Shammi Kapoor: Leading star of Fifties and Sixties Hindi cinema

Click to follow

Despite being neither truly dashing nor hugely talented, Shammi Kapoor was a dazzlingly popular Hindi film hero of the 1960s. More than his acting, it was his inimitable dancing and romantic onscreen image that made him such a star.

In an era dominated by many gifted actors, including Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, he created his own identity. Sizzling music and dance, melodious songs, beautiful locations and Kapoor in the lead role were a recipe for success when he was at the height of his popularity. Given a powerful score and stirring numbers (mainly composed by music directors Shankar-Jaikishan and O P Nayyar and performed by playback singer Mohammed Rafi), Kapoor could carry a film.

For all his immense success, he was hardly versatile, unlike his father, Prithviraj Kapoor, and brothers Raj Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor, all of whom were outstanding actors. He was almost always the hero, usually hailing from a poor or a middle-class family, or a spoiled rich young man, wooing the heroine with a brash and cocky swagger, playing pranks, getting embroiled in gang rackets or family feuds, and, in the end, taking on the villain – and that was how his fans loved to see him.

There was not really a place for a supporting star in most of Kapoor's films, except to be overshadowed. But the leading actresses were keen to work with him: the careers of heroines like Asha Parekh, Saira Banu, Kalpana and Sharmila Tagore were all launched opposite Kapoor.

Shamsher Raj Kapoor was born in Mumbai, though he spent most of his childhood in Calcutta, where his father was involved with New Theatres Studios. Having decided to pursue acting instead of taking further studies, Kapoor worked in his father's Prithvi Theatres from 1948 to 1952. But he did not have a smooth ride in the initial stage of his acting career after making his debut in Mahesh Kaul's Jeevan Jyoti in 1953.

Overshadowed as an actor by his father and brother Raj, he was all but written off by 1956. Then came the musical Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), which changed his life. Shaving off his pencil moustache, and with his hair evoking James Dean and Elvis Presley, he charmed audiences with a velvety dancing style which became his signature over the years. Until then, Bollywood heroes were more reserved and gentlemanly in their approach; Kapoor chased his heroines in an altogether more playful manner.

This new image was reinforced in Nasir Hussain's Dil Deke Dekho (1959), then Subodh Mukherjee's Junglee (1961), which elevated Kapoor to cult status. He gave one of his best performances as a wealthy, stiff-upper-lipped bachelor with a domineering mother (Lalita Pawar), his heart melted by a local Kashmiri beauty (Saira Banu).

Junglee began a series of box-office hits like Dil Tera Deewana (1962) and the thriller Teesri Manzil (1966).

Kapoor could no wrong in the Sixties – but in 1965 his wife, Geeta Bali, a famous actress he had met on the set of Rangeen Raaten, died of smallpox. It was a crushing blow to him and Kapoor's life was never the same again. He got married again, to Neela Devi, daughter of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, four years later, but he was no longer a leading man. He was longer in the tooth and putting on weight, and the Rajesh Khanna wave was sweeping India. The hysteria generated by Khanna was such that even the success of Andaaz (1971) was attributed to the new superstar's cameo rather than to the hero, Kapoor.

Recognising the public mood, Kapoor began playing character roles and turned to directing. He left his mark in character roles in films like Zameer (1974), Parvarish (1977), Vidhata (1982), Hero and Betaab (both 1983). Manoranjan (1974), a remake of Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce, and Bandalbaaz (1976) were some of his notable films as a director.

Shammi Kapoor, actor: born Mumbai 21 October 1931; married 1955 Geeta Bali (died 1965; one son, one daughter), 1969 Neela Devi; died Mumbai 15 August 2011.