It’s never been the best of times for cinema – let’s call it the freedom of film expression – but neither has it ever become a ready-to-go powder keg. Explosive.
In fact, strong chances are that Shashi Kapoor, who passed away at the age of 79 - in his dual capacities of a progressive film producer and an occasional risk-taking actor - would have been stonewalled.
Fluff-‘n’-fantasies are okay. In hindsight, his estimable side-bar oeuvre of political critiques as well as interpretations of historical events and mythology, would have served as dartboards for the mounting phalanx of rabble-rousers.
However hypothetical this viewpoint may seem to you, Shashi Kapoor’s endeavours off-the-humdrum-track, don’t appear to be doable today - be it vis-a-vis their concepts, screenplays and frankly speaking, irrespective of caste, creed and ideology.
Even while devoting himself to populist entertainers, clearly there was a restlessness to articulate a voice of dissent.
Here’s looking back at a collection of the actor’s and producer’s way-ahead-of-the-times films, when it was still possible to fly over the cuckoo’s nest:
For a star son today, a launch project in the role of a not-so-reluctant fundamentalist would spell pure poison. Yet in his first adult role, Shashi Kapoor ventured into the anti-hero area, perhaps because an offer from the fast-rising BR Chopra banner and directed by Yash Chopra (fresh off the success of Dhool ka Phool), wasn’t an offer which could be refused.
Often rated as the first Hindi film on Partition, the debut role presented him a hot-headed activist of the Hindu right wing, who’s unaware that his biological parents are Muslim. Reportedly, there were sporadic riots outside some of the cinema halls on its release. The protests faded as soon as the film flopped at the ticket windows. Ironically, Dharmputra won the National Award for the Best Hindi Feature Film.
A young Brahmin man sets out on a quest for spiritual fulfillment. Adapted from the cult novel by Herman Hesse and directed by Conrad Rooks, the international production featured scenes of explicit sexuality, one of them showing Shashi Kapoor folding hands before a nude Simi Garewal.
At the very outset, permission to film in India was denied, but was eventually cleared by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Next: the censors were in a tizzy. Nudity wasn’t acceptable (even kissing was taboo). After hellish hoopla, the sex-and-spiritual fusion was cleared with cuts. A little over a decade ago, a restored print was re-released overseas, without much ado.
Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1977)
Raj Kapoor’s ode to inner beauty – over physical allure – couldn’t have been conceived without that in-your-face quotient of erotica. Right to date, the story of a man, a woman – Shashi Kapoor-Zeenat Aman – and their chemistry, is considered as a one-of-a-kind discourse on screen sexuality. Would the censors and the moral brigade of today, pass it without hiccuping? Perhaps the current censor chief, Prasoon Joshi, would know the answer. Alas, he’s not the sort to go-on-record with his valued opinion.
Girish Karnad, one of the co-writers of the film, produced by Shashi Kapoor (he also acted in it, since Amitabh Bachchan was incapacitated on the sets of Coolie), has stated, “The idea was to turn The Mahabharata on its head.” That is, to borrow deep shades of the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas for a rivalry between two modern-day business families.
The vast ensemble of characters were etched by using the epic as a reference point. Just one of the memorable scenes depicted an emotional confrontation between a mother and son, harking back to Arjuna and Kunti. The film was so effectively rendered, that this account of the onset of the era of Kalyug (The Machine Age), has been often replicated. For instance, self-admittedly by Ram Gopal Varma for some scenes in the underworld drama, Company.
New Delhi Times (1984)
A Delhi newspapers’s executive editor investigates the murder of a local MLA in Ghazipur, only to discover a nexus between high-placed politicians and corrupt media barons. Ramesh Sharma’s close-to-the-bone expose is as timeless as it is gutsy. The audaciously written and directed film was shunned by several distributors and TV channels at the outset.
In the current scenario, an infinite number of objections would have been raised to its content, whether the story was inspired by fact or fiction. Again, ironically enough, New Delhi Times fetched the Best Actor National Award for Shashi Kapoor, besides the Best Cinematography Award for Subrata Mitra and the Best Debut Director Award for Ramesh Sharma, who incidentally has never again made a feature film.
Produced by Shashi Kapoor and directed by Girish Karnad, this adaptation of the 2nd century BC Sanskrit play, Mrichhakatika (The Little Clay Cart) depicted a Brahmin man’s fascination for the courtesan Vasantasena.
It was set in the ancient city of Ujjayini during the reign of the King Pālaka, near the end of the Pradyotya dynasty, sufficient ammunition to kick off an outcry about what’s called ‘distortion’ nowadays. As for the no-stops-barred sensuality exuded by Rekha, that does lead you to the conclusion that you can separate the women of those days from the wannabe millenials.
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1994)
British director Stephen Frears and writer Hanif Kureishi explored the sexually promiscuous life of a couple till Sammy’s father (Shashi Kapoor) comes a-visiting. Would such a title be cleared over two decades later? In a precedent set by S*** Durga, you can bet it would have to be altered to Sammy and Rosie *** ****.
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark the late Shashi Kapoor’s birth anniversary.)