I cannot think of Shashi's career without Amitabh, or vice-versa, since their careers have crossed via so many beloved movies. And while I adore Shashi, my feelings about Amitabh are ambivalent- a fine actor no doubt, but probably because I am a product of a later generation, I do not fathom his demi-God status in Bollywood. Shashi, and for that matter several others, are just as fine actors, no? And if both men have acted in so many movies together, why God status for one and not the other? To gain an understanding, I decided to look a little deeper at their careers.
Shashi supposedly had a greater advantage to begin with: he started in movies as the scion of a movie dynasty: the Kapoors; at age 4 in Meena, 1944, and then continued with both cinema and theatre into perpetuity (pretty much). Amitabh's break into the entertainment world came with his parents' move to Delhi in 1955, when his mother became an important part of the theatre scene, and he was drawn into the troupe, presenting before the Nehrus and Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The latter fact initiated his friendship with the Gandhi brothers: Rajiv and Sanjay, and so his entertainment and political seeds were sown.
And there the Shashitabh roads diverged from running parallel to diametrically opposite, for a while: While Shashi grew under the theater and cinema mantle, Amitabh wanted to be an engineer- until my dear father-in-law tutored him in math in Karorimal College, which didn't work out after all, after which he moved on to sell insurance in Calcutta. And there he was to remain until his brother Ajitabh, the business brains of the family, brought along a movie camera from his foreign travels, reminded him of his aptitude towards acting, and helped create a little movie short, exhibiting Amitabh's talents.
It must have been a good short, since it brought Amitabh back into a parallel life with Shashi, with Saat Hindustani, 1969, when Shashi was already 38 movies strong, had broken into Indo-Western movies and had met Jennifer. After that, it was a mere six more years till Deewaar, 1975 brought them together for a partnership that would go on to go down in Bollywood history as probably one of the best collaborations ever. While Shashi's transition from the 60s to the 70s had been pretty smooth, he was fast becoming part of the multi-hero movie phenomenon that started in the 70s- pure Masala, with a capital M.
Amitabh fared better with the masala-fare- he certainly would get the lion's share of screen time: cases in point: Trishul, 1978, Kala Patthar, 1979, Shaan, 1980, Naseeb 1981. The one movie that perhaps irked me the most for this reason was Kabhie Kabhie, 1976, considered as one of Amitabh's better movies. This is the one movie that seeded my incomprehension of the demi-God phenomenon. He certainly had tons of screentime, but most of it was spend being poetic or sullen, in turns-I couldn't see the artistry in that- while Shashi, so I felt, took his second/third lead style role and converted it into something stellar. The one scene where he realises that Rakhi, who played his wife, had an affair before they married is so perfect: he goes from surprise - to despair - to understanding and being at peace with the past- for me, he owned the entire movie with that one perfect scene.
Let it not be thought that I think less of Amitabh as an actor: Zanjeer,1973 and Don, 1978 are strong evidences of his star quality during that time. He rode into the 1980s on the insanely fabulous Mahaan, 1983, and Coolie, 1983, and survived that terrible decade despite of Toofan,1989 and Jadugar,1989.
But somewhere in there, their path's diverged- Shashi got through the 70s with the fabulous Junoon, 1978 and miscellaneous Masala. Moved into the 80s with more Masala, including Namak Halal, 1982 with Amitabh, which again portrayed him more as a second lead than anything else. But then, he had bigger and better fish to fry in the 80s: In Silsila, 1982, which was pure Amitabh, he was stellar in the cameo he did. He was fabulous in Kalyug 1981 (despite a huge star cast), Heat and Dust, 1983 and New Delhi Times, 1986. The 80s, so unkind to everyone else, saw him experimenting with production and intersting cameos: my favorite cameo from Bollywood remains his one scene in Ijazat, 1987 with the 2 words he speaks, "Oh. Mahendra"- which words are the sum total of his understanding of his wife's (Rekha) previous marriage, her relationship with her ex-husband and his own levels of comfort with it.
And then of course came the contemptible 90s-where Amitabh suffered terribly until reinventing himself with Suryavansham, 1999, and moving on to do over 50 movies (arguably the best acting he has done in his career) in the 2000s, all as an older man, without the misuse of hair-dye. Shashi, since the 90s has done comparitively lesser work, and even lesser work of note, except In Custody,1994 and perhaps Side Streets, 1998, his last to date.
So it appears that on-screen longevity definitely lends to demi-God-ness. But I remain largely unconvinced that despite his legend, Amitabh's superlative acting skills are greater than Shashi's, or his other counterparts. Perhaps this belief comes from being a firm Shashi fan, or perhaps it is simply because I need to see more of their movies to convince me otherwise.