Naseeruddin Shah made his Hindi cinema debut with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant and went on to act in several Benegal films—Manthan, Bhumika, Junoon, Mandi. Appearing on Farooq Shaikh’s talk show, Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai, Shah once recalled watching Benegal’s debut film, Ankur, in a theatre in Kanpur and feeling encouraged by the idea that the film industry was moving away from casting conventionally good-looking people, like Shaikh himself.
From FTII in Pune, Shah landed at Benegal’s Tardeo office on hearing that post-Ankur, the director was looking to cast his next movie, Nishant. He was anxious and tense and waited patiently at Benegal’s office, oblivious to the fact that the director was watching him throughout. After a few minutes, Benegal walked up to Shah and said that he had the role.
“The most difficult thing for an actor to do is be withdrawn and yet be noticeable,” Benegal would later recall. “He had that quality.” Ever since his debut, Shah’s career has grown with India’s parallel cinema movement of the 70s and the early 80s, with the actor being part of era-defining films such as Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom, Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh, Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Gulzar’s Ijaazat, to pick a few from an enviable list of films.
Over the past few years, along with delivering stellar performances in films both good and bad, Shah has been a vocal critic of the present dispensation and often finds himself in the middle of a maelstrom.
In an interview to The Wire earlier this year, Shah said, “I suppose people who don’t know what it’s like to be a student or people who’ve never had any intellectual pursuits would consider students and intellectuals to be pests. It is not surprising that the prime minister has no empathy or any compassion for the students, he’s never been a student.”
In this interview, the actor talks about the politics of acting as an art form, his own evolution as an artiste and what, in times such as now, gives him hope:
Do you feel the current moment has made you more productive as an artist? Or has the lockdown had the opposite effect?
I’m not unaccustomed to spending weeks at home. There was a phase in my life where I was shooting around the clock and I must say I didn’t enjoy it. Even then, I would take time off and either do a play, go on a vacation or just lie around at home with my children. These 5 months have not been traumatic for me.
What it has helped us all to do, except those who are prone to get depressed about it, is that it has challenged our faculties. There have been so many young people who have come out with some of the most beautiful short films concerning the lockdown. They’ve been pushed into a corner where their creativity has really sparked up and I think that’s a good thing.
I’m sure the same thing must be happening to people who paint or write poetry. My son, Imaad, is a musician. He composes a lot of stuff and he’s found these 5 months very stimulating. As for ourselves, we’ve been keeping busy by performing online with story readings and poetry recitals.
Just the other day, I was a part of Roshan Abbas’ Mehfil where I recited a story. We’ve been doing this on and off and it has helped me find a tangible way to come back to boredom. When the world was normal and you found yourself two hours ahead of you and nothing to do, you’d wonder what to do, that problem hasn’t occurred yet.
For the first time I’m living a regulated life and going according to the programme. I’m reading a lot of stuff. I’ve been taking singing classes as well. I’ve been trying to improve my Urdu handwriting and reading too. So, quite a lot has been achieved, personally speaking.
The way we engage with reality has fundamentally changed. Do you, as an artist, see this collective isolation manifesting into art that we will subsequently make?
How can it not? As soon as the lockdown eases, which it’s not showing any sign of, but whenever it does, we won’t even know that it’s gone. I just hope we don’t revert to our old lazy creativity and jump back to the kind of stuff we used to do. This event should carry some meaning for us which remains.
It is the first national trauma that our country has been through. We’ve been through a couple of wars but they haven’t affected the entire country. This has affected the entire world. The kind of creativity that flowered in Europe post World War 2 was not a coincidence. The quality of writing, sculpting, painting, drama and cinema that emerged out of it proves that.
Thankfully, we have been spared the trauma of a war but this has been no less of a combat. It feels like living in a war zone, given the omnipresence of death. Time has been strange. Living in the heart of Bandra and not hearing a car go by is strange.
If you notice, whatever creativity has been triggered online is from the younger generation. That is very heartwarming. It creates great optimism in me. The younger people are coming forward and expressing themselves, finally, in a coherent way.
I have always encouraged their attempts to write an original play, original films and so on but oftentimes I felt that they are abstruse. They work too hard to be considered geniuses instead of trying to simply make. But that is changing now. Now, they’re writing scripts which are really attempting to communicate. I hope that stays.
You recently appeared in Amazon Prime Video’s ‘Bandish Bandits’. At least for now, the streaming ecosystem looks like it is positioning itself as a counter-culture voice to the mainstream. Would it be overstating their significance if I ask you whether this reminds you of the late seventies or eighties when we saw the emergence of filmmakers such as Shyam Bengal, Mani Kaul, Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, and there was a parallel art movement?
I’d say it would be premature to call it a wave or alternative just yet. One can always hope for the seventies movement or wave, whatever you would like to call it, to reoccur through streaming. I am certainly optimistic about its survival because funnily, yet not so strangely, audiences have taken to content-driven drama during this lockdown. How much of the blood-drenched and gut-wrenching revenge can you see?
Particularly when you are accompanied by a thousand other people who are clapping, whistling and driving your adrenaline levels up? How much fun is it going to be to see those in the solitude of your living room while you’re having dinner with your children and you’re watching somebody’s guts being spilled out with a hand pipe? I have a feeling, a section of the audience has had enough.
They want to see stuff that taxes their minds a little bit and that’s a great sign. Most of the people who have spoken to me about Bandish Bandits say it’s so refreshing to not have an obscenity-laced revenge on your hands but a soothing, gentle drama. Suppose director Anand Tiwari had to make Bandish Bandits as a film, he would’ve limited it to two hours maybe.
He would’ve had to skip over many of the important parts. It reminds me of Mirza Ghalib, the immortal serial made by Gulzar Bhai, to make it as a movie first because, for some reason or the other, he couldn’t get the finance even though he had stars lined up to act in it.
Then he got to make the serial and he was telling me, “I have to thank my stars that I did not make this as a movie. It would’ve been 2 or 2.5 hours long but here I got to make a 12 hour film! I can hold fort and explore areas which I wouldn’t have been able to explore with the producer sitting on my head and rejecting concepts.”
So, without the pressures of getting a star, putting in songs or fight sequences and appease to Indian sentiments, they are being allowed to make films they want and I wish them luck and a long life.
I think that’s the fear, the counter-narrative becoming exactly what it was running away from.
Absolutely and that happened right? That’s where our television missed a fantastic opportunity because it ended up becoming just like the movies, even worse. The purpose for making a television serial became the exact reason for making a stupid movie: something people will buy and watch. We lost a great opportunity to educate our country through television.
I’m sure you get tired of people telling you that you’ve had a very illustrious career. You’ve delivered memorable performances in some of the greatest films and … you’ve done a bunch of very shitty films as well. I’m guessing you’re self-aware when you do those…
Boy, am I! (Laughs)
In those, it feels like you are quietly winking to the camera! But, at this stage in your career, what is your high as an actor? And has it changed and evolved since, say a Nishant, Manthan, Masoom and Sparsh?
Oh, yes. At that time, my high was to outdo every actor in any movie I was in.
It was a very immature attitude but I was actually like that and I don’t ever run away from that fact. I’m not ashamed of it because that’s how I needed to be at the time. I needed to believe in the method acting dogmas for a while. I don’t believe in them any longer but believing in it at the time, did give me something.
In the same way theatre and television and more importantly, teaching has given me. In fact, over the last ten years I’ve been doing a lot of teaching. I’ve done it for a while over at the drama school and at FTII.
I’ve given up teaching at certain institutions because they just don’t agree with me, they have their own agendas. I’ve worked with young actors whom I know and not only those who are working in my place. To me, the greatest joy is to be able to get a young actor to perform at his potential.
It’s better than doing it yourself. I’m very careful not to demonstrate things and to not infect them with my preferences. At the moment, I think I will continue to do so. There will come a time when I will be too old to be of use as an actor anymore but I think as a teacher, I will perhaps still be of use.
What excites me as an actor today is to be a part of a project which I’m going to enjoy doing and which has a chance of being remembered regardless of the size of the role. That has been my feeling for quite a few years and some of the very lovely parts I’ve done have actually been cameos.