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The play boy

Shashi Kapoor as a film actor is very well-known but his contribution to theatre is lesser known, though still acknowledged

The play boy
Shashi and Jennifer: Partners in theatre.

It is both easy and difficult to make a name for yourself if the entire family is involved in the same profession. It is easy because the breakthrough is facilitated. It is difficult because, as one goes along, one has to compete with other members of the family and to offset their influence. It is always comparison which is the most odious part of it all, and in many cases pulls the person down. But not so with the Kapoor family, now in its fourth generation, where many of them have been able to stamp their individuality in that one field.

It is not unusual for theatre and film directors and actors to use the furniture and other household items as props and their children as child actors. Instead of going out to look for children who can face camera at that tender age, they ask their own children because of the familiarity with the surroundings. Backstage and film studios are like second home to them.

In 1978 he established the Shri Prithviraj Memorial Trust, six years after the death of Prithviraj and under its auspices reestablished the Prithvi Theatre. Jennifer, too, was totally involved in theatre and she did most of the work there which later was taken over by their daughter Sanjna Kapoor.

From a very early age, as a child, Shashi Kapoor travelled with his father in a company that staged plays all over the subcontinent. Set up as the Prithvi Theatre by Prithviraj Kapoor, it had more ambitions than resources. Prithviraj after leaving home in Peshawar had established himself as a successful film hero. In 1944, he established the Prithvi Theatre with his sons, none of whom rebelled from the surroundings they were growing up in; instead, they took to it like fish to water. The initial struggle of Prithviraj was more than rewarded when the sons too picked up the gauntlet and accepted the challenge, taking it much furthering in explorations and success.

The first production of the company in 1944 was the famous Kalidas play Shakuntala in which Raj Kapoor designed the sets, costumes, lights sound, music, Shammi Kapoor played the role of Bharat and Shashi Kapoor played an extra. Raj Kapoor ventured into films and after many blockbusters set up the RK Studio and continued to act, direct and produce films, while Shammi Kapoor after initial nondescript performances as a hero crafted his own individual style in the film Junglee.

Shashi Kapoor, the youngest of the sons, grew up as the theatre company travelled holding productions for five years. His heart lay there too. He met Jennifer Kendal, daughter of the Kendals who also had a travelling outfit that only did Shakespeare. Known as Shakespeareana, the entire Kendal family was involved in the production — some worked on the script, some two-timed as costume and set designers, some three-timed as advertisers, actors and lighting operators, and some looked after the management and financial side. Shashi Kapoor also toured with this company for two years. The lifestyle of the Kendals and the Kapoors was very similar, and it was no surprise that Shashi Kapoor married Jennifer Kendal.

The life and ethos of those times and the character of the production can be glimpsed from Shakespeare Wallah (1965) which Merchant Ivory produced/directed. Shashi Kapoor appeared in a number of earlier productions of Merchant Ivory to make a mark as an Indian on the international cinema which made it possible for others to follow with less hurdles.

Shashi Kapoor, after baby steps, established himself as a major force in the ever growing Indian popular and avant garde cinema. This side of Shashi Kapoor is very well-known due to the wider reach of the cinema but his contribution to theatre is lesser known, though acknowledged, due to the physical location of theatre and its limitation with portability.

The Kapoor family participated with more success than can be imagined in the growing film industry of India. Due to the engagement and schedule of films, it was not possible for Prithviraj to continue with his theatre company and he closed it down in 1960 after about sixteen years. But the heart of the Kapoors lay in theatre. Shashi Kapoor seemed to be more insistent on that calling, and in 1978 he established the Shri Prithviraj Memorial Trust, six years after the death of Prithviraj and under its auspices reestablished the Prithvi Theatre. Jennifer, too, was totally involved in theatre and she did most of the work there which later was taken over by their daughter Sanjna Kapoor.

The love of stage travelled down generations and it made its going possible despite inconsistent returns and less glare of publicity as compared to cinema.

The National School of Drama set up in Delhi under the aegis of the federal government was a great source of thespian education and creative ideas, while established groups like Indian Peoples Theatre Association, Theatre Unit, Theatre Group, Avishkar Theatre Group, Majma, Ank, Yatri, Vijeta, Hum, Ekjute, Avantar and Motley were very vibrantly establishing the contours of Indian Theatre in those decades. Besides running the Prithvi Theatre in Bombay(Mumbai), it also set up the Prithvi Theatre Festival, Prithvi Bookshop, Jennifer Memorial Concerts, Little Prithvi Players — staging one act and full length play for children, Monday Workshops, Platform Performances — held in the theatre courtyard, Prithvi Gallery, Prithvi Theatre Open Air Theatre performances in public gardens, Theatre Positive — involving play readings, PT Notes, a monthly newsletter, Prithvi International Puppetry Festival, Theatre Matters — film series related to theatre, and Focus Festival — one aspect of theatre highlighted with performances, exhibitions, seminars, film shows.

Many of the well-known Indian, European and American plays and adaptations have been held in the Prithvi Theatre, and it became one of the major venues, source of inspiration and a kind of nucleus of theatre and the performing arts in general. It was basically the will and passion of Shashi Kapoor that the company was able to sustain itself. His person was dedicated to performing arts and he contributed to it in more ways than one. He was suitably rewarded with merited awards for his well-rounded contribution to the performing arts.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    Shashiji was one of the best actors who retained his love for theatre and parallel cinema throughout his career. Besides, he portrayed realism through his roles in the commercial movies even during the 70s when melodramatic style ruled the roost.

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