Bollywood's First Breakout Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he paved the way for what’s par for the course today in Bollywood.
By Aayush Soni
The newly married couple are quarreling over how the wife does housework. The husband says he’ll ask his mother to show her the ropes, and with that, the temperatures increase, along with her threats to leave.
While the 1960s saw the West make an appearance in Bollywood, they also saw India’s first movie star appear in an English-language film. In 1963, decades before Slumdog Millionaire, Shashi Kapoor made his Hollywood debut in The Householder, a film about a young marriage rescued from imminent collapse. Today, it’s common for Bollywood stars to feature in English movies and TV shows — from Anil Kapoor as the game show host in Slumdog to Amitabh Bachchan as the flamboyant war veteran in The Great Gatsby. But they’re all following in Kapoor’s footsteps.
When he saw the script of The Householder, it connected him with the kind of theater and cinema he believed in.
Aseem Chhabra, film critic
“The Householder and particularly Shakespeare Wallah were probably among the first films made by an international producer in English starring an Indian actor that were so critically acclaimed,” says Kunal Kapoor, Shashi’s son. Considered one of the most handsome movie stars of his time, the 77-year-old Shashi Kapoor is now a pale shadow of himself — confined to a wheelchair and struggling to recognize loved ones. Kapoor’s last public appearance was in May 2015, when the government of India conferred upon him the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, a civilian honor for his contribution to cinema.
Kapoor’s career as an actor was a foregone conclusion. His father, Prithviraj Kapoor, was a respected movie star in the ’30s and ’40s, and ran Prithvi Theatre, a traveling theater troupe that gave Shashi his earliest roles. Raj, his eldest brother, made movies with a social message, and Shammi, his older brother, was known as India’s Elvis Presley. But unlike them, Shashi preferred art house cinema over commercial films, and while he did the usual song-and-dance Bollywood dramas to pay bills, his true love was the stage. “When he saw the script of The Householder, it connected him with the kind of theater and cinema he believed in,” says Aseem Chhabra, a New York–based film critic and author of Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star. Later, Kapoor worked for the touring Shakespeareana Company run by Geoffrey Kendal, a British playwright, and his future father-in-law.
For Indians, Kapoor’s appearance on the international stage might have been a matter of pride, but it took a while for Americans to appreciate his talent. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, described Kapoor’s performance in The Householder as “colorless and clumsy,” prompting the actor to get drunk at the Plaza Hotel. In a review of Bombay Talkie, a 1970 extravaganza that explored the workings of Bollywood, Alex Ward called the characters “tiresome” and the story “unappealing,” while Roger Ebert panned Siddhartha, a 1972 film about self-discovery, as being “too pretty.”
But in 1983, Kapoor charmed audiences and critics alike with his performance in Heat and Dust. In it, an Indian royal prince falls in love with Olivia, the wife of a British civil servant in the 1920s. Sixty years later, Anne, Olivia’s grand-niece, goes to India to retrace her aunt’s story, only to fall in love with an Indian man herself. Chhabra, then a student in New York, saw the film during its opening weekend at the Plaza Theater in Manhattan. “The ticket holders’ line snaked around the block, and when we finally seated ourselves in the semi-dark hall, I couldn’t help feeling exhilarated that India and a majestic Shashi were on a giant screen in New York City,” he writes. Ebert described Kapoor’s performance as “beguiling, attractive and cheerfully sophisticated.”
The duo who spotted Kapoor and cast him in his most noteworthy movies were Ismail Merchant, an Indian-born, New York University–educated producer, and his partner James Ivory, an American director. Merchant first met Kapoor on a visit to India in 1961 and was struck by the actor’s good looks. Under the Merchant Ivory banner, Kapoor acted in seven films — four of them directed by Ivory. “There was no overblown style of acting,” Ivory told Chhabra. “I have seen some of his Hindi commercial films, and he really wasn’t over the top. He had some kind of restraint.”
But Kapoor’s tryst with English cinema “didn’t lead to more opportunities for other Hindi film actors,” says Jai Arjun Singh, a New Delhi–based film critic, noting how Kapoor’s opportunities stemmed largely from his association with Merchant Ivory and his in-laws, British Shakespearean actors. Back home, Kapoor was doing what any other Bollywood star did — dancing, crying, lip-syncing pre-recorded songs and uttering melodramatic dialogue. “He was two different types of performers in those two types of cinemas,” says Singh. And he switched between both to charm audiences on either side of the Atlantic.