Shammi Kapoor is a stickler for punctuality and who knows it better than me (I was once refused an interview because I happened to be late). But that does not deter me from meeting him again because at 78, he’s my true blue hero. Undergoing dialysis twice a week hasn’t dulled his stamina for life nor the shimmer in his aqua green eyes. Once bitten twice shy, I reach half an hour early. I wait in his building lobby at Malabar Hill till it’s sharp 5 pm to knock. He’s already waiting for me, just home after a dialysis session. His head covered, he’s silently chanting mantras even as he summons me inside his glass cabin, where an up-to-the-minute Mac and images of his guru coexist. A rollicking affair with stardom, a tryst with technology and an enduring rendezvous with spirituality…Shamsher Raj Kapoor has been there and done that.
He may be in his twilight years but Shammi Kapoor, India’s original ‘Rockstar’ — whose magnetism had flashes of singers Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard — continues to awe actors from Naseeruddin Shah to Aamir Khan. In fact, Aamir vociferously praised the veteran at a recent event and said, “It’s wrong when people say that that Shammi Kapoor is the Elvis Presley of India. I think Elvis is the Shammi Kapoor of America.” Shammi reacts to the compliment saying, “I liked that. Everyone has his own style. One sees a lot of paintings — you like some shades and get inspired by them. It doesn’t mean that you have stolen them,” Shammi says justifying his affinity to the late singer Elvis. “I have no dreams of being known as a great artiste. I have not done the Devdas of my life. But yes, I believe I could give good expression to the songs I was given. I am proud of that.”
The septuagenarian recalls the highpoints in his career. “The success that came with Nasir Hussain’s Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) remains one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I achieved it against all odds. I was not only the brother of Raj Kapoor, I was also the son of Prithviraj Kapoor and the husband of Geeta Bali. Also, there was a huge wall created by Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. To break through this and create a distinct identity was an achievement in itself,” affirms Shammi who went on to exchange the ‘male starlet’ tag for the ‘rebel star’ brand.
It may be recalled that Shammi’s early films including Rail Ka Dibba (Madhubala), Shama Parwana (Suraiya) and Mehbooba (Nalini Jaywant) were lost in the heap of his inconsequential films until a blitzkrieg of hits after Tumsa Nahin Dekha including Nasir Hussain’s Dil Deke Dekho (1959), Subodh Mukherjee’s Junglee (1961) and Goldie’s Teesri Manzil (1966) had women audiences thawing to the boisterous hero.
Shammi credits his success to a host of people. “The first and foremost person I owe my success to is my late wife Geeta Bali (already an established star when Shammi married her in 1955). She was a pillar of strength. She had faith in me and kept saying, ‘You will make it’. And when I did, she was proud and happy.” He continues, “
I was also fortunate where the music of my films was concerned. Good songs came my way. I asked Shankar-Jaikishen, who were part of my father’s theatre, to give music for Ujala.” The duo then went on to create music for Shammi’s films including Junglee, Janwar, Professor, Raj Kumar, An Evening in Paris, Brahmachari, Prince — right up to Andaz in 1971.
And while Shammi also credits Vijay Anand for signing him for Teesri Manzil, there’s one name he can never overlook — that of the late singer Mohammed Rafi. Incidentally, the actor and the singer were referred to as a Siamese duo, around which movies were woven. “Without Mohammed Rafi, I would be incomplete. His contribution to my career is immense,” says Shammi. “I used to be present at all the recordings but there were a few occasions when I could not be there. Even then he’d do a great job. I’d ask him, ‘How did you do it?’ He would say, ‘Oye Papa! Maine socha ke Shammi Kapoor yeh gaana kaise karega? Ek tang aisi phailayega, ek haath aisa phailayega, aithe kudi marega aur aithe pahunchega. Yeh sochkar maine yeh gana gaadiya (Oh Papa! I visualised how Shammi Kapoor would sing this number – he will throw one leg here, one arm there, jump here and reach there – so imagining I sang the song)’!” he laughs.
Winding back, it was the duo who had decided that every time the word ‘taarif’ was heard in the song ‘Taarif karun kya main uski (Kashmir Ki Kali), it would be rendered differently by Rafi and enacted in a different style by Shammi. “O P Nayyar was not keen about the word ‘taarif’ being repeated towards the song’s end. He thought it was boring. Rafisaab reassured Nayyarji that if it didn’t sound nice, we would cut it. ‘Gaanewala main hoon, karnewala woh hai, to phir tumhein kyun taqleef ho rahi hai (I’m the singer, he’s the performer, then why are you bothered)?’ he asked Nayyarji. After the picturisation, Rafisaab hugged me, but Nayyarsaab ne bahut zyaada gale lagaaya (he hugged me tighter),” laughs Shammi.
Also, Shammi had no qualms pairing with debutantes. Barring Kalpana, who couldn’t make headway after Professor, Asha Parekh in Dil Deke Dekho, Saira Banu in Junglee, Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir Ki Kali became huge successes. Shammi says, “I preferred new girls who didn’t create a fuss. It was easier to get work out of them. They worked hard to achieve their dreams, whereas established heroines were more concerned about what was being done for them in the film.”
Swerving towards the two women who anchored his life at different points, Shammi reminisces, “Geeta and I got married at Banganga Temple. We woke up the pujari at 4 am and got the doors of the mandir opened. Then we did the pheras and garlanded each other. She removed a lipstick from her purse and told me to put it as sindoor in her maang. It was a daring moment as we had not informed our families. We were worried how they would react. But they accepted us with love,” About Geeta’s strength he says, “Her sense of maturity was manifest in the fact that she looked after me. I am a difficult person,” he says even as he adds, “Then Neela (the princess of Bhavnagar became Shammi’s second wife) came and took over because in those four to five years after Geeta’s death (she died in 1965 due to small-pox), I had gone berserk. I was like a boat, which had lost its moorings. Neela looked after me and my children. That was another beautiful moment in my life.”
Years later, life once again changed tracks when Shammi embraced spirituality. The swaggering hero began donning kurtas and wearing the rudrakshamala. “I joined the bandwagon of my guru Shri Shri Haidakhanwale Baba. I did whatever he told me to and went wherever he took me – be it Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri or Jamnotri. I even visited his ashram in Ranikhet. I would even spend Gurupurnima with him in Brindavan. This evolution was necessary. It prepared me for the eventualities of life. Of course I didn’t understand it then. My guru prepared me for the challenging last six years, which I have spent in and out of hospitals,” says Shammi explaining further, “I suffer from renal failure. There’s no cure for it. Dialysis is the treatment. If I stop it, I will die.”
At 78 today, Shammi has no unfulfilled dreams. “
. To see my family secure is my main concern. Rab ki meher hai din acche guzar rahe hain (it’s God’s mercy that my days are passing well),” he says. And what are the little things that give him big happiness now? “I like to drive to Lonavla and have lunch at the Faryas hotel. I enjoy the Internet. Earlier I would update my site. Today I find it tedious. I liked uploading digital photos. I also enjoy playing virtual poker,” says Shammi who was one of the foremost Internet users in India. I have led a full life
While ill heath forces him to be seen less, there are phone calls aplenty from the media asking for interviews. “Ha, ha, ha,” he laughs disparagingly, “It’s always nice to be remembered. But I feel it’s more of an obituary. It’s like Kambakht kab chalde, usse pehle usse bulwalein (the wretched one may just pass away someday, so let’s make him talk before that)!” A fatigue seeps into his tone. I do not have the heart to prod him further. I leave him to take a breather. Tomorrow is another day.