Belonging to an incredibly influential cinematic dynasty has become somewhat of a tradition in Indian cinema today and though accusations of nepotism may be true in some cases, it is largely accepted that the children will inevitably inherit the legacy of their parents. The Kapoor dynasty has maintained a grip over Indian cinema since the 1940s studio era when Raj Kapoor’s Chaplinesque star image and directorial ambitions ensured that his siblings around him would reap the benefits of his significant contributions to Indian cinema and culture. Shashi Kapoor, the brother of Raj Kapoor and son of Prithviraj Kapoor was always the the quite one. He entered the industry as a child actor and by the 1970s had achieved mainstream commercial success, starring opposite Ambitabh Bachchan in a string of big budget hit films including the classic angry young man film, ‘Deewaar’.
To many in India his career existed very much in the shadow of Ambitabh’s overwhelming star persona yet Shashi Kapoor like other actors who also yearned for the existence of a parallel cinema had started in the early 1960s to supplement mainstream projects with a concern for arthouse, independent and low budget film making. Shashi Kapoor’s interests with marginal film makers and difficult subject matters saw one of its clearest fruitions in the Shyam Benegal 1976 feature film, ‘Junoon’, an anti colonial critique and a key work of the Indian art cinema. It is the films he made with Indian film producer, Ismail Merchant and American director, James Ivory between 1963 and 1970 that Shashi Kapoor delivered some of his most versatile and notable performances. His first major starring role was interestingly enough as a shy college lecturer, Prem Sagar, in the 1963 film, ‘The Householder’, a film which was also the first collaboration between Merchant and Ivory, a collaboration that would evolve into much more than just a stint.
Scripted by Merchant-Ivory regular, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, ‘The Householder’ established a number of key thematic preoccupations that would be repeated more explicitly and worked out more fully in their widely acclaimed ‘heritage’ films. One theme of particular concern in ‘The Householder’ is that of imprisonment by tradition, a theme specifically aligned with the female character of Indu (Leela Naidu). Whilst the film explores the strained relationship between a young Indian couple who have had an arranged marriage, Prem’s search for some kind of recognition of his place within the world makes him stand out as a prototype for the classic Merchant-Ivory character who faces an existential crisis of metaphysical proportions. Satyajit Ray acted as a consultant on the film and his influence is indelibly evident in much of the emotionally motivated framing, intelligent editing and naturalism of the performances. In many ways, the raw and unfinished aesthetics of the film makes it seem like an extended homage to the cinema of Satyajit Ray who had successfully brought Bengali cinema to the attention of the world in the style of Italian neo realism.
Financed on a low budget, ‘The Householder’ shifts from Prem’s humiliating position at the college at which he works to the modest confines of his house. This constant movement between work and home serves to underline the relative anonymity of his existence but the difficulty he has in separating the two so that they don’t impose upon his relationship with his wife illustrates the relative immaturity of his character. Prem has no real understanding of how people around him think so cynically and his inability to forge an intimacy with Indu manifests itself most readily in his childishly sentimental dependency on his doting and deeply conservative mother. The unexpected arrival of Prem’s mother creates yet more friction between the couple, causing the premature departure of Indu. However, the prolonged absence of Indu forces Prem to reconsider his affections and he slowly realises that her presence was somewhat of a distant comfort. Prem’s existential quest is answered cryptically by his encounter with a mystical swami who instructs him of the important role he must play as a householder in the lives of his wife and unborn child. It seems like an overly simplistic answer but it makes Prem confront the reality of his predicament, forcing him to accept life as determined by social forces and contradictions.
Oddly enough the film ends with Prem and Indu on a bus smirking coyly at one another in an expression of how their love is something that will grow with time. However, it is also a deeply ambiguous moment as the bus and their journey is clouded with uncertainty and perhaps point to a future that is open to infinite possibilities. It reminded me of the ending to ‘The Graduate’, a film that had yet to be made and which would also finish on an uncertain note with Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross appeared exhilarated but overcome with an expression of uncertainty. Supported by a wonderful score by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and expertly shot by Ray’s regular cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, ‘The Householder’ was merely the beginning of what would be a fascinating and imaginative series of films set in India and starring the allusive Shashi Kapoor.