Born Shamsherraj Kapoor on October 21, 1931 in Bombay, Shammi Kapoor was the second of three sons to theatre and silent era Hindi film actor Prithviraj Kapoor and Ramsarni Mehra. Prithviraj founded the Prithvi Theatre, a travelling theatre company, and became the patriarch of a film dynasty that has reigned over India for five generations.
Known affectionately as Shammi, Kapoor attended Ruia College in Mumbai but later left to join the Prithvi Theatre as a Junior Artist in 1948. In 1952 he signed his first film contract with the Kardar film company and went on to make his Hindi-language debut in Jeevan Jyoti (1953) opposite heroine Chand Usman. Jeevan Jyoti features the first and only song he sang over the course of his career, a duet with the highly regarded Hindi-playback singer Asha Bhosle.
Kapoor's breakout role and first major hit was Filmistan's Tumsa Nahin Dekha, from writer-turned-director Nasir Hussain. He later starred in another collaboration with Hussain, Dil Deke Dekho (1958), opposite debutant Asha Parekh. During the course of his career, Kapoor appeared alongside many first-time actresses who would later became stars. He and Parekh were paired together in four films, including the thriller Teesri Manzil (1966), directed by Vijay Anand and produced by Hussain, and the romance film Jawan Mohabbat, directed by Bhappi Sonie. Sharmila Tagore and Saira Banu also made their film debuts with Shammi.
It was Subodh Mukherji's Junglee (translated as 'wild' in both Hindi and Urdu) that showcased the talent of Shammji as an innovator who would change the way Hindi-language cinema depicted both romance and song sequences. His first colour film, Junglee, featuring the famous song Yahoo, was a cry to arms of rebellion and sexuality that registered with the youth of India and cemented him as an actor who inhabited his characters with both originality and a distinctive, courageous presence. Yahoo was sung by popular playback singer Mohammed Rafi, who originally developed a singing style unique to Kapoor. “Rafi-saab paid special attention to my kind of singing, to what I wanted in my songs,” said Kapoor before his death. The pair became one of the most legendary and influential pairings in Indian cinema's history.
In 1955, Kapoor married Gita Bali, an actress who was then significantly more famous than her husband. They married in Mumbai and had two children, a son, Aditya Raj Kapoor, and daughter, Kanchan. In 1965, Kapoor lost Gita to small pox at the age of 34. Due to contractual obligations, a grieving Kapoor returned to the set of Teesri Manzil (1966) three months after her death
Throughout the 1960s, Kapoor continually refined his dance style, especially when he sustained a split cartilage on the set of Rajkumar (1964). With limited mobility, Kapoor integrated rock and roll from the West with Hindi-language cinema and is credited with revolutionising the dance sequences of the era. Kapoor became known as “The Elvis of Bollywood” for both his dance style, song choice and his raw sensuality that remained a marker of his unique screen style and role as a youth icon.
In 1969, Kapoor married Neela Devi Gohil from the Royal Family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. A 19-year-old Kapoor had first seen Neela when she was 9, as he performed in the theatre. Shammi Kapoor and Neela remained together until his death.
Kapoor directed his first feature film in 1972 with Manoranjan, an adaptation of the French play Irma La Douce (made previously by Billy Wilder in 1963). His second film as director was Bundalbaaz. Kapoor did not find box office success with either film.
As a giant of the industry, Kapoor was recognised with numerous accolades from the Filmfare Awards, India's most respected cinema event, winning Best Actor twice, Best Supporting Actor, and the Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his later life, Shammiji continued to embrace new innovations. He was the founder and chair of many Internet organisations, including the Internet Users Community of India (IUCI). He also regularly posted interviews about his exceptional career in the series Shammi Kapoor Unplugged.
Shammi Kapoor's last film appearance was in Imtiaz Ali's forthcoming feature film, Rockstar starring his great-nephew, Ranbir Kapoor. In all, Shammi starred in more than 100 films.
He is survived by his wife and children.