Bollywood actor Shammi Kapoor (1930-2011) was popularly known as the Elvis of India. I just got back from a road trip with my fiancé down to Graceland, home of the original King. Despite jamming out to “That’s All Right Mama” as we toured around, I couldn’t help but think of Bombay film legend Shammi Kapoor and the famous media comparison. I’m a diehard Elvis Presley fan, and my love for his Indian counterpart is no less. But is it even fair to correlate the two?
When I first heard of the comparison of yesteryear Bollywood actor Shammi to American rock-and-roll legend Elvis, I needed a little convincing. All right, I needed a lot of convincing. Nothing short of blasphemy is on the line when you start comparing yourself to the King. I grew up listening to Elvis and had seen Shammi Kapoor films like an Evening in Paris (1967), Brahmachari (1968), Prince (1969) and Andaz (1971). The slightly overweight Bollywood thespian with heavy pancake makeup and tight pants was a far cry from the jailhouse rocking Elvis Presley I knew so well. After all, anyone can wear a pair of tight pants in public, but not everyone should.
So why then do we call Shammi Kapoor the Elvis of India? To begin to answer this, we must go back in time. We return to Shammi Kapoor’s earliest hits films in the days before even the rip-roaring success of Junglee (1961): movies like Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) and Dil Deke Dekho (1958). Suddenly, the similarities in appearance are clear. Sure in later colour films Shammi Kapoor didn’t look much like Elvis, but let’s face it, by the time the 70s rolled around, Elvis didn’t look much like Elvis either.
But the comparison of the two entertainment icons goes beyond mere appearance. Elvis brought with him a cultural revolution in the midst of a tumultuous political atmosphere in the U.S. Shammi Kapoor, I would argue, brought that same youthful rebellion to India. Before Shammi Kapoor, no actor had ever so deliberately and daringly sought to appeal to the “modern youth” audience on-screen. Before the Shammi revolution, popular actors like Ashok Kumar, Guru Dutt and even Raj Kapoor appealed to a more traditional, elder protagonist who often encountered a modern society—but did not speak for it. Shammi was different.
With edgy attire, a boyish charm to mask his sharp tongue and a irreverent eye for the ladies, Shammi burst onto the Bombay scene with never-before-seen sex-appeal. He voiced the thoughts and emotions of a new generation who didn’t play by the rules of their fathers—Shammi flirted shamelessly in his movies, played the drums like a rockstar in his songs, and never failed to bring a sleek pompadour ‘do to the set to balance the party happening in his hips. Before Shammi, such actions would have been downright villainous, reserved only for the drunk antagonist of the film who would never win the pure-hearted girl. But Shammi changed the game.
He oozed that James Dean sense of self-confidence so despised by the older generations and so adored by young women everywhere. Watch his peacock strut in “Baar Baar Dekho” from Chinatown (1962), and the way Mohammed Rafi throws in a suave “Tally ho!” into the mix as Shammi coolly slams his guitar. Those signature hip gyrations would have done the King proud!
The heart of the revolution, of course, lay with the music. Elvis combined his Southern gospel routes with African-American rhythm and blues to create a whole new catchy sound that caught the country by storm. It was a wave that Shammi Kapoor brought to Bombay. Through radical compositions that drew upon rock-and-roll themes, sassy lyrics, and Mohammed Rafi’s energetic and versatile vocals, Shammi Kapoor too changed the face Bollywood music, ushering an era of fusion-inspired hits from “Bolo Bolo Kuch To Bolo” to “Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyaar Tera.”
As Shammi Kapoor said in a Times of India interview before his death:
“My style was unique, but it would have come to nothing had it not been for such brilliant music directors like O. P. Nayyar and Shankar-Jaikishan. I was this supremely macho guy and within me lay dormant an incredible energy that was screaming for expression. Luckily for me, my directors sensed the potential in me and allowed me to unleash my creativity. I guess I also had this very innocent way of looking at girls that heightened the romance element in my films.”
The truth of the matter is, Shammi Kapoor never said he modeled himself off of Elvis and never mentioned him in any interviews. Although their legacies share some similarities, the two men never met nor made any attempt to do so. The parallels that link their names together are those that we their fans imagined as observers. The late Shammi Kapoor did not achieve fame in an era where concert videos of Elvis could be watched or copies of the King’s films reviewed over and over again. Shammi insisted that all his choreography was extempore, straight from his heart. In fact, the only direct Bollywood copy of an Elvis hit was “Marguerita” (1963) picturised as “Kaun Hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aaya” by Rajendra Kumar in 1968.
So ultimately, perhaps it is an injustice to say that Shammi Kapoor imitated Elvis Presley’s style. After all, many men around the world knew how to shake their hips and puff their hair, but how many could bellow “YAHOO!” to the object of their affection and get away with it?
Perhaps it would be better to call Elvis the Shammi Kapoor of America.
– Mrs. 55