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Late the spian Shashi Kapoor’s love for gems

R V Smith |

Shashi Kapoor and Sridevi found honourable mention at the recent 90th Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles during the “In Memoriam” montage.

At the late dimpled actor’s birth anniversary (he was born in Calcutta on 18 March, 1938), one was reminded of his genial personality, which probably came out best when he was paired with Sharmila Tagore.

As a matter of fact, one film critic wondered whether they would not have made a good couple in real life, especially after Sharmila’s comment that he was “the handsomest man she had ever met”.
Be that as it may, few know that Shashi had a great love for gems, whether imitation or real. Maybe it had something to do with the story of the Armenian Jewish mystic, Sarmad Shaheed, who came all the way to Delhi from Thatta, in Sindh, where he was based, to sample the Mughal gems pawned by the decadent nobles of Shah Jahan’s time to the jewellers of Chandni Chowk.

Sarmad fell in love with the son of one such merchant (Abhay Chand) and decided to stay on in Delhi till his execution under the orders of Aurangzeb on a charge of heresay. Probably Shashi Kapoor toyed with the idea of making a film on Sarmad but his plan did not materialise.

The death of Shashi, after a long illness, which made him wheelchair-bound for some years, in December 2017, broke an old link that had been forged with such films as Aagh and Awaara.

A part of this link was also connected with Jaipur, a city he loved because it fascinated his late wife Jennifer Kapoor nee Kendal. This association began when Shashi was acting in Shakespearana, the theatre group headed by the Englishman, who was going to become his father-in-law, Geoffrey Kendal.

Both Jennifer and her sister, Felicity, probably liked Jaipur because of its hills. Which reminded them of the Scottish Highlands back home and the locale of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, with its weird scenes ~ the Three Witches, Banquo’s ghost and the murder of Duncan the Meek by the cruel lady Macbeth at their palace.

Both sisters were fond of shopping in Johri Bazar whenever they visited the Rajasthan Capital, especially when Shashi was shooting for a film.

Sometimes he had a spare day when, after escorting the two dear ladies around the markets, where they bought the famed Jaipur print costumes, dulais, precious stones and hand-embroidered “jooti”, he would slip away to Sanganeri Darwaza for a good helping of kalakand, after which the kacchoris tasted even better.

Although a sparse eater (which once made Rishi Kapoor remark, “Uncle, if that’s how much you eat, I’m prepared to keep you for life”), Shashi did have a sweet tooth, which he whetted in Jaipur bazars.

He was also fond of biryani of the North Indian kind, to get which he used to cycle a long distance to buy a whole lot in Bombay for Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor and their wives.

What spurred him on to go on this trip was the handsome tip he got as a teenager. In Jaipur, instead of the biryani of Ghat Gate he enjoyed the korma-tandoori roti better.

Shashi was also fond of “chaat”, which had its own flavour in Jaipur, but more enjoyable for him was the “chaat” of Chandni Chowk, sold by a vendor sitting in the evening right below the Central Bank building.

He would lick it and then go to Parantha Gali, where delicious paranthas were just four annas each in the 1960s and made of lip-smacking desi ghee too.

Talking about ghee, one remembers a report, which said that on a visit to Jaipur Shashi bought a whole pot of it from near Hawa Mahal, a favourite destination for both Jennifer and Felicity, who liked to drink the lassi sold there.

It’s also worth mentioning that when Mughal-e-Azam was being shot, with the hills of Jaipur as the background for the early wars fought by Jahangir as Prince Salim (in the role played by Dilip Kumar), Shashi Kapoor was also there with his father (Akbar in the film), whose advice was valued much for the fighting scenes, as in his youth Prithviraj Kapoor had acted in such films as Sikandar (Alexander).

That experience helped Shashi when he was playing the role of the Pathan Sirdar, who carries away Mary (Mariam), the Anglo-Indian lady (Jennifer) and her daughter, in the film Junoon, based on Ruskin Bond’s story, A Flight of Pigeons, and an earlier version, written by J F Fanthome, who was a teenager in 1857 and wrote from first-hand experience.

Shashi Kapoor went all the way to Agra from Shahjahanpur (where some of the scenes of Junoon were shot) to see the grave of Fanthome, who died on 17 April, 1914, and was buried in the St Paul’s Church cemetery there.

A favourite visiting spot for Shashi was Ramniwas Garden and its Albert Hall Museum, where he and his wife had seen the mummy of the Egyptian priestess (some say princess).

It reminded the couple of their sojourn in Cairo, where the museum has some wonderful Egyptian exhibits, including mummies of the Pharaohs.

It was from here, incidentally, that the Jaipur mummy was brought during the 19th century and presented on behalf of the curator of the Cairo Museum to Sawai Madho Singh II.

Would you believe it that Shashi Kapoor was planning to shoot a film in Rajniwas Garden mainly because of the mummy, which had attracted his wife?

But then fate willed it otherwise, for Jennifer was stricken with cancer and died early in 1984, leaving Shashi heart-broken.

One other story worth narrating is about a pearl bought by Jennifer Kapoor from the evening gems’ auction market in Nawab-ka-Churaha. The pearl she presented to Shashi on his birthday. Had he lived, he would have been 80 now.

But even otherwise, he was the longest-living member of the Kapoor family, some months more than Shammi Kapoor, who too died at the age of 79. Now, to get back to the pearl: Gossip says when Shashi’s sister-in-law Felicity saw it she remarked that it was a gem for which one could even die for.

Hearing this Shashi handed over the pearl to her without any hesitation. Maybe it is still with Felicity, if old-timer Khalil Mian’s tale be true.

Shashi and Jennifer had indeed visited Bagh Chorniwala, Khalil Mian’s ancestral residence, near which elephants and camels were led up and down by their keepers, and on which the Kendal sisters took a joyride in Amber when the theatre group visited the city for a performance at the special request of Maharani Gayatri Devi, so fond of reading Shakespeare’s plays.

Shashi, of course, was overjoyed on seeing the two on elephant-back and the pictures he clicked must be still gracing the family album, unless Felicity Kendal took them away with her after Jennifer’s death.

The passing away of Shashi Kapoor, therefore, must have left Jaipurwallas much sadder than people elsewhere. The handsomest Bollywood actor with the dimpled smile was a trait he shared with Sharmila Tagore ~ who naturally liked him for it, along with Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar for their acting talent.

Though surprisingly enough, she didn’t mention Rajesh Khanna, who appeared in some memorable films with her, including the heart-wrenching Amar Prem, with its haunting “Kucch tau log kahenge/ Logon ka kaam hai kehna…”, so shrewdly cited by Smriti Irani in her defence when she was under attack as Union HRD minister.

As the critic rightly remarked, Shashi and Sharmila were made for each other, but for fate. It would then have been dimple-dimple all the way. However, Shashi Kapoor loved Jennifer so much that her death broke his heart and he was not the same jovial man again.

And Sharmila, of course, hasn’t really got over the demise of Mansoor Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, whose begum she became, though she must be missing Shashi too now!

R V Smith