If Sadhana was the definitive enduring female icon of the swinging 1960s, then without a doubt her male counterpart was Shammi Kapoor. Certainly no other Hindi film hero made the art of boy chasing girl a more enjoyable and playful affair than Shammi Kapoor. While other heroes of the time were more reserved and gentlemanly in their manner, Shammi Kapoor in contrast wooed the girl with boisterous sensuality accompanied by a brash, cocky swagger and an energetic eagerness to rebuke convention.
Shammi Kapoor was born Shamsher Raj Kapoor on October 21, 1931. The son of Prithviraj Kapoor and younger brother of Raj Kapoor and elder brother of Shashi Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor was initially employed in his father’s Prithvi Theatres from 1948-1952. His entry into the world of Hindi films in 1953 was initially nothing sort of a disaster. Though he had worked with most of the major actresses of the day like Suraiya, Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Nalini Jaywant, Meena Kumari and Nutan, his career wasn’t taking off at all.
As he oscillating between cheap Errol Flynn swashbucklers – a phase he described as playing ‘a male starlet’ or so called soulful romances which sank at the box-office, he was all but written off by 1956. To top it all, he was a married man and a father having married actress Geeta Bali in 1955. It was she who felt that Shammi needed ‘to open’ his personality to succeed. The soft romantic image was going nowhere. He had to change his image.
The opportunity came his way with Filmistan’s romantic comedy Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) directed by Nasir Hussain. For the film, Shammi Kapoor shaved his pencil moustache and cut his hair in the famous ducktail style of the 50s and started evoking James Dean and Elvis Presly, while following the more freewheeling approach elaborated by Dev Anand in earlier Filmistan films like Munimji (1955) and Paying Guest (1957), significantly, written by Hussain. Shammi Kapoor’s new haircut and clean-shaven face suddenly focused attention on his fabulous eyes, which were henceforth to become his trademark as he melted his heroines with a mere glance. Aided by OP Nayyar’s zingy musical score with such foot-tapping numbers such as Yoon to Humne Laakh Haseen Dekhen Hain, Chhupnewale Saamne Aa, Dekho Kasam Se and Aayein Hain Door se Milne Huzoor se, Tumsa Nahin Dekha made a star out of Shammi Kapoor.
This new hip, mod image was further reinforced in Hussain’s Dil Deke Dekho (1959) and ‘Yahoo’ Junglee (1961) saw him become the definitive icon of the swinging 60s – The Rebel Star! Shammi Kapoor recallsthat one evening as he was sitting with friends deciding how to present himself, it was film publicist Bunny Reuben who came up with the title – The Rebel Star – rebelling against the reigning trio – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand!
Junglee (1961) elevated Shammi Kapoor to cult status. An entire decade reeled under its colourful impact as Colour, Kashmir and Bouffants ruled the 1960s. Until Junglee’s success, previously colour had been reserved for big spectacles only but now colour became an important ingredient even for family romances! Junglee saw Shammi Kapoor give a remarkable energetic performance as the rich, stiff upper-lipped, foreign-returned bachelor who is melted by local Kashmiri girl Saira Banu. In fact, Shammi Kapoor often played a spoiled rich lad who not only wins the girl but also get embroiled in gang rackets or family feuds, all of which are solved by beating up the villain at the end! In an forgettable moment in Junglee, leading to the song Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe, Shammi comes rolling down a snow bank, the hills echoing his rebellious cry of Yahoo!
Shammi Kapoor was perhaps Hindi Cinema’s first consistent attempt to address a Westernized teenage audience. In fact the western influence was marked in Shammi’s acting and deportment – it was the first time someone had shown such refinement in clothes. He wore leather jackets and tee shirts at a time when tee shirts were not part of Bollywood’s vocabulary. His preference for casual collars, instead of fuddy-duddy shirts, all added up to the image of a star who was making a statement with lots of exclamation marks to it!
Following Junglee’s success, throughout the 1960s it appeared that Shammi Kapoor could do no wrong. Hit followed hit as films like Dil Tera Deewana (1962), Professor (1962), Rajkumar (1964), Janwar (1965) and Teesri Manzil (1966) swept the box-office. New heroines like Asha Parekh, Saira Banu, Kalpana and Sharmila Tagore (in Hindi – she was already well known in Bengali Cinema) were successfully launched in his starrers. But since his films were essentially lightweight fun films focussing mainly on skirmishes of the sexes, critics tended to ignore his films even though he had the entire youth of India swinging to his tune. But given the chance as in Brahmachari (1968), he surprised one and all with his emotive ability playing a man looking after abandoned children. The film besides scoring at the box-office won him the Filmfare Award for Best Actor for his performance.
Besides Shammi’s exuberance and dancing ability a large part of his appeal was also due to the extremely hummable and catchy songs (mainly composed by Shankar-Jaikishen and OP Nayyar) picturised on him. Songs like Suku Suku, Ae Gulbadan, Govinda Aala Re, Deewana Hua Badal, Tumne Pukara Aur Hum Chale Aaye,Tumse Achha Kaun Hai, O Mere Sona Re, Akele Akele Kahan Jaa Rahe Ho, Aajkal Tere Mere Pyar ke Charche, Badan pe Sitare and Hain Na Bolo Bolo are remebered and hummed even today. And special mention must be made of his ‘voice’ Mohamemd Rafi, who always gave a Shammi Kapoor song that extra zing! Their special tuning made it impossible to differentiate when Rafi stopped singing and when Shammi Kapoor began enacting the song. The two are one.
However, at the peak of his success, Shammi Kapoor lost wife Geeta Bali, who tragically passed away due to small pox in 1965. Stability reentered his life when he remarried Neela Devi, the daughter of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar a few years later but by now his reign as a leading man was coming to an end. Increasing age, burgeoning weight and the Rajesh Khanna wave that swept the nation in 1969 saw Shammi Kapoor bow out as a leading man. Such was the hysteria generated by Khanna that even the success of Andaaz (1971) was attributed to Rajesh Khanna’s little cameo in the film rather than give the hero – Shammi Kapoor any credit!
Shammi Kapoor then shifted to playing bearded heavy weight character roles and wearing towards spiritualism besides directing films like Manoranjan (1974) – a remake of Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963) and Bandalbaaz (1976). Among his character roles, his work in Vidhaata (1982), where he won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Betaab (1983) really stands out.
Shammi Kapoor was also a well-known computer buff and was the Chairman of the Internet Users Club of India.
Keeping indifferent health for quite some time and having to go for dialysis regularly, he passed away on August 14, 2011. However, he will always be remembered primarily as the most dashing dapper hero of the colourful musicals of the 60s. Even today, video and DVD libraries vouch for the fact that Shammi Kapoor’s movies are rented out the maximum and in a poll conducted by a Film Magazine a few years ago, he was named the best ever dancing hero that Hindi Films has seen! Yahoo!