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Bollywood's First Family

The Junglee and the Gent: Shammi Kapoor

Even though he never completed college, Shammi Kapoor continued his education, informally.

He was a voracious reader, quite the opposite of his elder brother. He consumed books with the same frenzied passion as he did food, whiskey and women.

Books probably had more to do with the shaping of his mind than anything else. How else can one explain how different he is from his father and brothers, and the larger Kapoor clan. There is obviously an introspective and enigmatic personality behind the hedonist fašade.

Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor had been influenced by Nehruvian socialism: leftist ideology bolstered the work of both, and the collective prevailed over the individual. Shammi Kapoor did not have any such burden. The philosophy of the high priestess of capitalism, Ayn Rand, may have had more of an abiding influence on him.

Vehemently anti-Communist, the American novelist-philosopher of Russian origin had influenced generations of young people with her advocacy of the 'virtue of selfishness' -- the pursuit of happiness and the American dream. Her novels were a paean to capitalism. From her came the ideas of personal freedom as well as free markets, and most important, the idea of the heroic personality.

Her two most well-known protagonists -- Howard Roark in Fountainhead (1943) and John Galt in Atlas Shrugged (1957) -- certainly left an indelible mark on Shammi Kapoor. The Rand men were nothing like the heroes he saw around him. Shammi Kapoor admired the intransigent, unbreakable, rebellious spirit -- and the go-for-it philosophy.

'I liked Fountainhead very much -- the character had an influence on me. To design the self on the man who would not accept second best. Just imagine naming his yacht I do. I liked this 'nothing holds me' philosophy. You can live in a book at an impressionable age,' says Shammi.

To say that Shammi Kapoor was obsessive in his reading is an understatement. Producer Surinder Kapoor remembers him tearing out each page after he had finished it -- there was a pile of pages on the floor after he had finished. 'I think he used to tear out each page after he read it because this way he would not end up reading the same pages again. I have never seen anybody read like this.'

For Shammi Kapoor reading was often like a marathon race: he did not even stop to take a leak. Or at least that is the way he describes reading Atlas Shrugged on his web site. 'Before starting Dil Deke Dekho I did a reading stint. Ayn Rand, the author of Fountainhead, had written a new book called Atlas Shrugged. It was a massive novel comprising some 1,000-odd pages and I was bent upon doing a start-to-finish job. It took me thirty-six hours of non-stop reading but left me with a kidney ailment. I do not know how the two are connected but the pain was excruciating.'

Nor was it just a solitary activity. He used to discuss books with his sister, Urmi, He has often said to friends that books were not something he could discuss with his brothers.

Shammi Kapoor loved to talk about books with the women he dated: perhaps he thought it would be considered wimpish to discuss books and ideas with his drinking pals and colleagues in the film world. He used to read to his first wife, Geeta Bali. She was illiterate, but loved to listen to him. 'I used to read out loud to my wife -- every night a chapter. She would cry, especially when I read Dumas' Camille.'

Shammi Kapoor found his heroes not only in the fiction of Ayn Rand but also in the macho men of the screen in the Hollywood movies of the fifties. Errol Flynn was a significant influence on his impressionable young mind: 'It was a different world and time. I saw Errol Flynn in Robin Hood and read his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways. I was impressed and I modeled myself after himů his kind of persona.'

The young Shammi Kapoor also admired and tried to emulate the 'romantic tough guys' like John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and John Barrymore.

'They were men. Wayne with his hip flasků watching them you got the feeling that if you were like them you could knock on any door,' says Shammi. The character of Nick Ramon really appealed to him. 'At 22 you live fast, die young and make a good-looking corpse. This was a Bible for us.'

He often talks about his fascination as a young man with being 'male' -- hunting, riding off like a cowboy into the wild country with a hip flask and a girl on his arm, and driving cars at breakneck speed. He was the original Alpha male of Malabar Hill.

Which is why the young Shammi had to have a Buick convertible, which he would drive at 90 miles an hour. The Kapoors loved their cars in different ways. Prithviraj Kapoor loved his Opel and was faithful to it till the end. Raj Kapoor bought a car, a convertible Oldsmobile, soon after his first film as director. Later, however, he was quite happy with his white Ambassador. Shashi Kapoor loved driving his white Mercedes. But it was Shammi Kapoor for whom a car was much more than getting from one place to another to comfort.

It was more like a relationship between a cowboy and his horse. Shammi Kapoor just loved cars, even if he had to 'borrow' them. On his web site he evocatively writes about his love affair with them. It started in Hollywood Lane with a small Austin that belonged to a certain Mr Mani.

Shammi and his friends used to push the car to get it started. 'Then one day, unknown to him, we started to push it around with one of us at the steering to keep in practice, and ultimately when I jumped into the driver's seat, I fixed some ignition wires and got it started. The rest jumped in and we took a short drive. We got away with this routine a couple of times till we were apprehended one day by Mani and got the firing of our lives.'

Shammi also coveted his elder brother's car. One day before going to school he started Raj Kapoor's car, and before Dwarka, their servant, could get in and close the door, the car took off. The result was disastrous. The open door crashed against the lamp post and got wrenched off. The noise brought Raj and his parents to the balcony. Before he could be hauled up, Shammi ran from the car to the nearest bus stop.

Before the ink could dry on the contract for his first film, Jeevan Jyoti (1950), he began to scout for a car. He fell in love with a second-hand sky-blue Buick convertible that belonged to actress Nigar Sultana. Shammi Kapoor spied it at the Car Mart on Hughes Road, and borrowed Rs 5,000 from Aspi Irani, a producer friend, for the down payment. Two years later on June 12, 1952 he finally took possession of his beloved Buick. He was twenty-two.

Subsequently, the flamboyant film star owned many cars. A former friend remarks: 'He changed cars as often as he did his women.' His garage witnessed a passing parade: a Desoto followed by a Chevy Belair, a Chevy Impala, a Chevy Intercontinental convertible, a Ford Thunderbird, a Sunbeam Alpine, a Triumph, a Malibu, some foreign and Indian Fiats and a number of jeeps for shikar. But as Shammi Kapoor notes on his web site: 'To this day the one and only beauty which has always remained dear to me in both my memory and my heart is the Buick BMY 3009.'

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