An Extraordinary Gentleman in a League of His Own

Naseeruddin Shah’s heretical anecdotes on theatre and cinema carry potent antidotes to the widespread degeneration in performing arts, if only a shallow majority among the exponents see the futility of peddling their muddled notions. The amazing actor-director resurrects the past and looks to the future with characteristic detachment, finds Sudhir Raikar in this freewheeling chat.

Apr 28, 2011 03:04 IST India Infoline News Service

The first thing that strikes you about Naseer’s persona is his authentic diction that flows through a phenomenal baritone. An actor couldn’t have asked for more. The voice of course is a god-gift, but where does the eloquent speech spring from?

“The English and Sanskrit at school and the classical Arabic of the Holy Quran at home, this fortuitous package proved a powerful diction exercise” he reveals. “Now that I know the lasting benefit, I would strongly recommend it to the kids of this generation”      

Compulsory Sanskrit in a missionary school. Quite unusual, isn’t it? 

“Absolutely, but whatever the reason, it surely helped, one of the few reasons why I should thank my alma mater” he smiles in inimitable style even as he steals a glance at a vintage trunk in the living room - his souvenir of the same school. 

“The school was nothing but a humiliation regime. I grew up as a forlorn child under the tutelage of some of the cruelest masters. Save for one teacher, I don’t remember anyone ever trying to reach me out. As a result, I could never do even what I knew I was good at - things like elocution, recitation and the like” 

But didn’t this pent-up feeling prove to be a blessing in disguise considering the profession that you took up? 

“Most certainly. I am indeed fortunate to find my calling early in life that made the best use of my latent force. Had I been in any other employment or business, I would have been a miserable failure for sure. Acting demanded emotional range and opulence and I already had a repository. With all the trauma, dejection, anxiety, and aspiration of my growing years, I was dying for expression and release”

And he did make his mark, didn’t he? In offbeat films that won him mainstream attention, if not applause.

“For that, I will always remain indebted to Shyam Babu (Director Shyam Benegal). Even if my career had ended with his films - Nishant, Bhumika, Manthan and Junoon - I would have had no qualms, such is the depth of those roles. For all our creative differences, he remains a father figure” 

Even the creative differences remain? 

“Beyond a doubt. And if he’s offended by my remarks, so be it. If the media misquotes me as it always does, so be it.”

Naseer’s disillusionment with the makers of the so-called parallel cinema is profound, just like his work. The problem is not many fathom its depth and those who have a semblance choose to look the other way. He’s not opposed to the fact that these ‘masters’ jumped on to the commercial bandwagon midway. His problem is with their pretext - that there’s no audience for such films anymore. 

“That’s utterly false. And just because I had the courage to voice my resentment, I was declared an enfant terrible. Worse, I was myself blamed for the death of parallel cinema. I am still open to such films, whatever you call them, provided our friends dare to make them. And the allegation about my full stop is funny considering the heavy price I paid while the movement was alive, living off the peanuts they paid me” he remarks scornfully.

There are several instances where he was taken for a ride but one experience best reflects his commitment and their betrayal.

“The costumes for the entire male cast of the ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaron’ and ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai’, save for Satish Shah’s dress, were sourced from my wardrobe. I even did the production work for the latter doing hopeless rounds on my hapless motorbike.” 

“It was fun, no doubt.  When the director handed me a literally grand figure of Rs 1000/-, I was thrilled beyond words. A token of heartfelt appreciation with the reassuring sigh that I deserved much more… What more does an artiste need? And then came the thud.”

“I came to know from a fellow artiste that many others have actually been paid much more. Had I not been given the token, I would have remained a happy man but I should actually thank the director for making me a wiser man, what if only in hindsight.” 

Needless to say, several others played similar tricks on him. Also, several others like him were victimized but again, he was the only one among the aggrieved to voice his protest.

The media, of course, lapped up his statements but not before twisting the context invariably focusing on ‘who was mentioned’ and not ‘what was said’. Here was one guy, outspoken beyond imagination and pithy beyond comprehension, a god sent source of breaking news. How could the media not make merry? Nasser recollects another telling story.

“There was this journalist called Mohan Bawa who was hell-bent on getting my endorsement on what he thought of the late Sanjeev Kumar. Now, I was never in awe of Sanjeev kumar but I had nothing against him either. Just that I loved him more in his early action films like Badal than in his later work which I found to be consciously in line with his critical acclaim. I said something to this effect that helped Bawa manufacture a headline like ‘Naseer finds Sanjeev Kumar over-rated’ or something like that” exclaims Shah.

“Now, after a decade, I come face to face with Sanjeev Kumar while shooting for ‘Hum Paach’ and he avoids interaction with me. So I confront him and he retorts ‘How dare you write such things about me’ And my mind’s forced to go ten years back in time.”

“Eventually, I gave up on him, not exchanging another word throughout the schedule. So, you see, the media only builds the fiction, it’s the industry that chooses to create the friction”

His switch to commercial cinema has always topped the discussion charts. 

“Well, these guys often overlook the fact that my tryst with commercial cinema began much earlier. With the film 'Sunaina', so I always had the exposure although

I was pathetic at the start. 

How did Sunaina happen?

“Well, after Nishant, I went without work for an exceptionally long time while all my co-stars - Shabana, Smita, Anant, Kulbhushan, Dr. Agashe, Amrish - were busy.  When I look back, I realize that most filmmakers would have been perplexed watching my “Vishawam”  from Nishant - 'How can he be an actor? He must be a local hired for the job' they would have thought."

But the disguised compliment didn’t help on the financial front. Naseer was surviving on voice overs in ad films when after ages; he was approached by Hiren Nag for ‘Sunaina’. 

“I was thrilled with this offer from ‘Rajshri’ banner but the dyed beard I was growing for Benegal’s ‘Junoon’ came in the way. I was not going to leave ‘Junoon’ for anything else so I had to refuse them but as luck would have it, the offer was waiting for me (they must have tried other stars without success). As soon as I wrapped the ‘Junoon’ shoot, the very next day I switched to the sets of ‘Sunanina’ with a bit of ‘Junoon’ on my top. Traces of the red dye are visible on a closer look.(laughs)          

But after all that acrobatics, Sunaina miserably failed at the box office. 

“I was not ready for the sudden shift. Not that dancing and running round trees is my forte, but the lack of preparation showed in the way I sway to Yesudas’s soothing number “Aaj In Nazaaron ko tum dekho” 

Years later, he did a much better job with “Mein kahi bhi rahoo” from Vishwatma. 

“I had consciously thrown out all brazen stuff from my system to prepare for meaningful roles, not necessarily somber roles but which made sense to me. For this reason, I never attended the ‘Playback’ capsule of FTII that was supposed to make students shake a leg to the tune of some film song in an attempt to enhance their employability in the Hindi film market.” 

“It’s difficult to condition yourself in larger-than-life roles if your sensibilities belong elsewhere. Precisely why I feel Amrish (Puri) was briilant in his ‘disciplinarian father’ roles in blockbuster movies. In my case, the passage of time helped me tweak my talent to suit the specific demands of Bollywood. My sincere effort in films like Jalwa, Karma, Tridev and Vishwatma helped in a convincing portrayal. Of course, I also did many horrendous films at the same time.”

Any regrets?

“Not really but as an actor who cares, you hate to see yourself held captive in ridiculous frames, that too forever. Whenever my name will be remembered, these products would also be flashed on the screen along with the work I cherish. That hurts” 

Well, is ‘Saat Khoon Maaf” in the forgettable league?

“Definitely, I did it only for Vishal who’s a dear friend but yes, all went horribly wrong with that film. But so was it with many others. In any case, I don’t cling to my past work - whether ‘Nishant’ or ‘Sparsh’, ‘Sunaina’ or ‘Saat Khoon Maaf’. I am now focused on my role in ‘Dirty Picture’ modeled on the immensely likeable Rajnikant, relishing my dance classes and the opportunity to don flashy costumes”  

Naseer’s real disappoitment lies elsewhere. At not having had the opportunity to work with the great Satyajit Ray. 

“Yes, somehow it never happened. My chance encounters with him did not prove fruitful in this respect but they were memorable all the same. I have preserved one of his letters requesting me to play a part in his son’s TV serial. He was a true visionary, quick to see an undemanding audience was the principal reason for the falling standards of filmmaking. ...Well, the scene has hardly changed ever since.”

So what in his reckoning is the rationale for the steady state? 

“You can’t single out a single cause. But let’s view it relation to the West. In America, the advent of television brought a glimpse of realism to the living room. For the first time, people were confronting gun shots, police encounters, moments of grief and personal loss as live news. This unknowingly helped the Hollywood stars in portraying real characters that the audience could easily identify with. As a result, films mirrored more slices of reality that inturn enhanced the quality of films. Earlier, the Spenser Tracys, the Paul Munis, the Charles Laughtons had no such reference point; they were guided by their own instinct and talent. That they were phenomenal in their performance speaks volumes of their amazing talent.

“In India, television did the exact opposite. It simulated the melodrama of films even in news and reportage - so for the common man, the 26/11 coverage seemed straight out of a Bollywood potboiler”

So is it more of theatre from here on…

"I was always into theatre. Just that I am now determined to stage profound themes wherever they come from. There is a serious dearth of incisive playwrights and writers. We miss folks like Habib Tanvir and Tendulkar.  I now plan to unearth our regional treasures in greater depth. I am also upbeat about the prospects of the Dastan Goi tradition” 

What are you working on currently?

Motley, my theatre group, is busy with Shaw’s “Arms and the Man’ and we have also lined up American writer Lee Blessings’ ‘A Walk in the Woods’ Parallely, I take these workshops for budding actors. I plan to organize one for writers and actors together.” 

That Naseeruddin Shah is a good actor is a huge understatement. He’s among the very few who lend enduring significance to any role. The suspended cop Mike Lobo in the truly momentous ‘Ardhsatya’, the crook Lukka from the stunning film ‘Chakra’  or the small-time electrician in the highly forgettable 'Apna Jahan', they all linger in your memory. That’s Nasseruddin Shah for you.

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