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Shashi Kapoor: Bollywood's ultimate charmer fades into the stars

Mumbai: With those copybook good looks and that rakish smile, he was the stuff of teen crushes that evolved into wistful nostalgia as the years rolled by.

Shashi Kapoor, 79, when he passed away in Mumbai after a prolonged illness today, will be remembered for his many commercial films, his commitment to quality cinema when he turned filmmaker but also as the man who embodied ageless elegance.

"He was god's good man. He was such a beautiful human being beyond anything else," director Shyam Benegal, who worked with the late actor in "Kalyug" and "Junoon", told PTI. Shashi Kapoor was also effortlessly charming, whether at 25 when he was dancing around trees or at 65 when age and the famous Kapoor weight had slowed him down.

The fame was destined, the legacy of quiet dignity the result of retaining a certain humility despite a lifetime under the harsh arclights. He was born an unprepossessing Balbirraj on March 18, 1938 in what was then Calcutta to Rama Devi and Prithviraj Kapoor, the son of a legendary actor who went on to complete the famed Kapoor trinity with his older brothers Raj and Shammi.

The tryst with cinema started in 1961 with Yash Chopra's "Dharmputra". The next two-and-half decades saw a dizzying line-up of films, some good, like "Kabhi Kabhie" and "New Delhi Times", others like "Fakira" and "Ghar Ek Mandir" eminently forgettable, even embarrassing.

But Shashi Kapoor was not just a star, one more in an ensemble cast in the multi-starrers that were the vogue in the 1980s or another face in a brain dead Bollywood melodrama. He straddled two worlds with his partnership with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant resulting in films like "The Householder", "Shakespearewallah" and "Heat and Dust" early in his career.

The real turnaround came in 1980 when he started his own company Film Vala, diverting some of the money he had made in Bollywood into making films with the likes of Benegal and Aparna Sen. The partnership resulted in gems like "36 Chowringhee Lane", which saw his wife, veteran theatre actor Jennifer Kendal, as an aging teacher in a changing world, "Junoon", "Vijeta", "Utsav" and "Kalyug".

Shashi Kapoor himself acted in several of these films - his roles as an obsessive suitor in "Junoon" set in 1857, as the brooding husband and father in "Vijeta" and as the suave, conflicted Karan in "Kalyug", a modern-day adaptation of the Mahabharata, see the actor deliver some of his career's finest performances.

But Shashi Kapoor was more than just an actor, an inheritor of the Kapoor family legacy of showbiz and style or a filmmaker with undeniable class. He was the star with no starry airs, the man who stayed steadfastly loyal to his wife through more than 25 years of marriage with scarcely a hint of scandal and the ultimate hero who always had a kind word for his fans.

Which other actor, in his hey day in the 1980s, would not just smile when a bunch of giggly, starry-eyed teens barge into his hotel room, but also welcome them in, take time to talk to them individually and leave them to handle things while he went into the next room for an interview.

That he maintained a relationship with the group -- among them this correspondent -- through his three days in Delhi, inviting them to watch a shoot and taking time off to talk to them is the stuff of true greatness. He stood apart from his peers, part of the rat race and yet not part of it.

And then, with his wife's death in 1984 it was as if the very life had begun ebbing away from him too. The weight started piling and the roles started dwindling. Shashi Kapoor began fading away from the headlines.

He appeared in few films, as the corpulent Urdu poet Noor in Ismail Merchant's "In Custody" in 1993 and as a narrator in "Jinnah" some years after that. He also revived his father's Prithvi Theatre, a job now taken over by his daughter Sanjana.

The sons, Kunal and Karan, tried dabbling in films and then stood respectfully away when they realised it was not for them. Ill health felled Shashi Kapoor and when he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 2015, he was too unwell to travel to New Delhi to get it. It was 17 years after he retired into the quiet shadows. Union minister Arun Jaitley went to Mumbai to honour him.

But the old charm still lingered, the silver hair that refused to be dyed adding to that grace and somewhere still that old charisma. Bollywood's ultimate charmer has gone, leaving a legacy of decency and elegance that may find few followers in the film industry of today.

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