‘Standing Behind Dead Doctor’. That is the rather inauspicious-sounding credit listed as the first ever onscreen appearance of one of the world’s (yes, the world’s) greatest living actors – Naseeruddin Shah. The year was 1967 and the film was Rajendra Kumar-Saira Banu starrer, Aman. “I had just finished school, I was 16 years old and I’d decided to come to Bombay to make my fortune, so I embarked on this adventure,” he recalls. “At first I stayed with some friends but they grew quite tired of me, so I moved here and there, had a pretty rough time, and ended up acting in two films as an extra. I used to hang around a lot at this place with other unemployed actors and one day this chap came along and said that I need twenty of you as extras, at 7 rupees per day. So that was my first appearance on screen, that probably also saved my life!”
Not that he is terribly fond of looking back at his salad days; on the contrary, Shah isn’t really prone to nostalgia of that fashion. “I don’t believe in holding on to the past, you have to let it go, so I don’t really treasure those years or anything, though I know that I was very fortunate to have got the kind of opportunities that I did. A lot of young people were starting out then and it just so happened that they needed an actor who looked real, that why I was lucky enough to get all those opportunities.” In the years since, of course, he has received all manner of acclaim, critical and popular, in the shape of awards and accolades, hailing and endowing him with a whole gamut of superlatives. One has to wonder if he ever gets jaded about all that.
The actor mulls it over and answers with care. “I can’t say that I don’t like it but one doesn’t really know how to respond when things like that are said. In fact it tends to create quite a gulf between other actors and myself, younger actors particularly. When I’m working with them they confess to getting an attack of the nerves and I hate that. I meet very few young actors who just take me in their stride. I think actors also like to make a fuss about the fact that they respect somebody, to make a big show of it. What does feel good though is that I’ve survived this long and three generations of people are familiar with my work, that’s what I have a sense of accomplishment about.”
Having visited Pakistan before, most notably with a splendid production of Ismat Chughtai’s short stories told through the age-old art of dastaan-goi, Shah was in town again recently, working on a film being made by the enterprising trio of Mazhar Zaidi, Meenu Gaur, and Farjad Nabi. Titled Zinda Bhaag, the project is the second one in Pakistan for the actor after Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye. “They got in touch with me and asked me to act in it. I liked the script. It has three young men who’ve never acted before, they’re from Samanabad, from the kind of background that the characters themselves are, kind of disaffected, uneducated kids who dream of streets lined with gold, that sort of thing. So first I needed to come here and work with the kids, to prepare them for the experience of working in cinema, and also to work on my Punjabi, so it was as much for my own good as for them.”
If one looks back at Shah’s body of work, the kind of adventurous spirit that one imagines would compel him to work with this motley crew of young filmmakers, is very much in evidence in his choices as an actor, particularly in recent years, when he has worked with a number of directors in the nascent stages of their careers, very often first-time helmers. One would think an actor of his stature might be wary of the trappings that come with an inexperienced figure at the head of the table, but the actor has no such hang-ups. “I’ve never regretted working with a first-timer; I’ve regretted working with the masters many times. (Chuckles). I don’t go by whether someone is making a film for the first time, it’s a throw of the dice in any case. I go by whether I feel like doing the project, the script, the reasons for the film to be made, the circumstances it’s being made in, and the kind of people who’re making it. I’ve has as many good experiences as bad ones, working with first-time filmmakers. No, in fact, never a bad experience. Some films may not have turned out as I’d hoped, but there were never any regrets at having done them.”
I’m meeting Shah on a typical, sleepy Lahore afternoon. The weather has turned mildly hot and the electricity is playing its usual game of hide-and-seek. He has just risen from a siesta, and as we chat over tea and biscuits, he sounds groggy but in good spirits. His crinkly hair, usually salt n’ pepper (with the emphasis on salt, of late) is dyed a henna-orange for his role in the film, accompanied by a matching pencil moustache. He truly looks the part of the dubious ‘immigration agent’ he is playing, reminding me yet again of his uncanny ability to immerse himself into the myriad characters he has played over the years, also lacing them with certain physical details that leave such an indelible impression. Like the way his character Pirojshah blinks in Pestonjee, or, as I mention to him, his small but memorable part as Bhaisaab in Omkara, wherein he captures the gangster-politician’s idiosyncracies with a twiddle of his toes encased in white socks, and a cell-phone held to his ear in the oddest, most subtly hilarious of fashions. Where does this sort of inspiration come from? Is there an element of the divine in it?
“Aate hain ghaib se ye mazameen khayal mein…” he says with a playful smile. “I can’t explain, but you’ll get some idea by listening to this story: when I was playing Gandhi on stage, one of my mother’s old friends came to see it in Delhi. After the show, she came to see me and she was very happy, and she said, ‘tum bilkul apni Ammi ki tarha lag rahe the’. I was puzzled and said, ‘but I wasn’t playing her, I was playing Gandhi’. She said, ‘haan, woh to bohat achcha kaam kiya tum ne, per tum jab bhi utth-te the, baitth-te the, bilkul Apa Bi ki tarha lag rahe the’. (Laughs) So you don’t know where these influences come from. It’s osmosis. I’ve definitely seen people like that, the men who wear dhotis with dress shoes and socks. And somewhere it must’ve stayed with me, because when I went into that posture something told me that it was right. Also, gradually one’s understanding of body language increases over the years. Then when you’re confident enough to let your body make the decisions, that’s the stage one is looking for. Your body knows the answer, it’s our minds that get in the way.”
The mention of Gandhi brings to mind the hoary rumour that the national leader was one of the actor’s dream roles, but Shah dismisses it to an extent, as just something he thought would be interesting to do. He did play Gandhi on stage in theatre director Feroz Khan’s play Mahatma Vs. Gandhi in 1998, but recalls with some amusement his earlier tryst with the part when Richard Attenborough was casting for his celebrated film version of the leader’s life in the early 80s. “I just wanted to see if I could do it. When Mr. Attenborough came around, it occurred to me out of the blue that I would be a very good candidate for the part. I mean he wasn’t making Samson and Delilah or Hercules, he was making Gandhi! Where the hell was he going to get an English or American actor who could look like Gandhi? (Laughs) It came like a brainwave. So I got through to the man, and told him that I think I’m the guy you’re looking for! So he took me to England and auditioned me. And in the meantime, for some reason, it began to matter hugely, not only to me but to the public in India, apparently. The press started printing stories about how I’d been selected already. But then I went to England and as soon as I set eyes on Ben Kingsley, I realized, hell, he’s the one. So I felt a sense of disappointment, but to tell you the truth, Attenborough was right. I don’t think I could’ve pulled off the role at that age. I didn’t have enough of a grasp over my craft either, and old Ben, I think, was pretty good.”
A part that he did play around the same time is now an iconic one, that of D.K. Malhotra, in Shekhar Kapur’s directorial debut, the hauntingly crafted Masoom. Based on a maudlin bestseller by Erich Segal, called ‘Man, Woman and Child’, the film defied its mediocre tear-jerker roots and became a wonderfully nuanced and well-loved classic about a man whose idyllic family life is fractured by the arrival of an illegitimate son. Shah professes this quiet little film to be one of his personal favourites. “It’s so simple; it deals with a subject which could seem slightly lightweight but the way that those characters were represented… it’s the same reason why Monsoon Wedding is so effective – the filmmaker knows that milieu. Shekar Kapur knows this milieu of upper-middle class Delhi really well. Mira Nair knows the farmhouse dwelling Punjabis of Delhi extremely well. Like Shyam Benegal knows the Hyderabadis so well, which is why Nishaant and Ankur were such wonderful films. And Shekhar, in my opinion is one of the finest filmmakers in the world. But big budgets have been bad for his creativity. His two best films are to this day Masoom and Bandit Queen, both made on small budgets.”
Talking about big budget films, the actor doesn’t mince words as to how money and the clamour for it, in his view, have the potential for sounding the death knell for Bollywood, if they haven’t already, that is. “What are we making these days?” he posits with distaste evident in his tone. “The confectionery kind of quality of Bollywood, how can anyone take it seriously? Younger filmmakers, who should know better, and from whom one expected a modern sensibility, are also concentrating on making pure fluff, at the cost of everything else. The level of storytelling, writing, acting, music, is appalling. It’s just that we now have better trained cameramen so the frame looks great and the editing looks good. But that’s not all that a film is about.”
And if someone does want to do something ‘different’, it seems the industry won’t exactly bend over backwards for anyone, not even for one of its own most celebrated thespians. “When I wanted to make a film some years ago, and I knew that I didn’t want to cast any stars in it, there was no one willing to give any money to make it. The one and only question they’d ask is ‘hero kaun hai?’ If you give them a satisfactory answer, you get the money, no matter what the script might be. I had a ready script, a pretty decent story, a fantastic cast, but no stars, no hero. ‘Yeh kya baat hui?’ they’d say, ‘heroine koi bhi ho, hero to koi hona chahiye’. Which also shows you what a chauvinistic place it is. The business of it is preposterous, the figures have become mind-boggling, but like old Hollywood it is bound to implode, which would not be a good thing. It’s not the stars who’ll be badly affected but the poor guys who work in the film units.”
The film, titled Yun Hota To Kya Hota, did get made and was released in 2006 but the experience was not a pleasant one for Shah and he has all but sworn off directing for the cinema in the future, preferring to reserve his directorial energies for the theatre. “I was put off,” he says with the slightest hint of disgust, “I had a very bad time with everybody except my actors. I, as a filmmaker, made a terrible blunder by thinking that all I needed to do was to get the actors to behave well. I was unable to think visually and to make the right decisions quickly. And I realized I prefer to direct in the theatre where I can look at what I’ve done, ponder over it, chew on it, digest it, change it, shorten it, lengthen it. Which is why even plays we’ve been performing for twenty years, each performance is a new experience. I can’t do that in film. I’m not cut out for it. I cringe when I look at it (YHTKH). I was rushed into it, with no writer, no consultant, I wrote the script myself. I was given a deadline after which I’d have no money. I was eager to try my hand at it, that’s why I did it. Parts of it were good, but other parts just didn’t work.”
An earlier film he also had a nightmarish time making but with much happier results was Kundan Shah’s screamingly funny satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983). His pairing with the late Ravi Baswani, as a couple of bumbling amateur investigators out to expose political and big-business corruption in Bombay, was just one of the highlights of this cult classic. When I mention it to him as the first Hindi film I ever saw in a cinema in India, his face immediately lights up and the memories come flooding. “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron is another one of those films that has endured,” he says proudly, “Though none of us had the faintest notion it would be so memorable for people. We made it from our gut and our heart, in very difficult conditions. I didn’t find anything funny in it while we were shooting it. None of us were concerned with whether we ourselves were funny, rather we were concerned about pulling off all those zany scenes, which were conceived in such a way it seemed they could only be achieved in animation. That whole Draupadi theatre sequence was actually stolen from the Marx Bros’ A Night At The Opera! We were shooting on the streets of Bombay in summer in the scorching heat, trying to be funny. It was tough, sheer hell in fact. There were flare-ups and disagreements, I had many with Kundan, because I was at that time in my career when I was very interested in bringing logic and truth to my character, even if it was slapstick comedy. I think I nearly drove Kundan up the wall, poor fellow! He would put up with these rants of mine. One of the biggest quarrels we had was over that telephone scene; I was concerned about how I could possibly bring credibility to it, and he kept saying, ‘I don’t want credibility, I want the whole thing to be stupid!’ And of course it turned out to be one of the funniest scenes in the film. So it was pretty traumatic making it. But it all seems worth it. When people mention Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, I feel a warm glow in my heart. All the hell we went through shooting it, is forgotten.”
Naseeruddin Shah may have denied having a sense of nostalgia about his work at the beginning of our conversation, but the wide smile I leave him with after his reminisces about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron hint otherwise. Not that it matters really. As long as he keeps giving in to filmmakers with intriguing offers, despite his disgust with the business of movies, his legion of admirers will have plenty to look forward to in the times ahead, and the past can be another country.