It was an age of the outdoor picnics, of clubs and club singers, of cabaret and floor dancing, of Blue Foxes and Waldorfs. It was also the age of dreary lock outs, of strikes and processions, of food crisis and blackmarket, political uncertainties and the ever present fear of war and jingoistic patriotism. Shammi was the Hindi film’s way of not addressing the world outside oneself; a desire to be immersed in a self contained mesmerization of intoxicating opium of O.P Nayyar and S.D.Burman. To say that Shammi was a rebel is to misunderstand his impact; his was a way of never addressing the world head on.
When I studied Shammi Kapoor as a sociologist, I observed something rather interesting. In Madhu Jain’s account and in various print sources, one is fairly familiar with the Kapoor clan’s working. They are so proud of their craft that they do not tolerate anything to stand between them and their cinema. Raj Kapoor was at best only tolerated as a clapper boy with a paltry salary in Prithviraj Kapoor’s productions; Rajeev, Kunal, Aditya, Kanchan, Ridhima are Kapoors those who have perpetually stood out of reckoning and Karishma and Kareena had to slog it out themselves like any outsider. So when Shammi emerged as a wannabe in the silver screen, not the Kapoors but others like K Amarnath, P.N.Arora, Balwant Bhatt, Nasir Hussain and Shakti Samanta raised, reared and propelled him into stardom. Shammi expectedly then developed his own set of people, his own brand distinct and unique. But who were these people, what were they looking for and what did they do to the Hindi film and why did they do what they did? These questions when answered would perhaps establish to some degree, sociology of Shammi Kapoor.
The Hindi film world have had interesting blocs, each contributing significantly to what we now reckon as the grand formula of the melodrama. There was a Bengal bloc composed of New Theatres, D.N.Ganguly with overtones of both Tagore’s Shantiniketan as well as of the Deccan through Madras Music Academy, Nizam’s art college. This bloc was joined in by film makers from the North West province of Peshawar, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and family, Dilip Kumar and others. The two extremities spanned into one line of film making. There was a Marathi axis, Damle-Fattelal, Shantaram, spectacular, full of trick photography, high sound impact, high energy. There was a Gujarati-Parsi axis consisting of Gandhian activists in Nandlal Jaswantlal, Ardeshir Irani and others. This was a segment that experimented with the narratives and many nationalistic ideologies were often transported through its narratives. Much later after Independence many of Raj Kapoor’s scenes from Awara or Shri 420 or Aah, Aaag or Barsaat can be traced to have been influenced as much by the Gujarat-Parsi school as by the New Theatres. Around the middle of 1950’s, another axis in cinema rose and this was from Madhya Pradesh, periphery to Mumbai, hinterland, unconnected to the IPTA movement, unlearned in New Theatres, a bit disdainful of the Parsi axis and desirous of charting its own course of pursuing cinema as pure entertainment. Nasir Hussain et al, the kind of people that raised and reared Shammi hailed from this bloc. In fact, Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar, though Bengalis were born and brought up in Madhya Pradesh.
The new kids from Madhya Pradesh were late comers into cinema; they rode on the back of their predecessors and inherited from the enormous knowledge in technology and skilled studio hands. Free of pursuit of having to respond to the heaviness of Freedom Struggle, or to participate in social reform and entrusting the sovereign State to be all hunky dory, this new generation wished to explore, for the first time, a life, light from the burden of ideology. In the 1950’s the world of cinema was held together by the troika of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, all steeped somewhat in their own agendas of critiquing the world, heavy weather emotions and dutiful investigations. Dev Anand, among them had qualities of emerging out into some kind of unthinking playfulness and surely enough, he was the more sought after template. Interestingly Dev Anand made way for others twice by refusing a role; one was for Shammi Kapoor in Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) and the other was for Amitabh Bachchan in 1973 when he refused to act in Zanjeer. In both the cases he made way for new stars to emerge and in both cases the persons in question were from Madhya Pradesh.
The Madhya Pradesh angle is interesting in Hindi films because it was from the film makers of this region that cinema finally reached its status of pure entertainment. It was not until Salim-Javed that cinema once again, through the renditions of Amitabh, started to emerge with a clear political angle. But that did not make the cinema compromise on its essence as pure entertainment. The Madhya Pradesh cadre of Hindi film then raised the cinema free of its ideological baggage into something more amenable as a visual extravaganza. The rise of O.P.Nayyar along with Shammi Kapoor is perhaps not coincidental because of the close personality resemblances one had with the other, both thought and felt alike. Shammi’s personality aligned itself rather well into this group led by Nasir Hussain as free floating, free flying, spontaneous enjoyment without the baggage of philosophy. Shammi’s was also the cue to a new glossy and consumerist India, slowly gaining in affluence and also in deepened inequalities; this is why, one associates Shammi so closely to Trinca’s and Blue Foxes in Park Street, sequined in tony lamps all decorated for the New Year’s Eve. This is why he is at once a Junglee and also found in Evening in Paris; naïve, simple, childish women are associated with him a la Daisy Miller of Henry James. Indeed when he is domesticated into a child rearing role, he is accredited with the title Brahmachari, hinting that here is a man, unattached and disinterested and hence because of this Kantian disinterest is capable of giving such unconditional and even aesthetic love. The Hindi film vigilantes, most of who appear in the board of awards, gave him his first Filmfare Prize for Brahmachari where pure hedonism was mingled with responsible domesticity, albeit through unshaken celibacy.
Shammi’s is also an image that was explored for likeness to the American pop culture; hence his rock star image in so many of his films. But unfortunately for both cinema and Shammi America appeared as a land of only the unhindered pursuit of pleasure; the pathos of rock was never studied, its sociology never understood. Hence, while they did get the shake and the twist as surface similarities and what they left out was the political quest of the music form. There was the restiveness and impatience, the arrogance and the aloofness of the American pop culture but Shammi and his team remained out of any kind of political contestations. O.P Nayyar’s music with writings from Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri kept up the spirit of politics for all of the above persons were decisive in their political stands. On the whole, the apolitical nature of Shammi’s image is the crux of his appeal and henceforth of the Hindi cinema all through the sizzling decade of the 1960’s. Music is what braces and locates a star in her basic mood, attitude, way of being and historical era; Shammi became the star that he was because of his excellent response to music, when he almost personalized its flow, beat, rhythm and temper. Later on, India’s first superstar, Rajesh Khanna was a personalization of music; no one can discuss Rajesh Khanna without a sway of her head and of fingers held in a victory sign.
When I met Shammi Kapoor some thirty years after his stardom was over in the Hindi films, I found him to have balded and his middle acquired enormous amount of girth. He was loaded with chains of rudrakshas, had the tacky tika on his forehead, but as soon as he opened his mouth to speak, I recognized, he, the star and the Khudumama in him. Both men’s wives were surprisingly alike, kept their heads firmly wrapped under the pallu and peeped out from behind the curtains into the sitting room to catch glimpses of the guests. Star and his/her fan become congruent; this has been the focus of my own study. Shashi was then sinking deeper into his state of depression after Jennifer’s death and he remained silent sitting astride a chair facing its back at the far corner of the sitting room. The venue was a hotel suite of the Leela Kempinsky that Shammi had booked for the day and its reason, in a strange and indirect way was I !!
I had then just finished my MPhil on Amitabh Bachchan from JNU; I wrote my dissertation in the spirit of a treatise and in the language of German Idealism. I wrote all about the spirit, the soul, the agency, and through my constant reading of Lukacs, Levinas and Adorno, I adopted their language too. The reaction from the world of cinema was one of an overjoyed shock. Amitabh invited me to be his guest, introduced me to the doyens of the industry and Shammi was so curious that he started his video magazine, Manoranjan by inviting all of us to discuss the image of a star ! After the shooting, he called some of us to his hotel suite and targeted me as to what I read and what I write. He was quite disgusted at my philosophical leanings, refusing to believe that the cinema could be anything better than mere sensations of the skin. He asked me questions but never allowed me to answer them; he seemed to be in no mood to discuss and only to disparage. He then targeted Amitabh, accusing him to be trying to be too big for his boots and attempt to run the country via his studios. Shammi was clearly very disdainful of cinema trying to be anything else beyond the premises of the theatre; any attempt at doing anything else with it, according to him was sacrilege and that included his own father and brother.
For some reason, I found Shammi to be a person who is unable to respond to the world around him; just the way Khudumama turned out to be. Both had become recluses, avoided human company, stayed mostly aloof from friends and immersed in the Internet, a space both asocial and apolitical. To impose politics, rebellion, freedom on Shammi would thus be anomalies; for all that loud music, vigorous shaking of the body and hair, the gay abandon were withdrawals from the world, not in the way the rock music did through its own distinct politics, but in an apolitical manner of the IT sector entrenched affluent middle class, refusing to acknowledge cracks in the shine and shying away from our roles to set that right.