Growing up in Bangladesh without cable TV at the time, and not much of a notable film or TV industry of our own that had found much appeal, Bollywood was the choice of entertainment in my household. My earliest memories were of scenes from 'Sholay', given it's constant repetition in our house.
So my childhood was littered with the familiar faces of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna and not to mention, the now late Shashi Kapoor.
I am not an expert on movies of the legendary Shashi Kapoor. I cannot boast that I have seen all this movies. I cannot recite his filmography by heart. But the man did leave an impression on me that in a way that would go on to influence me as a cinephile, and as a person. So indulge me as I share my memory of Shashi Kapoor.
Shashi Kapoor movies were a staple in our household. The man had something about him that was relatable to me even at a young age. Full disclosure though: My mom did mention that she had at one point considered 'Shashi' as a nick name for me before I was born. So there was a misguided sense of "that could've been me!" every time I saw Shashi Kapoor on screen. I was a toddler. And dumb.
Now, this was at an age before my career as a freelance entertainment writer, before I reviewed movies for a living, and well before films became my passion in life. Later in life I would leave home and move to Canada, where my love of movies would be academically influenced, refined and further enhanced with exposure to western films from Hollywood. I would also come to call Canada my home, building my own family, and own cinematic memories with my own children through movies playing over and over in my own household.
Over the years I've had to reconcile both my childhood love for Bollywood, and my adult experience of Hollywood, being exposed to, educated on and enjoying Western films as well.
But as a kid, I used to get incredibly happy seeing Bollywood actors in Western or international movies. Amrish Puri in 'Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom' invoked excited gasps. Om Puri & Shabana Azmi sharing the screen with Patrick Swayze in 'City Of Joy' felt unimaginable at the time. Obviously since then Bollywood has become more recognizable on an international stage, to the point where Brad Pitt and Shahrukh Khan share the same stage and discuss singing and dancing in a Bollywood movie.
Today I still have a soft spot for seeing this blending, or fusing of cultures that I've come to call my own, represented in films and stories of characters who live it, or have to deal with conflict arising from it.
The first instance of when I realized that this could even be a possibility, was years ago, when I was still back home. Cable TV had made it's way into the country, (from India I assume) and I was just getting used to having more than 1 channel. Flipping the TV, using our chunky Sony Trinitron remote control one night, I came across a Shashi Kapoor movie. But something was off. His dialogues were entirely in English. He was romancing an English actress. Mesmerized, I kept watching.
The movie was 'Shakespeare-Wallah' and it was, as I would come to learn years later', one of the many English language films that Shashi Kapoor had starred in during his illustruous career. But as an excited young boy, I tried to tell my parents about 'Shakespeare-Wallah', thinking it was some secret that I had uncovered. A mainstream Bollywood actor in an English speaking movie with other non-Indians?! Unheard of!
My parents reactions however, further broadened by exposure to cross cultural norms, not just in film, but in real life.
"Oh yes. He's done a lot of those." Was the kind of reactions I got. "That's his wife's sister".
Shashi Kapoor was married to actress and co-star for many films, Jennifer Kendal. Their marriage was extremely influential to the building blocks of Bollywood, as well as challenging the types of films that the industry was known for. Kapoor can be seen as influencing many of what we now call 'art films' or the independent cinema movement in India.
As a child, I was completely oblivious to all of this. And my surprise had less to do with the fact that Shashi Kapoor married someone not of his culture, but by how accepting my family, and others, seemed to be of it. They didn't discuss their relationship with malicious whispers, or in judgemental tones, but very matter of fact-ly. I was regaled with stories Kapoor and Kendal's very real-life love story, their family and success in the industry.
Looking back now, I can say that it was this reaction of my parents which, even before moving to North America, introduced and broadened my ideas about culture, tolerance and acceptance of self and love, in ways that would later shape the kind of person I would become.
Without realizing it, seeing Shashi Kapoor as an Indian actor, creating films that were not Bollywood by nature, telling stories that went against the grain of what I considered typically Bollywood at the time, and having a real life that mirrored this duality, changed my life.
Shashi Kapoor's films were the earliest instance of cultural acceptance and collaboration that for me, brought these two worlds together in ways I never imagined possible. Today, these stories of cross cultural relationships are almost a genre of its own, with the most recent example the semi-biographical film 'The Big Sick'.
It's strange to think that a Bollywood icon, with whom I have had as much familiarity as his contemporaries back in the day, can influence my thoughts on diversity, art and tolerance so much so, that I can feel those influences in my everyday life and way of thinking today.
Shashi Kapoor died December 4, 2017, from prolonged liver cirrhosis.
The loss of Shashi Kapoor isn't just that of an iconic actor from decades ago for me, but the loss of an artist that not only changed the landscape of an industry that is very much a part of my life today, and someone who had a huge hand in the kind of person that I am today.
Rest in peace, Shakespeare-wallah.