Remembering Shashi Kapoor, his Merchant Ivory days and memorable association with Satyajit Ray

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Dec,06 2017 08:59 11 IST

In the year 1964, when Satyajit Ray was busy shooting for his landmark film Charulata, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant paid him a visit in his home in Kolkata. Merchant and Ivory had just finished work on a film titled Shakespeare Wallah then, and they requested Ray to compose the music for the film. Ray watched the film, liked it immensely, and said that he would do it gladly.

Anyone who has watched Shakespeare Wallah since then will know the important role that the music of the film plays in its success. And the close association that one of the actors in the film – Shashi Kapoor – forged with Satyajit Ray during this time was to remain strong for many years to come, all the way to the time when Ray’s son was to embark upon his own filmmaking career.

Shashi Kapoor was a busy star in the Bombay film industry, but he was also India’s first global star, and this made him bump into Ray every now and then at film festivals all around the world.

Shashi Kapoor. Image from News 18.

Kapoor and Ray became good friends and their friendship extended to their families as well. Even before the two gentlemen had been introduced, Ray had met the other Kapoor, elder brother Shammi, during the shooting of Kanchenjungha, which was Ray’s first film in colour. During the shooting in Darjeeling, the unit of Kanchenjungha ran out of colour stock, which used to be in severely limited supply during those days. Shammi Kapoor happened to be shooting in Darjeeling at the same time, and one day, Ray simply walked up to him and sought a loan of a few reels of his unit’s colour stock.

The start was only too glad to help a man of Ray’s stature and fame. This was in 1962.

In the year 1984, Shashi Kapoor’s wife Jennifer Kendal wowed audiences by playing a short and yet important role in Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire. Kendal played Miss Gilby, the British music tutor to the film’s female lead. Miss Gilby’s sincere devotion to teaching her pupil the melodies of the highland ballads, and her subsequent shock at being pelted with stones by young boys during the Swadeshi movement were some of the highlights of the film.

In the following years, when Ray was hospitalised in the United States owing to a weak heart, Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal constantly kept in touch with him and his family, offering support and prayers – this despite the fact that Jennifer herself was quite ill (she passed away soon after).

In 1986-87, Ray’s son Sandip got an opportunity to direct a television series for Doordarshan. The series, aptly titled ‘Satyajit Ray Presents’ (modelled after ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, which had ruled the networks in America over an entire decade), was to have two parts of thirteen episodes each – all based on Satyajit Ray’s favourite stories. Ray senior was to write, Ray junior was to direct. The series was extremely well received by viewers, and featured such stalwarts of Indian cinema as Utpal Dutt, Iftekar, Smita Patil, Dr. Sreeram Lagoo, Pankaj Kapur, Neena Gupta, Amol Palekar, Anupam Kher, Victor Banerjee and many others.

Satyajit Ray. Image from Facebook.

For the closing segment of the series, Sandip Ray wanted to select one of his father’s most popular Feluda adventures, and adapt it as Kissa Kathmandu Ka. Feluda was Ray’s immortal creation, and he was an epitome of ‘Bengaliness’ – a striking personality, a sharp young man whose keen sense of observation, highly analytical mind and superlative detection skills had endeared him to every single reader of Bengali fiction over the years – both young and old. But both Satyajit and Sandip knew that they were about to step into a whole new territory – a viewership who had absolutely no idea who Feluda was (Feluda adventures had not been translated yet). They decided to tread cautiously and cast a well-known face.

Which is why, it was decided that Shashi Kapoor would play Feluda. A sketch of Feluda, drawn by Satyajit Ray himself, for one of the sleuth’s early novels based in Lucknow may have had a role to play in the decision – because of its remarkable similarity with a 70’s Shashi Kapoor with sharp jawlines, a jutting nose, smartly brushed hair and dark shades.

Bengali audiences may or may not have been able to accept the past-his-prime and unignorably overweight Shashi Kapoor of the late 80s as their beloved, strapping young Feluda, but it was undeniably true that Shashi Kapoor put his heart into the film. In Sandip Ray’s own words, the star had moved around all his dates to make room for a continuous shooting schedule for the film. His professionalism was remarkable.

From coming to shoot right on time, to assisting with continuity, from adapting his acting to the position of the camera to showing great depth of knowledge on the subject of lighting, Shashi Kapoor had won everyone over during the shooting of the film. He assayed one of the most famous characters ever created in Bengali literature at a time when there was no translation of it at all, leaving him no room to understand the phenomenon called Feluda.

But like a great actor, Shashi Kapoor stuck with Satyajit Ray, asking him question after question, to try and understand what, in Ray’s mind, Feluda was like.

Published Date: Dec 06, 2017 08:59 AM | Updated Date: Dec 06, 2017 08:59 AM