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Bollywood's First Family

The fourth segment of an exclusive excerpt from Madhu Jain's biography, The Kapoors:

The Perfect Gentleman: Shashi Kapoor

It was just a curl, a loving little swirl his mother made each morning. She felt kiss curls would make his unusually large forehead appear smaller.

No doubt his schoolmates at Don Bosco or childhood friends on Hollywood Lane made fun of him. But for the school-going boy the curl was sacrosanct. For Shashi Kapoor, arguably the most handsome actor of the Indian screen (actress and friend Tanuja describes Shashi as simply 'Shashlik' -- good enough to eat), that large brow seemed to trip narcissism early on in his life.

Recalls Prayag Raaj: 'Shashi was very touchy about it. If anyone disturbed it, he would say, "I will beat you." At times he even said, "I'll kill you." He used to stand in front of the mirror and make sure the curl remained intact.'

As a child his large head sat atop a small body, and his unbelievably long eyelashes triggered sniggers from his friends and family. His looks may have been inadvertently responsible for his being an angry young child -- one who, ironically, did not grow into an angry young man on the screen like his famous co-star, Amitabh Bachchan. In fact, the joke in the Indian film industry in the late 70s and 80s was that this Kapoor, with his perfect and fair Pathan looks and easy charm and crooked canines, was Bachchan's favourite heroine.

Of course there was nothing feminine about Prithviraj Kapoor's youngest son. It was just that he always came across, and was, the Perfect Gentleman of Indian cinema -- the nice guy, ever chivalrous and gallant with a sly sense of humour. Contemporaries like Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan cultivated a more macho image, while he was more nuanced, less melodramatic and obviously uncomfortable running around trees and singing about the birds and beds. However, he was not always the nice man -- a label slapped on him by many of his fans in India and abroad.

Under the urbane, good-natured surface there was complexity and unarticulated anger -- a spark could set it off. It was more evident in the films he made for European an American directors. Shashi Kapoor was our first real international star, and till today the most significant overseas. It took more discerning film directors like James Ivory (Bombay Talkies, Heat and Dust), Stephen Frears (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and Nicholas Meyer (The Deceivers) among others to explore his complex or dark side In Indian cinema, Shyam Benegal brought out this side of the actor in both Junoon and Kalyug.

Growing up, the youngest Kapoor son had a lot of anger bottled up inside him. Perhaps he did not like being called Napoleon by those around him. 'Being a little fellow, uncles and aunts would call me Napoleon,' says Shashi Kapoor. 'I had a big head, big forehead and a small neck and body… I used to fall down as a baby because of my big, heavy head.'

Perhaps being the baby of the family he was spoiled. As he puts it: 'I was an angry child. I was the youngest, and could almost get away with murder. When I was about eight or 10, I challenged a friend. I had an air gun and I shot him in the leg -- I put a lead bullet in his leg. We used to call him Gulu… Everybody thought Shammiji was the angry young man, but I was the angry young boy. Papaji used to put oil on my head to take care of my gussa (anger). He used to say, "Sar garam hai" (He is hot headed), although he never slapped me.'

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