RIP Shammi Kapoor, Bollywood star of the 1960s. You danced, you sang, you romanced, you made movies fun. And although you didn't know it, you saved my life.
Long before Indian song-and-dance movies became cool in the West, they were huge in the Middle East. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Bollywood stars like Raj Kapoor (Shammi's older brother), Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini and Mithun Chakraborty were household names from Tehran to Tunis. Arab viewers loved the music, the dancing and, most of all, the melodrama that was the staple of Hindi movies of the age. These days, they respond to the slick production and fast-paced action of current Bollywood flicks, and a new generation of stars like Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan have a fanatic following among Arab audiences.
Shammi Kapoor never enjoyed that kind of crossover appeal except in one place. For reasons I've never quite understood, Iraqis are nuts about him. His peculiar ants-in-his-pants dancing style, his lovable rogue image, his jowly good looks all these made him much beloved in Baghdad and Basra. This was especially true of Iraqis of a certain age, who remember such blockbusters as Teesri Manzil (Third Floor) and Dil Deke Dekho (Give Your Heart and See), which ran to packed houses and outshone even the most popular Egyptian movies.
Truth be told, I was never much of a Shammi Kapoor fan: I found his over-the-top acting style a little hard to take. But I quickly found that the best way to break the ice with people I met in Iraq was to ask if they remembered "Shaami Kaboor," which is how they pronounced his name. Invariably, my interlocutors would grow misty-eyed and nostalgic. They would recall their favorite scenes from his movies and often shout out "Yahoo!" it was his signature line from the wildly popular Junglee (The Wild One). They'd ask what he was doing these days. I'd tell them he was alive and well, and before long, we'd be chatting like old friends.
In the summer of 2003, I was reporting from a small village west of Baghdad, known to be a stronghold of Saddam loyalists who were fighting against U.S. troops. My translator and I were taking a chance that as a person of brown skin, my presence would not rouse any special suspicions. Things were going well for a while: my translator thought it prudent to introduce me as a "journalist from India," which was, in the narrowest definition, true. People spoke candidly about their love of Saddam and hatred for the U.S.
We were taken to meet the "Colonel," a 50-something man with an impressive mustache who was in charge of the village's fighters. He was a little more reserved than the others and answered my questions warily. After a few moments, he asked me, in English, "Who do you work for?"
Reflexively, I replied, "TIME magazine."
He frowned. "Times, of London?" he asked.
"No, TIME, al-Amreekiyya," I replied.
Immediately, he picked up his AK-47 and pointed it to my forehead. "You American?" he shouted.
"I'm from India," I said.
"No, you're American," he said again. "You will die."
My translator interjected, pleading with the colonel not to shoot. I was indeed an Indian, he said. But the colonel was having none of it. "He is American, and he must die," he said.
More out of panic than forethought, I blurted out, "I'm Indian ... like Shaami Kaboor."
"Shaami Kaboor? You know Shaami Kaboor?" the colonel asked. He still had the gun to my forehead.
"Of course, I know Shaami Kaboor," I said. "All Indians know him. He's a big star."
The colonel lowered his AK-47. He stepped back. "You really know Shaami Kaboor?"
"Yes," I said.
"I like Shaami Kaboor," he said with a small smile. "I saw all his movies when I was young."
"Me too," I lied.
"What was it he used to shout?" he asked, squinting as he tried to remember.
"Yahoo," I said.
His smile broadened. The danger had passed.
I would love to report that the colonel and I became fast friends. We did not. The fact that I worked for an American magazine meant he would not take any more of my questions. He insisted that I had to leave his village and never return. He escorted us to our car, to make sure we left at once.
"You are lucky you're Indian," he said as I got into the car. "Otherwise, you would be dead by now. You should thank God."
In my mind, there was no doubt about whom I needed to thank.