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A joyous life that jumped queue and left
Shammi Kapoor in Kashmir Ki Kali

Actor Shammi Kapoor died on Sunday. He was 79. Bharathi S. Pradhan, the editor of The Film Street Journal and a columnist for The Telegraph, had called on Kapoor a day before he passed away. Pradhan writes on the life and the last hours of the unforgettable entertainer.

When Neila Shammi Kapoor’s text message said: “Unfortunately my husband is very ill. He’s on the ventilator and very serious,” it was simply her way of saying that time was running out for him.

On Saturday, August 13, a dignified family kept vigil outside the ICU at Breach Candy hospital in south Mumbai. While a stream of Kapoors and other friends, including Tina Ambani, came and went, the much-respected matriarch of the family, Krishna Raj Kapoor, sat outside every single day, giving moral support to Neila and her children. Karisma and Kareena’s mother, the formidable Babita too, joined the family.

There was acceptance of the inevitable all around. Even his wife Neila Kapoor noted: “This time he’s lost his will to live.”

The elegantly coiffured Krishna Raj Kapoor knew that she was on the verge of losing her brother-in-law. Her own husband, Raj Kapoor, had died over 20 years ago, battling asthma and respiratory problems in a Delhi hospital. Now it was Shammi Kapoor’s turn.

“He was conscious and talking to us yesterday,” said Krishna. “I told Shammi, ‘Don’t jump the queue, I have to go first, you boys can come along later.’ But suddenly Shammi said, ‘I’m remembering Papaji.’ He was talking about his father. That was not a good sign at all.”

“I’m not going into the ICU,” Babita whispered. Shammi Kapoor was not only her husband Randhir’s uncle, he was also one of her co-stars when she was an actress. Babita and Shammi Kapoor had done an upbeat, peppy film, Tumse Achcha Kaun Hai, four decades ago. “I want to remember Shammi Uncle as I always knew him, full of life and exuberance. I want to remember him as a big star. I don’t want to see him in this state,” she repeated.

Shammi Kapoor’s son Aditya Raj Kapoor, fondly called Mickey, was inside the ICU, talking to doctors and the nursing staff. Once out, he directed the guard to let us go in and see his father.

It was a different Shammi Kapoor in the ICU bed. Like all patients on the ventilator, he was breathing heavily, curled into a foetal position, his famous grey-blue eyes half shut, barely registering who was by his bedside. No wonder Babita didn’t want to remember him that way.

But it was a neat, clean sight, the final hours of a feisty 79-year-old who slipped away without lingering on. It may have been his last day on this planet but Shammi Kapoor went away the way he lived neatly, comfortably and quickly, with his whole family around him.

He died in the wee hours of Sunday, August 14, exactly a week after he had been wheeled into Breach Candy hospital.

For a man who was on dialysis for over a decade, Shammi Kapoor remained lively and spirited almost until the end. His favourite line, even to other patients on dialysis like Anup Jalota’s ailing wife Medha, would be, “I’m on dialysis three times a week. I can do what I like the other four days.”

Which is precisely how he lived his last days. He’d entertain visitors every alternate day (Monday, Wednesday and Friday were dialysis days) or go out for a drive, often taking the wheel himself. He loved driving and would take Neila for a drive to Lonavla, stop for lunch and drive back on the days that he felt fit and fine.

And he loved having visitors over. Lunch or teatime at the Kapoor residence in Mount Pleasant Road was always hearty with a table that creaked with goodies, served by well-trained staff. Shammi Kapoor himself would most often be found in his den near the door, spending happy hours on his beloved Mac. As most people now know, Shammi Kapoor was the first computer-savvy actor in the Hindi film industry who took to computers and understood them thoroughly when most others wouldn’t have even known the new meaning of ‘Windows’ or ‘virus’.

He was extremely well-spoken and the only time one saw tears in his eyes was when he’d talk about Geeta Bali, his first wife and the mother of his two kids. She died tragically young, of small pox.

That was the only blip in an otherwise joyously led life during which he earned nicknames from ‘Yahoo’ to ‘Rebel star’. Wild in his lifestyle, he was the rock star of the ’60s, sobering down and turning spiritual in the ’70s. Over the next three decades he swung from matinee idol to overweight, kurta-pyjama-clad character artiste and director, returning to jeans and tees only after he fell seriously ill in the late ’90s.

“I lost weight after my stint in hospital and my daughter shopped for jeans and T-shirts and wouldn’t let me go back to my baggy kurtas,” he’d twinkle. His twinkling eyes, full of fun, laughter and curiosity, will always be his best-remembered feature.

Characteristically, a week before he passed away, he had partied. His daughter Kanchan (married to Manmohan Desai’s son, Ketan Desai) had turned 50 and Shammi Kapoor may have been in a wheelchair and breathing with difficulty with the aid of an oxygen tank, but party he did. He was with his family and friends for barely half an hour but he still had enough spunk to make it for Kanchan’s big day.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be his last hurrah as the very next morning, on August 7, a Sunday, he was rushed into the ICU, never to return.

His younger brother Shashi Kapoor, too, has been ailing. But there is a sharp contrast in the way they have handled their last days. Shashi Kapoor has withdrawn from the world, shunning visitors even from the Kapoor clan.

Shammi on the other hand was thrilled to go to Singapore for an awards function, on a high when a tribute was paid to him on stage, excited about Aamir Khan or Deepika Padukone visiting him, and very, very happy that his last film would be Rockstar. He did all this from a wheelchair but he was eager as a child. “Ah, I can’t tell you what my role is,” he twinkled as usual. “But I loved shooting with Ranbir for Rockstar.”

Ranbir is the pride of the Kapoor family. It is fitting that Shammi Kapoor’s last film, to be released this November, is titled Rockstar and his last shot as an actor will be with his grand-nephew from the famous khandaan.

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