Shammi Kapoor: The actor who returned after 18 flops to change the ‘Bollywood hero’ forever

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The moment you hear the name Shammi Kapoor, your mind instantly plays “Yahoooo” or “Oh Haseena Zulfon Wali”. The actor, who would have turned 90 today, had he been alive, amassed a huge fan following during his career with his electrifying energy, flamboyant personality and songs that came infused with ‘Shammi magic’. The actor, undoubtedly, was the gamechanger of Bollywood as he transformed the conventional ‘hero’ in the 1960s when the trio of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were ruling the roost. The three had their individual personas — if Dilip was the tragedy king, Dev Anand was the metropolitan man with charm to spare while Raj Kapoor was the lovable tramp with a heart of gold. Shammi was inherently different.

Despite being written off at the beginning of his career (he had 18 flops written to his name before Tumsa Nahin Dekha changed his life), Shammi Kapoor didn’t give up. He “felt the need to change” and underwent a makeover with the help of his wife and celebrated actor Geeta Bali. “I shaved off my moustache and created a new wardrobe for myself, wore my own clothes in my films. I picked up trendy shirts, tees, jeans, jackets and scarves – I had picked up some of them from abroad – and hopped into a jeep and accelerated my search for a brand-new identity. Geeta (my wife) helped me in my makeover,” the actor had explained to author Rauf Ahmed.

shammi kapoor birth anniversary Shammi Kapoor was named the Rebel Star who dared to say no to big banners as he feared repeating himself. (Express archive photo)
Nasir Hussain’s 1957 film Tumsa Nahi Dekha not only established Shammi, it also changed the way a Hindi film hero looked, behaved and, most importantly, danced. While a typical lead was happy swaying around the trees, Shammi imbibed the raw moves of Elvis Presley.

As he stepped on the floor to shoot “Yoon Toh Humne Lakh Haseen Dekhe Hain, Tumsa Nahin Dekha…”, every part of his body swayed, there was an intense physicality to his performance. There was an unmatchable rhythm in his body, which gave Nasir Husain the confidence to leave the filming of all other songs of the film on Kapoor. And, from here on, Shammi Kapoor carved his niche in the industry.

Nasreen Munni Kabir summed it up in Bollywood’s Top 20 Superstars of Indian Cinema, “He exuded an unabashed and irresistible sexuality that was far from the heroes of the time, who projected romanticism but rarely sexuality. With his dreamy eyes, soft voice, charming dialogue delivery and arresting personality, Shammi Kapoor radiated the raw appeal of an Elvis Presley – especially evident when performing songs.”

Shammi Kapoor was named the Rebel Star who dared to say no to big banners as he feared repeating himself. He didn’t even want to go the path that other Kapoors followed — his father Prithviraj Kapoor, a man known for his larger than life image, and his brother Raj Kapoor whose socialism-driven cinema became a benchmark in the industry. “Shammi Kapoor changed the image of the Hindi film hero from sad and brooding into one who revelled in singing and dancing,” filmmaker Subhash Ghai once said.

Cinephiles got to witness Shammi Kapoor as a man with a million expressions. He wooed a beautiful Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) with his lover boy antics and his dance on a shikara in the song “Taarif karoon kya uski jisne tumhe banaya”. His twinkling eyes melted the heart of his heroines and his audience as well. He delivered superhits with his breezy and carefree roles in films like Dil Deke Dekho, Jungle, Dil Tera Diwana, Professor, Rajkumar, An Evening In Paris and Brahmachari.
shammi kapoor kashmir ki kalishammi kapoor kashmir ki kali Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir Ki Kali. (Express archive photo)
Besides his singing and dancing, it was Kapoor’s clothes that made the youth take notice of him. His fashion sense had a western influence. In times when Bollywood heroes either wore kurtas or shirts, Shammi Kapoor came out in t-shirts and leather jackets, changing the way how actors looked on-screen. He didn’t shy away from trying the pop-up shades which were rejected by others for being feminine.

Naseeruddin Shah, who claims to be a huge fan of the late actor, once said about him, “He had a style no one has been able to match, be it the way he danced or the stylish clothes he wore. He would remind me of James Dean and I would wonder what on earth he was doing here!” Well, not just James Dean, Kapoor was compared to many Hollywood stars, including Elvis Presley. But Aamir Khan had said, “Shammi Kapoor is said to be India’s answer to Elvis Presley, but I say that Elvis Presley is America’s answer to Shammi Kapoor.”

Even today, 11 years after his death (he passed away on August 14, 2011, due to prolonged illness), Shammi Kapoor continues to be an institution for all the budding actors. He was an actor who ruled an era of the Indian cinema and as Kirron Kher puts it in the film Hum Tum, “Kamaal da banda hai Shammi Kapoor”, he will continue to be the one and only rockstar.

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