Shammi Kapoor’s flair for music went back to his younger days. His mother had been into classical music and she would practise regularly with a professional music teacher, Pandit Jagannath Prasad, a well-known exponent of Hindustani classical music, who used to train the likes of the legendary K.L. Saigal and Mukesh. When she could not attend his training sessions at some point due to pressure of household work, she made her elder son Raj Kapoor learn in her place. When Raj got busy with films, it was Shammi’s turn. With his innate flair for music and “an abiding urge to sing,” Shammi grabbed the opportunity and went through the training sessions diligently and learnt music with great passion.
“The sound of any music evoked in me a strong urge to dance. The rhythm didn’t take time to seep into me and seek expression in dance. I always envisioned dance as a visual expression of music. The urge to dance was dormant in me for long,” he had explained. “From a very early age I wanted to learn dancing. But there were no professional schools in Bombay that taught dancing those days. I remember going to a ‘dance school’ at Pritam Hotel in the Dadar area of Central Bombay on the recommendation of a friend. It used to be run by one Pritam Kohli. I think he owned Pritam Hotel as well. He used to charge 20 bucks an hour to teach how to dance the Tango. But I hardly got to learn it. Leave alone my learning to tango, I couldn’t even flirt with the girl who was teaching me…”
Shammi’s brother Raj Kapoor was a good dancer too, but Shammi was different. “Rajji had done the Samba in Dastan (1950), but for me it was about dancing to a mood, not just movements. I never had a dance director to choreograph my dances in films. I let my instincts lead me. In Junglee I did not dance at all, I just moved, hopped around, jumped around and slid down the snow. It was an expression of a mood…of a young man who experiences the love of a woman for the first time. It was an expression of ‘awakening.’
“I think I tried to give physical expression to music. My choreography was always done here (pointing to his heart) and I brought it out on the floor. But I must admit I was extremely lucky, I got great music… music that inspired me to be innovative. I had O.P. Nayyar, I had Shankar-Jaikishen who created mind-boggling music, and I had Mohammed Rafi singing for me. You can’t be more fortunate than that.
“I don’t think many heroes of the time bothered too much about the presentation of songs. I have seen some of them going through the routine with their hands clasped like this (demonstrates) in front or they’d go like this (waves his arms). Even Dilip Kumar did nothing dynamic with his songs in the earlier stages of his career, except playing on a piano while singing (as in Mehboob Khan’s Andaz, 1949). In Tarana (1951), a fascinating musical, a wounded Dilip Kumar sings his part of a duet (‘Seene Mein Sulagte Hain Arman’) with Madhubala, lying on a bed with a blanket over him. But then, the roles he enacted were serious ones with tragic undertones. He did try in his own way to come out of the mundane and break fresh ground in the late ’50s in movies like Naya Daur (1957). His rendering of ‘Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri’ with Vyjayanthimala was very vibrant, absolutely magnificent. Even Gunga Jumna (1961) had Dilip Kumar in his element with Vyjayanthimala. I think had he not been restricted by the melancholic profile of the protagonists he played, he would have worked wonders with musicals. He was absolutely hilarious in a Gopi (1970) number: ‘Sala, Main Toh Sahab Ban Gaya.’
“My brother Raj Kapoor had his own brand of music, chartbusting music, in most of his films. But the characters he played restricted him too. He played poor characters in his earlier films, which limited overt action, I guess. Only Dev (Anand) did my kind of films. In fact, I thrived on films rejected by him for reasons other than merit. But his overall persona was different, so was his style and his music. He tried to reflect his real life personality in his screen persona. I believe, he had rejected the song ‘Khaike Paan Banaraswala’, which became a rage when Amitabh rendered it in Don (1978) later. I do remember that Jaikishen was heartbroken when he (Dev) refused to sing the number ‘Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyar Ke Charche…’ in a Nasir Husain film. I took it to Brahmachari, which my friend Bhappi Sonie was directing. Dev and I were often placed in the same bracket maybe because I kept doing films which he had walked out of…
“Acting was always a physical thing with me. I had to let the music seep into my being and then let it lead me on. I would always tell my directors, “Let the camera be flexible…don’t freeze the ‘field’. Play the music and let me be.” That’s how I did most of my songs. Like ‘Taarif Karoon Kya Uski’ (Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964), ‘Meri Bhains Ko Danda Kyun Mara?’ (Pagla Kahin Ka, 1970)…‘Aasman Se Aaya Farishta’ (An Evening in Paris, 1967)…and the famous ‘Yahoo’ number, ‘Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe’ (Junglee, 1961) which had just happened yoon hi, spontaneously, without any choreographic concepts.”
Shammi would always thank actress Nargis for inadvertently and indirectly strumming the latent strains of music in him and inspiring the evolution as a ‘music maniac’.
During his Prithvi Theatres days, whenever he was in Bombay, Shammi would make it a point to drop by at Raj Kapoor’s sets, “not only to get fussed over and pampered as the producer-director-hero’s kid brother, but also to enjoy the free lunch.” There was Nargis too, his brother’s favourite heroine, whom he was very fond of. “She was a lovely, vibrant person. I loved chatting with her.”
One day, he had gone to Roop Tara Studio, as usual, where Raj Kapoor was shooting Barsaat (1949), which was in its final lap. Shammi looked around for Nargis and came to know that she hadn’t joined the unit for lunch that day. He went straight to her make-up room. She was there in tears, sobbing away.
“She told me that her family, especially her mother and brother, had forbidden her from working with my brother any more. They had warned her against doing his next film Awara (1951). She was miserable about it. She was desperate to do Awara with Rajji,” Shammi had reminisced. “I told her to relax and pray. ‘If you pray sincerely, your wish will come true,’ I reassured her. But she continued to sob. My efforts to regale her with my usual chatter weren’t working. Then, suddenly, she turned around and said,
‘Shammi, will you pray for me too? If I get to do Awara, I’ll give you a kiss.’
Wow, I said and shook hands with her on that – the hero’s brother in his shorts and the leading lady.
“Time rolled on. I passed out of school and joined college, left college and joined my father’s theatre company. By then, Barsaat had hit the screen and become a super hit, and Awara was on the floor with Nargis in the lead opposite Rajji. Her dream had come true. I had shot up by some five-six inches too and acquired a moustache.
“One afternoon, I went over to the studio where Nargis was shooting – I think it was Rajji’s RK Studio – to collect my dues. She greeted me with her usual warmth and a big smile. Without losing a second, I said, ‘Baby (we all called her by her pet name), you owe me a kiss. I have come for that.’ She was scandalised, and she ran out of the room, and I followed her. She stopped after a while and said, ‘Shammi, you are a big boy now, how can I kiss you? I can’t.’
‘Baby, you promised me.’ I wailed. ‘I can compensate you with anything else you ask for,’ she pleaded.
‘Will you buy me a gramophone?’ I asked, trying to be as unreasonable as I could.
‘Sure,’ she said without batting an eyelid. We hopped into her car, a black-and- white Riley sports model, and drove to the HMV shop in downtown Bombay. She asked me to pick a gramophone of my choice... Then she drove me to Rhythm House, the best record shop in town those days, and said, ‘Now choose 20 records.’ Those were 78 rpm days. My first record was the Gypsy Love Song. It was followed by Arti Shaw’s Jungle Drums and Glen Miller’s In the Mood, Mozart, Beethoven and Rumbas and Sambas.
“It was like my life was on a take-off point. Music entered my life and I played on it passionately. I spent every sober and not-so-sober moment in the next phase of my life seeped in different phrases of music. I’d shut myself up in my room and play a record again and again, until I remembered every interlude, every chord. It became a kind of obsession. At times, I’d dance in the middle of the night alone and lost. It gave a better kick than booze.”
Excerpted with permission from Shammi Kapoor: The Game Changer, Rauf Ahmed, Om Books International.