Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Shashi Kapoor: a unique man with unique tastes

 Shashi Kapoor always appeared, to me, as the least talented of the three sons of Prithviraj Kapoor. Though it does not, in any way, imply that I found him lacking in talent. It would be more appropriate to say that superlative performances from Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor had given rise to certain expectations from this kid brother of theirs, to which he did not quite live up to.
Yet, he possessed a distinct trait which places him in a class of his own. It was his taste for good literature and quality cinema and theatre and the courage to risk his career, as a mainstream "star", by becoming a part of many such ventures.
One can not think that a run of the mill actor would have dared to play the protagonist in Siddhartha - that celebrated but rather obscure philosophical work from Hermann Hesse, the cinematic version of which woefully failed to do justice to the book and may have been talked about more, in the repressed Indian society, for some explicit scenes which were a rarity in the 1970s. 
The same passion for telling a good story and, in the bargaining, ending up producing and even playing a character bordering the villainous, may have made him a part of "Junoon". Here was a movie which always compels me to revise my opinions about the actor who is, sadly, more remembered for routine commercial flicks. "Junoon" had him team up with Shyam Benegal, who had by then become a towering figure as far as the "parallel cinema" was concerned, but remained an untouchable for many an image conscious, commercial success-chasing actor. Benegal and Kapoor worked wonders again in "Kalyug" - the only experiment of its kind wherein the ancient epic of Mahabharata was retold in a modern set up.
Kapoor's willingness to experiment with unorthodox film makers saw him team up with another parallel cinema stalwart Govind Nihalani. "Vijeta" could be called the most authentic portrayal of life in the Indian Air Force till date. Though that part was played, to perfection, by Kapoor's soon forgotten son Kunal, Shashi himself played no less pivotal a role. While it may not have been too great a challange to play the role of the father of his own son, he mesmerizes by the finesse with which he brings out the paradoxical complexity of his character - boorish, yet vulnerable, licentious yet committed. 
It was probably this refinement of taste that brought him close to the British actress Jennifer Kendal with whom he shared screen space in "Junoon". Jennifer proved her mettle by playing to perfection an emotionally fragile old woman in 36 Chowringhee Lane. The couple shall always be remembered for Prithvi Theatre, the most befitting tribute to the veteran of the Kapoor family who had started his own career on the stage.
May his demise inspire many aspiring actors and film makers to draw inspiration from the unique life of the unique man. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

My tryst with Satyajit Ray

It was nearly a decade ago when my father, on one of our visits to Calcutta, bought me a few DVDs of Satyajit Ray's movies. The idea was obviously to introduce his son to a film maker he and most bright minds of his generations adored. On my part, I was curious to familiarize myself with the legend who had been widely criticized for being a purveyor of Indian poverty. While in my teens, I had watched "Shatranj Ke Khiladi", the lone Hindi work of the Bengali director who would have turned 96 today were he alive. The Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Mirza, Amjad Khan-starrer, which also may have made the best use till date of Amitabh Bachchan's rich baritone, had made me aware that there was much more to the tales told on-screen by this quintessential renaissance man than famines and starvation.
I remember having started off my tryst with Ray's works in Bengali, the language he was naturally
most comfortable with, watching "Asani Sanket". It was yet another work on the Great Famine of Bengal and I had to heavily depend on subtitles (I still do) to make sense of the dialogues. Although not among my favourite Ray movies, I shall always remember "Asani Sanket" for having introduced me to Soumitra Chatterjee, an actor not well-known outside the world of Bengali cinema but talented enough to give the best in the world a run for their money. I followed it up with another Chatterjee-starrer "Abhijaan" where the Bengali actor played a Bihari taxi driver with elan. Ray, who found delight in casting well-known stars in unconventional roles, had chosen Waheeda Rehman for playing the female lead.
Neither of the two movies did I find extra-ordinary. Neither made me aware of the greatness of Ray or for that matter Chatterjee. But these movies did serve the important purpose of making me curious enough to explore Ray more. I also watched "Charulata" of which I remember very little except the immortal "O go bidesini" - a Tagore song rendered by the inimitable Kishore Kumar. In the mean time, being a voracious reader, I pored through "Our Films Their Films" and a brief reference to "Pratidwandi" goaded me to search the internet and I came to know about Ray's "Calcutta trilogy". I have always found myself strangely fascinated by the city with a decadent infrastructure but arguably the most intact moral fabric. So I ordered "Pratidwandi", along with "Seemabaddha" and "Jana Aranya" and thus began my captivation at the hands of the Shanti Niketan alumnus, who towered over his peers, both literally and figuratively.
I happened to watch "Seemabaddha" first and to say that I was bowled over would be an understatement. Every thinking man or woman who works for a corporate entity, can not at some point in life help thinking about things like a pointless rat race, boardroom intrigues and unholy nexus between management and union. But I have not come across any other movie depicting the rot underneath the glitter of capitalism with the finnesse as Ray did in this work which deservedly won laurels at the National Film Awards and the Venice Film Festival. "Pratidwandi" left me stumped, thanks to Dhritiman Chatterjee whom I remembered as the crass fellow of 36 Chowringhee Lane who wore his sensuality on his sleeves. I could not believe that the same man was playing the highly strung and sensitive protagonist in Ray's first part of Calcutta trilogy. I could feel the suffocation of Siddhartha (his name in the film) when, in course of job-hunting he faces a callous interview panel and when he struggles to come to terms with his younger sibling evolving into a careerist, who had no qualms using her charms for her professional advancement. "Jana Aranya" turned out to be equally brilliant, though starker than the other two. The depravity on display is gut-wrenching. I found the first few minutes particularly impressive wherein Ray seems to have captured in embryonic stage the chaos and incompetence in higher education which has now assumed gigantic proportions.
Having been smitten with Ray, I was bound to explore his body of work further and ended up savoring the astonishing range of themes on which he made his movies. I learnt that he was a master of cinematic adaptation when it came to literary works, be it Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (Apu Trilogy), Tagore (Ghare Baire), Sankar (Jana Aranya) or Henrik Ibsen (Ganashatru).
From "Pather Panchali", which marked his sensational debut, to "Agantuk" which got released just a few months before his demise, Ray directed nearly three dozen movies. Each of these could be the subject of a full-length essay. Any attempt to encapsulate his remarkable journey in just about 1,000 words would be plain vainglory. But with nothing except words at my disposal, this is all I could offer by way of tribute.