It was during his apprenticeship at Prithvi Theatres that Shashi Kapoor, through a quirk of fate, met the woman who would be his wife. Shashi’s future sister-in-law, Felicity Kendal, writes in her autobiography,
, that one evening her sister, Jennifer Kendal—who was thirteen years older than her—went to the Royal Opera House in Bombay to catch a performance of
by Prithvi Theatres. Shashi was backstage and happened to look through the curtains; that’s when he caught a glimpse of Jennifer. There she was ‘dressed in a black and white polka-dotted summer dress with a halter neckline—daring—and she was pretty […] fanning herself with her programme. Shashi […] fell instantly in love.’
Jennifer and Felicity’s father, Geoffrey Kendal, who ran the Shakespeareana Theatre Company, has a slightly different account of this incident. In his autobiography,
The Shakespeare Wallah
, he sets the episode in Calcutta’s Empire Theatre. According to him, the management company had made the mistake of double booking the stage to Shakespeareana and Prithvi. A decision was eventually reached that the two companies would perform on alternate days. And it was on the evening of the Prithvi performance that Shashi saw Jennifer through the stage curtains. ‘Not, of course, that I knew anything about this for some time,’ Geoffrey says.
After the show, Shashi introduced himself and took Jennifer backstage; she was four years older than him. Felicity writes: ‘The next afternoon, I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant, watching Jennifer and Shashi fall in love over their noodles. They would stay together till she died, through thick and sometimes very thin […] She had met in Shashi the man she wanted forever.’
Soon after, as the Shakespeareana group fell short of actors, Shashi was asked to join the team, now based in Poona. Again, there is a slight discrepancy in the narration of facts here. Felicity writes that Jennifer wired Shashi to join the team, while Geoffrey presents a more plausible explanation of what could have happened—‘I wrote to Prithviraj to ask if he could loan me Shashi
from his company for a while.’ Shashi had never acted in English, but willingly joined the group in 1957. For five months, Jennifer walked him through the hoops of Shakespeare, Shaw and otherEnglish playwrights, helping him pronounce phrases that the young actor had never uttered or read. Sanjna Kapoor says, ‘My father used to tell me how difficult it was learning the lines from Shakespeare—how terrifying the process used to be and how it felt like marbles were in his mouth. He just couldn’t utter the words!’
Geoffrey may have welcomed a young Indian actor into his fold. But he was not about to allow him into his family; he least expected his daughter to have intentions of marrying the boy. Geoffrey was extremely possessive of his children and he was particularly opposed to losing Jennifer, his star performer. In fits of protectiveness, he’d often ridicule Shashi and pour scorn over his accent. ‘He would fight over Jennifer and he was often rude,’ Shashi confessed to journalist Madhu Jain.
The young lovers found themselves trying to escape Geoffrey’s prying gaze. Sanjna says of her parents, ‘When they were doing theatre, they were poor. They were under-slept and underfed and my father would tell me how they would be tormented by hunger while strolling down the streets—both my parents trying to decide if they could get half a paratha. Then, they would walk past a restaurant and there would be my grandfather, Geoffrey Kendal, having a huge meal with a beer. My father couldn’t walk in. He was his employee and he was also stealing his daughter. So there was no way he could march into the storm.’
Geoffrey’s obvious disregard for Shashi troubled Jennifer deeply, and she confronted her father. Then, she confided in Felicity, ‘Daddy has told me that it isn’t Shashi he objects to, or the fact that he is Indian, or that he is younger that I am […] It is just that he doesn’t want us to leave the company […] I wish that he would understand that all children grow up and want to leave!’
To add to Jennifer’s woes, Shashi remained timid, self-conscious of his English and petrified of his parents. If their relationship progressed, it was because of the unstinted support of Shashi’s sister-in-law (also an actor), Geeta Bali, and her husband (and Shashi’s brother), Shammi Kapoor, who had learnt of the affair. It was a remarkable instance of life coming a full circle. Like Shammi, who had been prompted by Raj and his wife, Krishna, to marry
Geeta, a diffident Shashi was instigated by Geeta and Shammi to bring Jennifer to Bombay and introduce her to his parents. But Shashi remained an apprehensive man. ‘I chickened out because I thought I’d be thrashed,’ Shashi laughs. ‘So I compromised and took Jennifer to Shammiji’s place instead and Geeta Bhabhi promptly fell in love with her. A true romantic herself, she’d loan us her car and a little money to go out for a meal and a drive.’
Eventually, at Shashi’s behest, Shammi spoke to his parents about
Jennifer and they grudgingly approved of the match. Geoffrey, however, refused to shift his stance. He remained adamantly opposed to the relationship and set stern restrictions on his daughter. Finally, in a bid to claim her independence and move on, Jennifer, with Shashi, left his theatre troupe. For the patriarch, this was the ultimate let-down, and he was not about to take his daughter’s desertion lightly. He watched, stern and wrathful, the day she left; it’s a moment, frozen in time, of which Felicity gives
a heartbreaking account: “…when we stood on the veranda that morning and
Jennifer, red-eyed, threw her arms about his [Geoffrey’s] neck, her tiny shoulders shaking with sobs, he stood, stiff and straight, his arms plastered to his sides, looking ahead and silent, until I pulled her away from him and hugged her into the waiting taxi. The look of bewilderment on Shashi’s face at this appalling behaviour is something I will never forget.
Jennifer and Shashi were now on their own, in a large, sometimes hostile world. They caught a flight to Singapore and Malaysia for a theatre show. But as luck would have it, the performances were cancelled, and they found themselves without any money. A desperate Shashi made a trunk call to India, and beseeched Raj for help, who speedily dispatched two economy tickets to Bombay. That was how Jennifer and Shashi reached the Kapoor family home in Matunga, and in July 1958, came to be married. Geoffrey did not attend the wedding, but eventually reconciled with Jennifer when a son, Kunal, was born in 1960. The middle child, Karan, was born in 1962 and a daughter, Sanjna, five years later in 1967.
While Jennifer Kendal Kapoor was alive, she maintained a strict watch over her husband’s diet. This is the reason why, unlike the other Kapoor men, Shashi Kapoor stayed slim for the longest time. It was also why a lot of those around Shashi would feel sorry for him! ‘I remember, when I worked with him, I would look at his food and say, “What’s wrong with you, Shashi Uncle?”’ Neetu Singh Kapoor tells me. ‘One orange he would have and
thoda sa dahi
(a little bit of yogurt). That was his lunch. And he would say,
“My wife will kill me if I eat anything more!”’
Excerpted with permission from
Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star
, by Aseem Chhabra, Rupa Publications, 2016