No yesteryear Bollywood hero holds as much appeal for an entirely new generation, as Shammi ‘Yahoo’ Kapoor. More so, because, Shammi, as he’s fondly known, established a niche of his own, like no other, in the 1950s and 1960s: a jazzy, sparkling chemistry of his unique persona on celluloid. This was not only exclusive and refreshing, but also inimitably energetic and boisterous — yet subtle, and sublime, when the situation demanded.
Shammi [born, October 21, 1931, in Mumbai], joined Prithvi Theatres, in 1948, as a junior artist. His salary: a princely ₹150 per month. He stayed with Prithvi, for four years. When he left, his salary had reached a handsome figure of ₹300. Shammi made his film debut in Jeevan Jyoti in 1953. His other ‘early’ essays were Rail Ka Dibba, and Laila Majnu, with Nutan and Madhubala, respectively, and others, interspersed with a few nondescript films. His career was dreadful — especially, in the beginning.
When he married Geeta Bali, in 1955, a love story like no other, he was, again, just Shammi Kapoor. Not a sensation, yet. And, with the release of Tumsa Nahin Dekha in 1957, after five frustrating years, Shammi came of age — without his elder brother Raj Kapoor’s ‘aura,’ or moustache. He had found his feet, thanks to his novelty of histrionic and acrobatic representation — his own prescription in all its myriad forms, or call it aggressive romanticism.
Shammi, thereafter, never looked back, until the turn of the 1970s, when his growing girth, in tune with his family’s genetic order, could not ‘breathe,’ or ‘exude,’ the usual mercurial flow, or ‘biff-bang’ element on the silver screen — the hallmark and apogee of his amazing versatility. Of uplifting, flexible, and sensitive alchemy. Shammi gave up wisely when he knew he had lost that innate capacity, his ardent and innovative pattern of expression, conceptualisation and emotive rapture.
To go back a bit, the overall transformation in Shammi’s psyche, on celluloid, was inspired by Geeta — his talented wife and actress. She initiated Shammi to shed his family ‘hangover:’ to foster his own sense of individuality on the screen. The outcome was stupendous. Big musical hits followed one after the other. This was not all. Shammi also launched new, attractive and talented film heroines towards stardom. From Asha Parekh and Saira Banu, to Sharmila Tagore et al. The lone exception, perhaps, was Kalpana. Following her success in Professor, she’s never able to scale as much adulation, without Shammi, even though she got noticed and much appreciated in a handful of films with other stars, including Kishore Kumar.
Now, the megabucks rolled. Shammi was the toast of an entire generation. He had changed the face of Indian cinema like never before. Just on the basis of two, but unique, factors: one, by way of his breezy melodic component, with which his image blended so harmoniously; and, two, a simply-woven script, devoid of ennui, in spite of its commonplace story-line.
A big music buff, Shammi vibed well not only with filmmakers, but also music composers: foremost among them being the incomparable Shankar-Jaikishan, his favourites. And, yes, there’s that fabulous Mohammed Rafi effect, the soul of Shammi Kapoor’s songs, ushering a certain exaltation of its own, the ‘Yahoo!’ way. Tunes that will last till kingdom come; yes, they are as inimitable and melodious with every hearing, as they were when they were first composed. Rafi and Shammi were perfect partners, akin to what Mukesh was to Raj Kapoor, or Kishore Kumar to Rajesh Khanna.
What made Shammi so special was his adaptability. He’d be awfully jovial, so carefree, and comical at one moment, and just as emotional and doleful, the next. He teamed superbly with classy comedians, like Rajendra Nath, Mehmood et al: the duo, in question, taking viewers to the seventh heaven of laughter, with the comedian, in each case, going out of his way in helping his pal in every love, or ‘unmasking-the-villain’ situation.
The Shammi of yore was not visible, post-1980. However, shades of his old self still remained: on the big screen, TV, or even in commercials. Because, he’s distinctive — something different and special, the first ‘Jumping Jack,’ the James Dean, or the Elvis Presley of the Indian screen. The last of his type, perhaps, as well, even though his heavy, older physique reminded us of another famed Hollywood star of yore: Bud Spencer.
When Geeta died in 1965, Shammi was shattered. He was desolate. But, the show had to go on, notwithstanding a gigantic personal tragedy. Geeta was gone; not from his heart. He waged a lone battle in his mind, and he came up with blockbusters, like Teesri Manzil, Tumse Acchha Kaun Hai, Pagla Kahin Ka, and Andaz. The year 1968 was memorable: Shammi won the Filmfare Award for the Best Actor. The film: Brahmachari.
In 1969, Shammi married again. To Neila Devi, a fan of his and a wonderful home-loving lady, who always stood by him and family. He slowly ventured into film direction, without measurable success. He also began to play character roles and the effect of his talent was obvious. He was honoured with the Filmfare Award for the Best Supporting Actor in Vidhaata. He had a short stint on TV too and he produced his own video entertainment magazine and topped it all with Prem Granth. Well, TV was not always on Shammi’s agenda, but he greatly enjoyed his new passion: surfing on the Internet with his involvement with Yahoo India! — not to speak of his famous video clips, Shammi Kapoor Unplugged.
THE SHAMMI LEGACY
When Shammi won the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award, it was a tribute not only to his style, and panache, but also a huge way of saying thanks to his immense contribution to Indian cinema. Something which was always worth a tug or two on his famous beard — a career, or path, with a host of memorable moments, or tags of the most enchanting… a pleasure to his ardent fans, film buffs, or viewers, in India and abroad. What’s more, the Shammi of the 1950-60s could have been a big hit in Hollywood, if he wanted. He had all the credentials, and more, by way of his stunningly handsome face, a classy repertoire of acting talent, and a magical sense of his own brand of jesting, with a natural penchant for restrained slapstick — the Junglee and Budtameez rainbow fusion.
When Shammi passed away into sunset on August 14, 2011, after a long, debilitating illness, it was nightfall at dawn.
Yes, it’s, indeed, amusing, also amazing, that when he was at his peak, a glut of films were made with other male actors in lead roles — roles, tailor-made for Shammi, otherwise. Ditto, for songs: several of them, too, especially a plethora of lilting numbers, sung by Rafi, for Joy Mukherjee and Biswajit [apologies for the impertinence, or transgression of bounds, if any]. Just think of them from movies like Love in Tokyo, Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon etc., They were typical Shammi songs. You could visualise Shammi in them at the drop of a thought — subconsciously.
This was the Shammi magic. Also, his colourful mosaic. Immense. Imperishable.