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‘She didn't really look at me’

Over 16 years Prithvi Theatres gave a total of 2,662 performances over 5,982 days in 112 places with Prithviraj Kapoor appearing in every single show ' a play every alternate day. It would have been an impossible feat for a lesser man than him.

Shashi Kapoor says, 'People thought a filmstar was doing it as a hobby or for a lark, but Papaji didn't believe in amateur theatre.'

He needed to work in films to keep Prithvi Theatres alive, or else he would have given all his time to theatre. Once when Prithvi Theatres was touring the north, K. Asif came to request Prithviraj for extra dates for Mughal-e-Azam. Even though the salaries of Prithvi Theatres were being paid out of the money that he was earning from the film, Prithviraj did not abandon the tour.

Sometimes in 1949 when Uzra Mumtaz went to visit Prithviraj on the sets of V. Santaram's Dahej, she remarked, 'What a difference watching him on stage and then on the sets. I told him it was like having seen a lion in the jungle and then watching him perform tricks in the circus. Prithviraj had a good laugh over it and said, 'I really feel that way. When I go on the sets, I put my tail between my legs and I jump into the cage.'

At the time that Prithvi Theatres was touring the country with its repertoire of Hindi plays, Geoffrey Kendal's Shakespeareana was visiting the same cities and towns with plays in English.

Kendal writes in Shakespearewallah, 'We met Prithviraj many times all over the place and eventually his youngest son, Shashi, became our son-in-law. Prithvi signed his letters to us, 'Yours fraternally', and I think that is what he felt....

The young Shashi Kapoor was fated to meet Jennifer Kendal under oddly 'theatrical' circumstances. It happened in 1956 in Calcutta. Prithvi Theatres was having a very successful season at the Empire Theatre ' which eventually became a cinema hall. Some former Prithvi Theatres troupers, and stars like Raj and Shammi Kapoor and Premnath had come down for a few days to boost ticket sales. As the shows were running to packed houses, the Empire Theatre management extended the season, as a result of which Shakespeareana had to wait their turn to perform at the theatre. They would spend their days performing in school and college halls and some of the members would turn up to see the Prithvi Theatres' performance at the Empire in the evening.

'We were staying in a place called Ritz Continental Hotel,' recalls Shashi. 'I was 18 then, the assistant stage manager and also doing small roles. It was the prerogative of the ASM to peep through the curtain to look at the audience before each show and see if everything was okay. But one day when I did that, I saw a very beautiful face, which I first thought looked Russian. There had been an invasion of Russian tourists at RK Studio because of the success of Awara in Russia. Since part of the time I was attending shoots as an apprentice at RK Studio, I would often meet these Russians ' fair, red, good-looking, they used to be.

'I liked what I saw. I told my friend Tiger to find out who she was. He said that she and some others were guests of the owners of the Empire Theatre. The next day, she was there again and in the same seat, with a group of people. For the next three to four days, they were there for four different performances. It was my cousin Subbiraj finally found out who she was. They were staying in Sudder Street at Hotel Fairlawn behind Empire. Subbiraj offered to introduce us though he didn't know her.

'At Fairlawn, the reception area leads to an open dining room. When we arrived at the hotel, they were having their dinner there. Subbiraj introduced himself and us. She looked up and went back to her soup. And I was gaga. I didn't make an impression but she did.

'I discovered that this was the company waiting for Prithvi Theatres to get out of Empire Theatre because we had extended our season. I saw a couple of their performances at school and college matinees. That's where I came to know them but not much. She didn't really look at me.

'After a few months we came back to Bombay. One day I was doing the lighting at the Royal Opera House for our new production Kisan. It was early in the morning. One of the carpenters came rushing to me and said a mem had come to meet me. I dropped everything immediately and rushed out. And there she was sitting on the steps with her dog. I almost stopped breathing.

'She said, 'We are here in Bombay and we should meet.' She was staying very near the Royal Opera House ' at Grant Road in a place called Church Mission House, which still exists. Usually I used to get off the local train at Charni Road, but I started getting off at Grant Road, which was a longer walk. From the station I would go to Church Mission House to meet her and then go on to the Royal Opera House. Likewise, she would come and see me. Near the Royal Opera House, is a small dhaba called Mathura Dairy Farm. In 1956, puri bhaji cost 4 annas ' we used to eat there quite often. I had had no girlfriend till then, which was rather unusual for a Kapoor. I was shy and too involved with my work.

'She told me later that initially she felt I might be gay because I didn't respond much to her. And you know that in India, whenever buddies are hanging around together, we often hold hands ' a gesture of male bonding quite acceptable here, but in the West they find it odd.

'Coming from a typical English theatrical company full of gays, it wasn't so far-fetched for her to wonder if I was gay too. A few months down the line, however, she realised that I wasn't.'

Extracted from The Prithviwallahs by Shashi Kapoor and Deepa Gahlot; Roli Books; Rs 895

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