In his book on dancing star and rebel hero, Shammi Kapoor: The Game Changer, journalist and film critic Rauf Ahmed gives readers a view of Kapoor’s ascent into stardom. He has Kapoor detail the secrets of his incredible dancing ability, with Kapoor being quoted as saying, “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.”
Shammi Kapoor, who would have turned 86 later this year had it not been for his demise on August 14, 2011, went on to carve his own niche, distinct from the on-screen personas enjoyed by Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Kumar was the tragic lover, the tortured soul, the male Meena Kumari before Meena Kumari came along. Dev Anand was rakish, confident, the ultimate city slicker and it was that persona that set him apart from his peers. Raj Kapoor, the eldest of Prithviraj Kapoor’s children, went on to be defined by his roles in films like Awaara, Shree 420, Jagte Raho and Anari.
Shammi Kapoor didn’t set the Hindi film industry ablaze with his sense of style and dancing rhythm from the very beginning. He had about 18 failures against his illustrious surname before writer-director Nasir Husain’s Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) catapulted him into fame and stardom. With Husain casting Shammi Kapoor as a flamboyant, debonair, Western-styled character in that film and then in Dil Deke Dekho thereafter, Kapoor went on to become the rage of the 1960s, starring in several hit films like Junglee, Professor, Kashmir Ki Kali, Teesri Manzil and An Evening In Paris.
Kapoor was irresistible in these roles. His theatrics were unique. He was a bon vivant, the very antithesis to Dilip Kumar’s tragic persona. Nasreen Munni Kabir summarised his appeal best in Bollywood’s Top 20 Superstars of Indian Cinema: “Most importantly, he exuded an unabashed and irresistible sexuality that was far from the heroes of the time, who projected romanticism but rarely sexuality. With his dreamy eyes, soft voice, charming dialogue delivery and arresting personality, Shammi Kapoor radiated the raw appeal of an Elvis Presley – especially evident when performing songs.”
Many have suggested that Shammi Kapoor was an extension of the Dev Anand character. Both men essentially played urban characters and exuded a certain comfort with Western modernity. There are also a handful of roles initially scripted for Anand and eventually performed by Kapoor. Nasir Husain’s directorial debut Tumsa Nahin Dekha was written keeping Anand in mind, but with the actor turning the film down, it was Kapoor who benefitted by playing the lead protagonist.
Kapoor also replaced Dev Anand in Subodh Mukerji’s tentatively titled film Mr Hitler, which was eventually released as Junglee (1961). He then walked into Teesri Manzil (1966) after Anand and Husain had a fallout.
This is not the best way to understand the Shammi Kapoor phenomenon. For one, he portrayed a certain manic energy, an aggressive physicality in his acting and dancing routines that Anand never had. This physicality signified what Kaushik Bhaumik, associate professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU in Delhi, called élan vital, the term coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson to explain the vital force or impulse of life.
When Kapoor danced, he danced in the true sense of the word. While there was no formal style that he adhered to, there was grace and rhythm in his movements and a distinct abandon that went beyond Dev Anand’s baltering movements or the rhythmic one-two, one-two choreographed routines used in song sequences in the name of dance.
But dancing is just one aspect of the Shammi Kapoor package. His flamboyance went well beyond city limits and played out in the countryside and hill stations. In many of his films, Kapoor wooed local women, be it Junglee, Rajkumar or Kashmir Ki Kali. While the open landscape in these films suited his overpowering physicality, Kapoor didn’t need a character makeover to establish the distinction between urban Indian and its mofussil centres. His urbanity was all encompassing.
The other interesting difference between Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor is that the former’s films always emphasised his profession, which gave his characters a fair degree of seriousness. Films like CID, Kaala Bazaar, Taxi Driver, Jewel Thief and Guide integrated the trade of Anand’s characters into the storyline. Even in a frothy entertainer like Paying Guest, Anand’s struggling advocate ultimately displays ingenuity in the courtroom at the climax to save his lover from the gallows.
Shammi Kapoor was quite the opposite. In most of his films, his occupational pursuits were frivolous or on the margins of what was deemed respectable at the time. Even his characters in Junglee and Kashmir Ki Kali are misleading. In Junglee , he breaks out of his dictatorial, authoritarian style halfway through the film to turn into a wild, spirited young man. In Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), he realises halfway through that he is not the heir apparent to a mill owner’s fortune. His lack of a serious profession allows him to function in an unbridled way, without the “Log kya kahenge” baggage that handicapped the on-screen personas of other mainstream heroes.
To enhance the comic element, Kapoor often resorted to disguise. In many of his films, there are extended sequences where he resorts to masquerading an Arab sheikh, a qawwal, or a woman. In Professor (1962), Kapoor plays an aging educationist.
In an industry that puts a premium on young heroes, Kapoor changed shape and form all too willingly. These masquerading characters allowed for comic release through situational comedy, but it also highlighted his dexterity. He could be anything to anyone and in doing so he was perhaps the most cosmopolitan of Hindi film heroes. He could court the beautiful young women of Paris in style even while pulling off a high-energy bhangra song with gusto.
Through his breezy and carefree roles, in which he indulged in all kinds of burlesque antics, Shammi Kapoor participated in the party song (the male item number, if you will) more than any other mainstream hero before or during his time. Some of his most memorable numbers, such as the Dil Deke Dekho title track, Baar Baar Dekho from China Town, Dekho Ab Toh from Janwar, the two Teesri Manzil club songs (O Haseena Zulfonwaali and Aaja Aaja) and Aaj kal Tere Mere take place in the club or hotel space or on the occasion of a celebration.
You would expect the hero in such circumstances to raise a glass to enhance the revelry of the gathering. Not Shammi Kapoor. As opposed to today’s heroes or heroines, who celebrate liquor or its consumption as a way of rejoicing, Kapoor rarely sings after consuming alcohol. This adhered to the rule back then that alcohol signalled moral decline for the Hindi film hero, and that he drank only when he was spurned in love or could not cope with existential dilemmas.
Shammi Kapoor didn’t need anything to further give him an adrenaline rush. He was already high on life as he himself sang in Suku Suku (Junglee).
“Meri aankhon mein nasha,
Meri baaton mein nasha
Meri saanson mein nasha
Behka main bin peeye.”
Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet and Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain. He tweets at @AkshayManwani.
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