When I came to know of a new search engine called Yahoo in the inchoate days of the dot com revolution, I thought it had something to do with Shammi Kapoor for the expression was best associated with him. In fact his iconoclastic Yahoo formed my earliest memory of the actor and it remained the definitive image I associated him with. Perhaps that could also have been the reason why he remained trapped in the Yahoo image forever. But instead of making the discomfort evident, he made it his biggest asset and Shammi Kapoor became the rock star of the cinema of sixties.
Though he was born in the illustrious Kapoor family, with his father Prithviraj being one of the legends of that time and his brother Raj having made his mark with Barsaat and Awara, Shammi remained in the periphery of the industry for an astonishingly long time. He played side roles, supporting roles and the lead in many a flop movie of the 1950s like Jeevan Jyoti and Rail ka Dibba. Success eluded him until Nasir hussain signed him for his directorial debut Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1956). Three years later, the same duo came up with Dil Deke Dekho and Shammi Kapoor was a star. In 1960, Subodh Mukherjee’s entertainer Junglee established the prototype of a Shammi Kapoor film. It had a love story set in a hill station, a pretty heroine, gentle doses of humour, fashionable costumes and lots of good music. This became the Shammi Kapoor formula of success, which was attempted to be replicated by many like Biswajeet and Joy Mukherjee with limited success.
Shammi Kapoor’s story will be incomplete without his music. Shammi Kapoor had the support of the finest music directors like O.P.Nayyar, Shankar Jaikishan and R.D.Burman,who composed most of his songs, and the terrific backing of the inimitable Mohammed Rafi. Rafi was undoubtedly the soul of his songs, which he gave shape as per the situation. No other singer could have been romantic, melancholic and crazy all at once for an equally terrific performer.
Geet Bali was an year older than him. They even got married and kept it a secret for a while. But they had a steady married life until Geeta died of small pox in 1965. Shammi Kapoor was shooting for Nasir Hussian’s Teesri Manzil. But the personal tragedy didn’t come in the way of his work. The shooting resumed soon and the movie directed by Vijay Anand became a classic suspense drama. Shammi did impossible things for his movies. He rampaged around snow capped hills for the song Yahoo with a broken leg! He was hanging from a helicopter mid-sky, lip syncing to the song Aasmaan se aaya farishta from An Evening in Paris (1967). Before taking off, Shammi had memorised the song so that he could lip sync even without hearing it. Once he was up in the air, the only thing he could see was the kerchief in Shakti Samanta’s hands which went up and down with each beat of the song, being played from below. Today, it’s hard to believe that such a stunt was performed to make this bouncy romantic number. He was an actor who choreographed his songs himself and followed no method of acting or choreography. It was spontaneous and varied from take to take. It was only Shammi who could give a tit for tat to dancing queen Vyjayantimala and cabaret queen Helen in movies like Prince and Teesri Manzil.
His longest associations were formed with Nasir Hussian and Shakti Samanta, with whom he delivered one hit after another. Both the filmmakers were unabashedly commercial. They believed in entertaining the audience to the hilt with oodles of panache, music and pace. Shammi fit the bill just too well and the stage was set.
Shammi Kapoor won a Filmfare for his performance in Brahmachari (1969), the year he was married to Neela Devi Gohli. By the time he finished Ramesh Sippy’s Andaz (1971), he had romanced heroines from Suriaya to Hema Malini and decided to take a break when the winds were in his favour.
He returned to play character roles in the 1970s and 80s like Meera, Vidhaata and Hero. In 1973, distributors refused to touch Raj Kapoor’s Bobby after the disastrous performance of Mera Naam Joker. It was Shammi who stood as Raj’s pillar of support and decided to distribute the movie himself. The box office success of Bobby is today a staple of film legend. In the 1990s, he assumed the role of Chairman of Internet Users Club of India. His saga continues because art never dies with the artist. As he sang in his movie Pagla Kahin Ka (1970), Tum mujhe yun bhula na paoge. It was prophetic.