Every childhood hero takes away a little bit of one’s life along with him when he dies. Shammi Kapoor filled those wondrously difficult years when laughter and optimism were the only pathfinders from an unknown jute mill settlement in Bengal to an unwelcome Calcutta teeming with every variety of revolution. Even hope seems too ambitious in the second half of your teens. Shammi Kapoor was our torch, for he combined three essentials of teenage: he was mad; he got his girl on his own terms; and there was always a happy ending. He joined the dots between changing the world and dreaming of love.
Love, with all its hide-and-seek propensities, lurked in the shadows of real life: in street poetry at gas-lit mushairas; in the banter of conversation; and, not least, in the assembly-line production of babies that is a visible fact of joint families. Sex was more secretive, either as predecessor or successor of love.
Shammi lifted love from familiarity with an insouciant tug that hinted sharply at the excitement of sex. There was a safety clause in the contract, of course: frolic was only a symptom of utterly eternal external internal rebirth-after-rebirth true love. But even when his heart broke, his saucy eyebrow never fell even if the skies echoed with lament. Which saxophone has been more poignant in the service of its master than Shammi’s in Hai duniya usiki zamana usika, muhabbat mein jo ho gaya ho kisika. His fingers hammered at the piano as if it was personally responsible for Mumtaz’s woes in Brahmachari. He did over a hundred films, but I don’t think the Punjabi love epic Heer-Ranjha was part of that ouvre. If Shammi had been Ranjha, he would have pounded a grand piano on the banks of the river Ravi and it would have been perfectly in character.
Forty years later it is easy to be dismissive about that yell which rose from the belly, filled the throat and then knocked your head off: Yaaaahoooo! For me, sitting in a bug-infested cinema hall called Swapna, that cry from Junglee was a roar of liberation from the silly boredom of convention. Suddenly, lovers did not weep, as Dilip Kumar did by the bucketful; or go perpendicular with patriotism, as Raj Kapoor considered necessary; or adopt a stomach-ache face, which was Rajendra Kumar’s speciality. Shammi Kappor told us, when I was all of ten and had just been sentenced to boarding school, to go find our own voice, even if that turned into the occasional scream. Be brilliant, if you could; be a fool, if you had to; but be authentic in either case. There was fun to be had in both avatars.
Shammi’s singing voice was Muhammad Rafi. Between them seemed to traverse a range as wide as the Himalayas but, more accurately, moved from the sunshine of daybreak to the velvet of night through the smoke of evening. Sar par topi lal is only one of innumerable unforgettable numbers sparkling with sunshine. Dusk begins to gather when Shammi serenades Sadhana in Is rang badalti duniya mein insaan ki neeyat theek nahin, Nikla na karo sajh dhaj kar imaan ki neeyat theek nahin… The night is in its element when Rocky seizes the drums in Teesri Manzil, a brilliant foil to twirling Helen. What fun the gang of Shammi, Rafi, Shankar Jaikishan or O.P. Nayyar and poet Hasrat Jaipuri must have had as they matched the mischief of words to the curvature of music and then spiced it with the elan of Shammi Kapoor. Shammi admired the greats who made Bollywood music into a sublime art. When Talat Mahmood tried to become an acting star, Shammi gave him some sensible advice, “Talat Sahab, you sing so well…why are you wasting your time acting?”
Only Rafi and Shammi could transform a boom from the high aristocracy of the British Empire into a gentle Indian croon. “Tally ho!” is the signature war cry of the British ruling class when hunting a fox across the country through the powder-sleet of winter, the talisman of aunts in any P.G. Wodehouse novel. Shammi and Rafi softened it to a treble variation, and infused it with musical magic that sways the mind and body as easily today as it did four decades ago. You listen to Baar baar dekho, hazaar baar dekho and you move. If you can sit through Kisi na kisi se kabhi na kabhi, kahin na kahin dil lagana parega without twitching, you were born without a soul.
We forgave Shammi his flab, his astonishing descent from a helicopter in a bathroom flapping around a potbelly towards a svelte Sharmila skiing in a swimsuit like a nymph; his premature bloat and hamming, everything, because he taught us the one lesson we needed in those many battles with uncertainty: attitude. Goodbye, Sir! Tumne mujhko hansna sikhaya, roney kahogey ro lenge hum…
Columnist, MJ Akbar, is Editorial Director of India Today and Headlines Today.