The Buffoon Who Got The Girl

Shammi Kapoor probably remained oblivious to the legacy he left behind: the confidence booster he gave to a generation of average guys that they too could be romantic and get the girl!

Whenever I am doing any work on the laptop, I usually listen to music on YouTube. This can be Indian or European classical, bhajans or opera, English pop or Bollywood. It all depends on the mood I am in. Whilst I have nothing against modern Bollywood which — with some exceptions — is a lot of noisy Bhangra beat, I must confess a preference for the golden age which most people agree were the 1950s-1960s.

We the baby boomers (1946-1964) were indeed a lucky (nay, a blessed!) generation. Even a passing glance at the serendipitous events confirm this.

1.   In early age, we were taught a Sanskaar based on the old value systems which saw morality, dignity and integrity as paramount — with “My Word is my Bond” being implicit in our daily interaction with the world. Can we say the same for today’s culture of unbridled egoism – the culture of “Smash-and-Grab” and “Get-Rich-at-all-Cost” which got going during the Thatcher/Reagan years?

2.   In teenage/early 20s we lived through a social revolution that encompassed the phenomenal Beatles era, the liberating Hippie culture with its emphasis on a want for peace with P-capital; and witnessed the maturing of global human rights.

3.   An unimaginable acceptance and tolerance of the “other.” For instance in earlier years an Indo-Mauritian family whose son went to study in Europe dreaded that he might return with a European wife in tow. Today almost every family has got a European bahu (or son-in-law); and this is considered quite normal. Quite rightly!

4.   We lived through the golden age of Bollywood of innocence with beautiful poetry and melodious music, ah…! Many of those songs are still being sung at gammats and on Talent programmes on TV and have a strong following in India and the Indian diaspora.


Anyway back to YouTube. Unable to sleep the other day (I’m afraid the combination of old age and severe arthritis), I was doing my emails in the small hours whilst listening to Bollywood songs of a certain period. Eventually, this gem that I had never heard before came on air. It was a haunting, lilting Lata Mangeshkar/Talat Mahmood duet and the first line went “Aasman Wale Teri Duniya Se Ji Ghabra Gaya.” My curiosity aroused, I had to find out more about it.

Just a little investigation and I discovered that the song came from a 1953 Nutan/Shammi Kapoor starrer entitled ‘Laila-Majnu’. The lyrics (no, sheer poetry!) was by Shakeel Badayuni who had this rare gift of conveying such deep meaning and feeling through the use of the simplest of words, and the tune was beautifully crafted by music director Ghulam Mohammed. With the result that only the combination of Lata-ji and Talat-saab could have done justice to this wonderful melody.

The picture on my screen was a bit hazy. So it took me some time to recognize the beautiful, highly-talented Nutan who was only 17 at the time. It was a little less difficult — but just so — to recognize the struggling 22-year old Shammi Kapoor who was as thin as a rake and made more difficult to recognize with a long beard. But there was no mistaking those distinct Kapoor features.

Surprisingly with all his connections in Bollywood, Shammi Kapoor remained practically unknown starring in B-movies until 1957. By then the face was fuller, and the talent much honed. That year he got his break in ‘Tumsa Nahin Dekha’ (TND) which turned him into an overnight sensation. Foot-tapping, hand-clapping catchy numbers written by Majrooh Sultanpuri — except for the title song which was written by Sahir Ludhianvi — and sculpted by music maestro OP Nayyar meant a sold-out performance at every screening in Mauritius. Those were the days when we used to queue up to see an entire film just to catch the one beautiful song in it. And TND had half a dozen!

Shammi Style

TND gave Shammi Kapoor the platform he needed to develop an individual look and style of his own that had remained unexploited up till then. He excelled in light-hearted musical romance with just a touch of buffoonery. The formula was so successful that film-makers soon started to queue up with offers of films of this particular genre.

In all SK made some 50 films of which 20+ had his individual stamp. They included ‘Dil Deke Dekho’ with Asha Parekh, ‘Junglee’ with a very pretty teenager called Saira Banu, ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ with a Bengali newcomer called Sharmila Tagore and ‘Professor’ with Kalpana. Almost every film he made featured a new, young, and pretty girl acting like the flower vase to his immense garden of talent. All the ladies had to do was to look pretty and leave the rest to him. He is perhaps the only male actor whom young men turned up to watch in the first place and the lead female second!

Before Shammi Kapoor came along, there were really just three successful, acclaimed actors who were in the forefront of Bollywood. They were the suave Dev Anand at whose feet the heroine would always fall, a Greek God called Dilip Kumar who had this restrained, dignified romantic style and the multi-faceted Raj Kapoor who spent a lot of time imitating Chaplin very badly.

Shammi Kapoor was the first actor to show that the charming buffoon could also be romantic and get the girl, contorting his body somewhat exaggeratingly whenever wooing one with a romantic song. There is this lovely scene on a bridge in ‘Tumsa Nahin Dekha’ in which he is seen imitating Sheela Vaaz and the chorus line’s every feminine movement whilst singing “Chhupne Wale Samane Aa.” (Shah Rukh Khan copies him to perfection in one particular number in ‘Dil To Pagal Hey’). Like “Chhupne Wale”, many of Shammi Kapoor’s songs were perfectly performed by the versatile Mohamed Rafi; the two were a perfect match! Apparently the day Rafi-saab passed away, someone came and whispered to Shammi Kapoor that his VOICE had just died; such was the rapport between the two great artists.

Shammi Kapoor probably remained oblivious to the legacy he left behind: the confidence booster he gave to a generation of average guys that they too could be romantic and get the girl!

Personal Life

Shammi Kapoor came from a famous Bollywood family. His father Prithiviraj was a larger-than-life theatre and film actor. His brothers Raj and Shashi were also successful Bollywood actors. He made his screen debut in 1953 but struggled for four years until 1957, the year that a new star was born with the making of S. Mukherjee’s ‘Tumsa Nahin Dekha’. This landmark film spawned a number of hits that are still being watched by audiences around the world.

In 1955 Shammi Kapoor met and fell in love with the gorgeous Geeta Bali. They married soon after and had a son Aditya (1956) and a daughter Kanchan (1961). Unfortunately Geeta caught smallpox whilst filming on location in a remote village in 1965 and died from the disease. Had she lived for another three years, she would have applauded him loudly for the Best Actor award which he received in 1968 (‘Brahamachari’). Anyway after a gap of three years he married Neila Devi who hailed from a Gujrati Royal family, but not much is known about her.

Angels Rejoice

Born in 1931, Shammi Kapoor passed away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 80 at Mumbai Beach Candy Hospital. During the last seven years of his life he suffered from kidney failure for which, like all patients with renal failure, he had to undergo three arduous sessions of haemodialysis every week. However by all accounts none of this seemed to have dampened his exuberant spirit and joie de vivre, and he continued to enjoy life till the very end.

Whilst humans wept on his death, I am sure that the angels rejoiced at the prospect of welcoming this peerless entertainer in their midst.

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