Shammi Kapoor was a tall, lanky, thin young man (“I had no shadow”), twenty-one-year-old and on the threshold of a career in films. A stint in the theatre had given him confidence, even a slightly superior attitude to “these film people”. He was at ease working with big directors like A.R. Kardar and Mahesh Kaul. There was no nervousness, no awe. While Jeevan Jyoti was being made, he signed his next film, Rail Ka Dibba. The heroine was Madhubala.
The confidence, the condescension and the ease, went sailing out as Shammi Kapoor beheld his co-star. It was impossible for him to take his eyes off her. Rapt and lost, Shammi did not know what had hit him. He became flustered. “I was very nervous working with her, so nervous that I’d forget my dialogue. When I looked at her, I was lost. I was tongue-tied. Yes, she had that effect on me. She knew it too, she could see it, and she helped me gradually. Within a month, I was in love.”
Madhubala was nineteen, but she had a maturity and poise that years of acting experience had given her. Shammi recalls it seemed to him like the poor girl had been working for two hundred years. He was madly in love and soon he was proposing marriage to her. “By the standards of today’s generation we were innocent and far less scheming. In our days falling in love meant getting married; today, ‘affairs’ start… I remember going home and crying to my mother, ‘I must marry her’.”
But it was 1952; attitudes were much more conservative and the difference in religion was not acceptable to his mother, who responded predictably: “Have you taken leave of your senses? She is a Muslim.”
Madhubala, moreover, was in love with Dilip Kumar, although in her own way she was extremely fond of Shammi. “Personally I think, the whole equation was different”, muses Shammi Kapoor: “With me, she felt motherly, she cared for me and she wanted to make something out of me. Dilip Kumar was ten years her senior and a very mature person. She looked up to him.” Recalling that big stars like Dilip Kumar and Premnath were in love with her, Shammi laughs: “They did not even know there was an entity called Shammi Kapoor on this canvas. After all, I was small fry.”
Shammi could not marry her, but he did marry the next person that he fell in love with, Geeta Bali. “Madhubala and Geeta had much in common. Both were impish, very alive and very vibrant.” Happy for him, Madhubala called and congratulated him.
Mahesh Kaul’s Jeevan Jyoti was Shammi Kapoor’s first film, but Rail Ka Dibba was his first release. The very first picture that he had signed was also with Madhubala called Hum, Turn our Woh, it had a mahurat but never went on the floors. Lekhraj Bhakri’s Naqab (1955) and Naresh Saigal’s Boy Friend (1961) were two more films they did together. As Shammi recollects: “When I did Rail Ka Dibba and Naqab with her, I was a nonentity. By the time Boy Friend came, I had established myself, my career and my style.” Boy Friend had the liltingly lovely number by Mohd. Rafi: Salaam aapki meethi nazar ko salaam. For another song situation, Dhire chal, dhire chal ai bheegi hawa…, Madhubala was shown sleeping, as Shammi moves around nearby, singing. The characteristic, flamboyant Shammi Kapoor style was in action — it was too novel a phenomenon, too fascinating. Curiosity got the better of Madhubala. “She would open one eye and watch me. Reminded to keep her eyes closed, she’d answer, `I can’t help it, I want to see what you are doing. Where did you learn it?’ ”
Shammi rates her Mr and Mrs ’55 as his favourite. “But her greatest performance will always remain that of Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam. Shammi Kapoor’s tribute to his former co-star comes straight from the heart: “Madhubala was a very beautiful person both internally and externally. I had a very high regard and respect for her. Such people are just not made any longer, and I am being very honest when I say this. Geeta knew about it and my present wife also knows it. My life is an open book.” – Khatija Akbar