Shashi Kapoor, First Indian Hollywood Crossover Star, Gets Highest Film Honor

Merchant-Ivory Productions
Shashi Kapoor in 1983's "Heat and Dust" from Merchant-Ivory Productions.

A major star at home, he made a name for himself in the U.S. with his work for Merchant-Ivory.

One of India's living cinema icons, Shashi Kapoor, has been honored with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the country's most prestigious film prize awarded by the government.

Kapoor, 77, was honored for his contribution to Indian cinema spanning a career that began in the 1960s both at home and abroad. His international career was largely based on his long association with the acclaimed Merchant-Ivory banner formed by late producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory (A Room With A View, Howard's End) and late author and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Hailing from what is considered India's first film family, Kapoor is the son of the late Prithviraj Kapoor, an icon of Indian theater and cinema.

The awards ceremony aired in India live Sunday morning across all the country's news networks from the iconic Prithvi Theatre in suburban Mumbai, which was established in 1978 by Kapoor to preserve his father's legacy.

Shashi Kapoor is the third member of his family to be honored with the Phalke award after his father and late brother, legendary actor-director Raj Kapoor.

The ceremony was attended by leading Indian film figures, such as Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan and members of the Kapoor family whose current generation include rising star Ranbir who gave the opening speech at the event.

The ceremony is traditionally held in New Delhi, but in this case, it was organized in Mumbai, owing to the actor's poor health due to various ailments over the years. India's Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley flew down to Mumbai to present the honor to the actor, in a wheelchair, who retired from acting by the 1990s.

"He brought Hindi cinema and Hollywood closer," Jaitley was quoted as saying after the presentation.

A major star at home, Kapoor became the first mainstream Indian actor to work in Hollywood and international cinema. His English-language film career began with Merchant-Ivory's debut production, 1963's The Householder. Kapoor's international profile was further raised with the banner's breakthrough 1983 title Heat and Dust, in which he co-starred with Greta Scacchi and Julie Christie. One of Kapoor's later international films was 1988's British colonial adventure The Deceivers, co-starring Pierce Brosnan, directed by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek).

Kapoor seemed to effortlessly divide his time between mainstream Hindi cinema and his international forays, something Indian stars only started doing more recently, such as Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World).

Kapoor's 100-plus Hindi filmography includes some of India's biggest hits, such as 1965's Jab Jab Phool Khile (When The Flowers Bloomed) and 1975's Deewar (The Wall), in which he co-starred with Bachchan.

Kapoor's international sensibilities were influenced by his late wife, British actress Jennifer Kendall. They got married in 1958. Kendall's parents ran the traveling Shakespearana theater group in India, which inspired the 1965 Merchant-Ivory production Shakespeare Wallah. The film starred Kapoor and members of the Kendall family with an uncredited part for Jennifer. The couple has three children, sons Kunal and Karan and daughter Sanjana. Jennifer was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1982 and died in 1984.

At the peak of his career in the 1970s and 1980s, Kapoor used his earnings to fund his banner Filmvalas which backed offbeat and often riskier fare, such as Junoon, 36 Chowringee Lane (both starring his wife) and Kalyug.