The Odd Couple – Sachin and Shammi.
The most awarded director in Indian Cinema once made an unpardonable error of judgement. “Bimal Roy thought I could not write and kept me waiting for 3 months when I was unemployed and broke. Even my being a Bengali cut no ice with him.”
It was Mohan Saigal who saved me by giving me Lajwanti (1958)”. This rapid-fire banter came from a screenwriter who was to write about a hundred films before the third act of his life ended on 12th April 2011; but this is not about him alone.
Born 14 months apart, they died within 4 months of each other in 2011. One was a gyrating Adonis of the sixties, to the manor born and crowned Indian Elvis whilst the other was a foot shorter, eleven shades darker and a yarn spinner; but the friendship of Shammi Kapoor and Sachin Bhowmick (fondly called Dada) transcended the dystopian barriers of fame and finance.
And while the end gave one mourning, mast-headlines the other just slipped away in the darkness that beckoned, unnoticed and unheralded.
At the death of an icon as the public bereaves the passing of an era, the context invariably is about their tangible contributions to society. It seldom mentions the vanishing breed of these fiercely loyal, generous-hearted individuals who never forgot to share the highs of their triumphs with the people in the shadows, who made it happen for them.
This is one such story.
Having recovered from a massive paralytic stroke when I met him in 2010 to shoot for a documentary, Sachin Da seemed frail but the clot had failed to damage the alacrity of his mind, machine gun repartee and quicksilver eyes, which smiled of their own volition even before the lips did. This was illustrated when he began recounting his fifty year old friendship with Shammi Kapoor.
“I was at Berlin Film Festival with our National Award winning film Anuradha (1960, Dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee) as a nominee and had to return to India via London.
In London I got a call from Shammi with whom I had never worked earlier. When he heard where I was staying, in this cheap bed-breakfast place, he asked me to come to The Hilton with my baggage.”
“I told him I can’t afford to stay there but he would have none of it. And when I arrived, he had already booked a single room in my name.”
In the evening they met in quarters befitting the status of a star, Shammi Kapoor’s suite.
“I am a reflection of what you create so it’s ironical that I make more money than you but should that stop you from having fun?” Shammi told him while his scotch lay resting.
“Shammi ji, I have never written anything for you and I can’t afford…”
“But you will. And I just feel you will give me more than I might be able to return.”
His words were prophetic as Shammi would win his only two Filmfare acting awards for Brahamchari (1968) and Vidhaata (1983), both written by Sachin Bhowmick.
However, in the London of 1961, Dada’s first Rolls Royce ride was already being planned..
As the evening darkened and the level of whisky receded in the bottle, Shammi said, “Listen, the car comes at 9 am and my sun rises at noon. Since this is your first visit, take the car in the morning and savor the plentiful sites of London.” Not the one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dada partook the pleasure of these princely gestures.
However three days later the party ended abruptly when Shammi got a call for a shoot in India and asked Dada to drop him off at Heathrow.
“As we were saying goodbye,” Dada recalled “he put both his hands in his jacket and brought out some money. I remember it was about 900 pounds and 600 dollars.”
“I have to ask you for a favor. This is spending money that needs spending. I have failed as I have to rush back so now I need your help to finish it off.”
“What are you saying Shammi ji, I can’t ever afford to pay you back all this money.”
“I am not giving you a loan. This money in my fist has to be delivered to its fate. I’m asking you to spend it for me. Won’t you help a friend Sachin?”
The established verity is; they don’t make them like they used to. Here was a matinée idol, with a genuine desire born out of respect for talent, craving to facilitate the comfort of a new writer with magnanimity all the while masquerading it as a favor reversed.
“With brimming tears, I accepted his largess. See Europe, he told me, and come back with a few good stories.” Dada spent a month travelling with an Air India designed itinerary. He toured through Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon and Cairo.
“This feeling of affection in the film fraternity vanished at the dawn of the nineties. Shammi never once mentioned this in fifty years, in public or person.”
Then with a wicked restrained chuckle Dada said, “Never once; even when Sharmila Tagore asked me to chaperon her on the shoot of Kashmir Ki Kali (written by Ranjan Bose), her first Hindi film co-starring Shammi. He was jealous and said ‘Tera koi chakkar hai’ (you are romantically involved). Of course she was a very good family friend and I had brought her to Bombay from Bengal to act in Hindi films. I was mature enough to know that, looking like I did, I stood no chance with heroines so never even tried.”
“I wrote An Evening in Paris (1967) for them as a tribute for his bounty of airline tickets and then gave her Aradhana (1969) for which she won her only Filmfare award (both directed by Shakti Samanta). Life has a way of paying back us in the same coin.”
In film folklore of Bollywood, tales are aplenty of friendships between Writer/Directors teams (Abrar Alvi/Guru Dutt, Nabendu Ghosh/Bimal Roy, K A Abbas and Inder Raj Anand/Raj Kapoor) but loyalties of actors towards writers are singularly dictated by Friday openings. Sachin and Shammi were the exception.
“Shammi’s nickname for me was Silly Wilder as I am a big Billy Wilder fan, who for me, is the greatest screenwriter ever.”
Maybe now the two friends are contemplating launching the biggest blockbuster of the celestial world titled “An Eternity in Heaven” with Shakti Samanta directing.