Sunday, August 14, 2011

Play it again, Shammi

The actor Shammi Kapoor passed away early this morning, marking the end of an era of which I have some interesting memories. When I was four, my parents bought a flat on the third floor of a newly constructed apartment building, Blue Haven, in Bombay's Malabar Hill area. Shammi Kapoor bought flats 1 and 2, which came with an attached garden, on the ground floor of the same building. As a result I saw him quite often in my childhood.

Usually this was when he was about to drive off in one of his many foreign cars. I vividly remember his Ford Thunderbird coupé, which consisted of a few miles of engine followed by a relatively small passenger cabin with two gigantic (or so they seemed to me) beige leather bucket seats. It could barely make the turn up the steep curving driveway of Blue Haven. I never managed to enter this car, but was luckier with his Chevelle Malibu in which I managed to get a ride when his son Micky (as we knew him) drove it to Breach Candy, probably at the age of 15.

My parents were not Bollywood fans and so, paradoxically, though I knew our neighbour was a famous actor I had not actually seen any of his films. I would go to flats 1 and 2 to play with Micky (we are the same age) but never encountered his father except on special occasions like birthdays. Then in 1965 when I was 9, I was out somewhere and I remember my parents receiving some shocking news and taking me home in silence right away. Shammi Kapoor's wife, the charming Geeta Bali, had died of smallpox. Even before we reached home, municipal officers had arrived and we were all vaccinated against smallpox there and then.

The next day, standing on the staircase, I watched the coffin being taken out of the building. Thereafter Micky and his sister vanished for some time, and we heard they had been sent out of town to relatives for a while. Some years later Shammi Kapoor married the charming and elegant Neila Devi who had a brisk no-nonsense air about her and took over the task of rearing the children with evident affection and grace. She came from the princely family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. I clearly remember once on her return from a foreign trip with her husband, Micky asked her if she had brought him the present she had promised to bring. She replied "I'm a Rajput, I always keep my promises."

Until her marriage Neila had been unconnected to Bollywood and had not seen Shammi Kapoor's movies! Shammi undertook to screen them for her at home on his 8mm projector. The kids in the building were invited, so I had the unique experience of watching such entertaining movies as "Dil Deke Dekho" and "Teesri Manzil" while the character dancing and singing and gyrating his hips on-screen was sitting right behind me. Around the same time Micky played a new song for me on the gramophone at his home, it was "badan pe sitaare lapete hue" from "Prince" and the movie was only released much later. Shammi Kapoor's songs were typically sung by legendary playback singer Mohammed Rafi, and I always associated the latter's voice with the former's face.

Two more memories from the 1970's are worth recounting. One day I answered the phone at home and a rather furious male voice asked for my mother. When I asked who was speaking, he said "Shammi Kapoor". It was unusual for him to call us, but it transpired that a lady living some floors above his flat had flung a bucketful of water onto his garden and drenched his guests. He was relying on my mother, whom he respected greatly, to sort things out. Another memory is of the time he came into the table-tennis room. This was just before he directed "Manoranjan" and he had become rather overweight. He asked if he could play with us and then, bulky as he was, roundly defeated all the kids of the building including myself.

In the early 1990's when I was no longer staying in the building, I learned from the papers that Shammi Kapoor had become an "internet guru". He was the first person I know of in India outside academia who talked so enthusiastically about the social possibilities of this novel phenomenon. It was typical of him to become fascinated with this at a time when others his age (notably including senior faculty members at TIFR!) were desperately trying to find reasons to ignore it.

One Bollywood film that I did manage to see soon after its release, in 1967, was "An Evening in Paris". In an iconic scene Shammi Kapoor, clad in an orange-striped bathrobe, dangles under a helicopter and sings "aasman se aaya farishta" to Sharmila Tagore while she is water-skiing. She responds with "You silly!" and "Don't be silly!", lines that - as some may recall - were a staple for heroines of 1960's Hindi films. Shammi remains undeterred by these accusations and, still singing, winches himself down from the helicopter onto a boat from where he approaches Ms Tagore and eventually bundles her into the helicopter. At this point she undergoes a surprising change of heart and admits that she loves him. Some will say it was the lure of a free helicopter ride, but I believe she had finally noticed that her suitor was "tall, athletic, lively, fair complexioned, green-eyed and with handsome features" (to quote Wikipedia).


Meta Dynamic Systems said...

... while she(Ms. Tagore) was already, very successfully wooed by another Shammi-Rafi memorable song "Yeh Chaand Sa Roshan Chehra... Tarif Karun Kya Uski" in her, if I remember correctly, first Hindi film appearance - "Kashmir Ki Kali", with quite indelible song-picturisation, which was one of the movies screened in AG69 to once mores for the song and was actually once mored, if not many times over, perhaps, most likely to be during Holi (I cannot vouch for my memory here) and that remains one strong memory of TIFR and Shammi.

RA said...

Excellent post. I have shared in my google plus music circle.
I am silent reader of your blog and enjoy reading your thoughts.

Gautam said...

You might like this article by an old friend:

Sacredfig (formerly, aspiring annapoorna) said... IS a small of my favorite bloggers was neighbors with one of my favorite actors :)

sukratu said...

Shammi Kapoor is one Bollywood star who is widely identified outside his domain.
Being one of his ardent fans, I was notified by many friends on his demise.
In particular, those associated with me professionally at my workplace made it a point to note the event. Shammi Kapoor being one of the pioneers of the internet in India, we were toying with the idea of inviting him to inaugurate our university centre. It would have been a fulfilling thing to have someone
from the golden age of the Bombay film industry with us. But it was not to be....