The World Ac­cord­ing to Naseer

His soon-to-be-re­leased au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is el­e­gantly writ­ten – and also bru­tally hon­est. Naseerud­din Shah, ar­guably In­dia’s finest ac­tor, says...

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - by Poonam Sax­ena

On the eve of the re­lease of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, And Then One Day, Naseerud­din Shah opens up on his che­quered child­hood, his two mar­riages, the par­al­lel cin­ema move­ment and how the ‘method ac­tor’ man­tle was some­times hard to wear. Plus: ex­clu­sive ex­tracts from the sear­ingly hon­est, tell-all mem­oir

IT’S A CLOUDY, damp evening in Mumbai and Naseerud­din Shah’s Ban­dra home is suf­fused with a soft golden light. The mel­low set­ting seems just right for the 64-year-old ac­tor – long con­sid­ered to be the gold stan­dard in act­ing – to talk about his soon-to-be-re­leased au­to­biog

raphy, And Then One Day. There’s some­thing of a rash of film stars’ me­moirs th­ese days. But Naseer’s book is dif­fer­ent – rather like the man him­self. It is el­e­gantly writ­ten (no, there is no ghostwriter), but what re­ally makes it stand out is its sear­ing hon­esty.

“Why fan­ta­sise?” Naseer coun­ters in that fa­mous grav­elly voice, as he lounges on a sofa, drink­ing tea. “If I’m go­ing to paint my­self in heroic colours, I might as well write a novel.” Naseer says he be­gan writ­ing about his life for his own “amuse­ment.” He wrote in­ter­mit­tently over ten years and then gave the 100-odd pages he’d come up with to his friend, the his­to­rian Ra­machan­dra Guha, who urged him to fin­ish it.

And Then One Day spans Naseer’s life from his child­hood to his early film ca­reer, end­ing rather abruptly around the time of his mar­riage to ac­tress Ratna Pathak and the re­turn of his daugh­ter from his first mar­riage to In­dia. In be­tween are the cru­cial lifechang­ing years at Ali­garh Mus­lim Univer­sity (AMU), Delhi’s Na­tional School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Tele­vi­sion In­sti­tute at Pune (FTII). This rather bald sum­mary con­ceals tu­mul­tuous decades, the troughs of dis­ap­point­ment and re­gret bal­anced by the highs of bit­ter­sweet suc­cess and the dis­cov­ery of en­dur­ing love. It’s quite a jour­ney.

Naseer’s child­hood was spent in Ajmer, the Ra­jasthani town dom­i­nated by the mar­ble shrine of Kh­waja Moin­ud­din Chishti, where his fa­ther was the ad­min­is­tra­tor. Soon enough though, Naseer and his two older brothers, Zameer and Za­heer, were packed off to St Joseph’s in Naini­tal. In that cool and hilly set­ting, Naseer got his first taste of Hol­ly­wood films. The school would show English films ev­ery week and Naseer was swept away by the dash­ing Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper, by Charlie Chap­lin’s whimsy, Fred As­taire/ Ginger Rogers’ skill… Hindi films just couldn’t com­pete. “My tastes were shaped by the Wizard of

Oz and Tarzan rather than Dilip Kumar, whose films were ac­tu­ally the best Hindi films of the time,” re­calls Naseer. “I saw Uran Kha­tola, but I’d also seen Knights

of the Round Ta­ble. Where was the com­par­i­son? I saw Ben Hur. And then I saw Yahudi, which was an em­bar­rass­ment. Dilip Kumar looks like he’s in another film. Right man, wrong movie.”

The Hol­ly­wood films also trans­ported Naseer to a se­duc­tive world that he badly wanted to be part of rather than the real world where he was. He didn’t care for stud­ies un­less it was po­etry, lit­er­a­ture or drama. As he says with a grin, all he knew of ge­og­ra­phy was that the Earth was round. When told to mark the Thar desert on a map, he would draw faces. His­tory lessons were spent sketch­ing beards on pic­tures of Ak­bar. “Pre­tend­ing was the only thing that made sense to me,” he says. “I was dis­sat­is­fied with my­self as a child. I wasn’t happy in my own skin.”

At the heart of this brood­ing dis­con­tent­ment per­haps was his dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther. Aley Mo­hammed Shah, not un­usu­ally, hoped for his son to ‘do’ some­thing, to ‘be­come’ some­one. But Naseer’s way­ward­ness and poor per­for­mance in school only brought dis­ap­point­ment. At a time when, as Naseer says, wal­lop­ing your kids was con­sid­ered nor­mal, his fa­ther never lifted a fin­ger on him. But nei­ther did he try and ‘un­der­stand’ his child. This fraught re­la­tion­ship con­tin­ued all their life, with the fa­ther strug­gling to come to terms with his son’s fool­ish dream of be­com­ing an ac­tor. And Naseer strug­gling with his fa­ther’s stern dis­ap­proval, ter­ri­fied of him, but cer­tain that the “urge could not be si­lenced.”

“Now, with the pas­sage of time, now that I’m get­ting older and deal­ing with chil­dren my­self, I can un­der­stand how my fa­ther must have felt about the fact that I ig­nored him,” says Naseer. “He felt I was in­dif­fer­ent to him. But I had to put on that in­dif­fer­ence be­cause I thought he was in­dif­fer­ent.” Their re­la­tion­ship was fur­ther

I wanted to sing, to beat up the bad guys. But I was ter­ri­ble at it. I just couldn’t buy into that kind of syn­thetic drama I haven’t writ­ten about Smita Patil be­cause I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t find her a very in­ter­est­ing per­son

tested when Naseer went to study at AMU. In­stead of ap­ply­ing him­self to his stud­ies, 19-year-old Naseer plunged into the­atre – and an in­tense re­la­tion­ship with 34-yearold Purveen, a Pak­istani study­ing medicine in Ali­garh. Cheer­ful and loving, she was deeply sup­port­ive of his act­ing am­bi­tions.

They ended up get­ting mar­ried on the 1st of Novem­ber, 1969. But it did not – per­haps in­evitably – end well. Naseer was, in his words, “in­se­cure and ill-ad­justed.” He had got ad­mis­sion to NSD and left for Delhi. In Ali­garh, Purveen was al­ready preg­nant. Ten months after they got mar­ried, she gave birth to a baby girl, Heeba. This is the point in the book where you pause and catch your breath in some sur­prise. Be­cause Naseer, like a de­tached med­i­cal ex­am­iner con­duct­ing an au­topsy, un­spar­ingly chron­i­cles how he re­sented the ar­rival of the baby, was too ab­sorbed in his ex­cit­ing new life in NSD to bother about mar­riage and fa­ther­hood, and even­tu­ally stopped vis­it­ing, writ­ing to or phon­ing Purveen al­to­gether. Purveen soon left for London with her child, and it would be 12 years be­fore Naseer saw Heeba again. To­day, she is part of his fam­ily and his the­atre company.

“My story wouldn’t have been com­plete with­out this chap­ter of my life,” says Naseer. “Purveen was hugely en­cour­ag­ing and I owe her a great deal in de­ter­min­ing my di­rec­tion and find­ing my spot.” He has been equally can­did about other con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of his ca­reer too – such as be­ing almost al­ways stoned dur­ing var­i­ous phases of his life. “I’m not rec­om­mend­ing it or ad­vo­cat­ing it to any­one, but it was okay for me,” says Naseer. “It helped me be­come aware that I have a mind. I think I’d credit ganja with mak­ing me a lit­tle more in­tel­li­gent!”

Though this is not to say that he has kept no se­crets in his mem­oir. “I felt I didn’t have to tell the truth about every­body,” he says. “I had to safe­guard some peo­ple.” And so he doesn’t re­veal the name of the per­son he had a long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with, right from his NSD days. She merely goes by the moniker R – maybe be­cause the re­la­tion­ship ended and to­day, R is a hap­pily mar­ried woman.

It was when Naseer was re­cov­er­ing from his bro­ken re­la­tion­ship with R (soon after his film ca­reer took off with his first film Nis­hant) that he him­self found The One. He was stand­ing at a road­side sug­ar­cane juice stall in Mumbai with the­atre di­rec­tor Satyadev Dubey, dis­cussing Samb­hog Se Sanyas

Tak, a play Dubey was di­rect­ing, when Ratna Pathak, who was also act­ing in the play, turned up. It was a hot day and Naseer found it hard to take his eyes off the glow­ing, strik­ing-look­ing young woman in front of him. He even con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of spend­ing his life with her. As it turned out, he did. And if there’s one per­son in the book who is the ob­ject of his un­stinted love and ad­mi­ra­tion, it is Ratna.

Naseer’s film ca­reer, a bril­liant if com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory maze, be­gan

with Shyam Bene­gal’s Nis­hant, a film over­flow­ing with the cream of In­dian the­atre tal­ent, from Vi­jay Ten­dulkar to Mo­han Agashe. The movie pushed Naseer into the fore­front of the par­al­lel cin­ema move­ment, and he got a string of power

ful roles in films like Man­than, Bhu­mika, Sparsh, Aakrosh, Al­bert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai,

Bha­vani Bhavai and too many oth­ers to enu­mer­ate. Though his book has sketches of many of the peo­ple he worked with, he’s writ­ten next to noth­ing about Smita Patil. “I didn’t know her very well,” shrugs Naseer. “To be hon­est, I didn’t find her a very in­ter­est­ing per­son.”

He con­cedes that th­ese films gave him the op­por­tu­nity to play all kinds of roles, and gave him the rep­u­ta­tion he ac­quired. But the ex­pe­ri­ence was also dis­il­lu­sion­ing. Given their mi­nus­cule bud­gets, Naseer of­ten ended up work­ing for free or almost free. Even when the bud­get was bet­ter – as in the case of the Basu Bhat­tacharyapro­duced Sparsh – Naseer found he was not paid. If he thought he was some­how be­ing noble by not tak­ing money, all it took was a poignant con­ver­sa­tion with ac­tor Satish Shah to dis­abuse him of the no­tion. “Satish asked me, ‘you think you’re do­ing some­thing great? But what about peo­ple like me? How will we man­age?’” says Naseer. “That’s when it struck me

that I was be­ing taken for a ride. I re­alised that a lot of direc­tors were cash­ing in on me be­cause they couldn’t get another ac­tor for free. There were only a few ex­cep­tions – such as Shyam Bene­gal, who was al­ways very fair.”

What kept Naseer’s home fires burn­ing were the com­mer­cial films he did. Con­trary to popular per­cep­tion, he says he never dumped off-beat films to do com­mer­cial films or vice versa. “I was do­ing both along­side,” he ex­plains. It is also un­true, he points out, that he did not want to act in com­mer­cial films. “I wanted to sing, beat up the bad guys, fight,” he smiles. “But I was ter­ri­ble at it.” In his first com­mer­cial film, Su­naina, Naseer was any­thing but im­pres­sive. Nor was he in most of the other such films he did (any­one re­mem­ber Hero Hi

ralal?). “I couldn’t do it and not for want of try­ing,” he ad­mits. “The rea­son I wasn’t good in th­ese movies is be­cause I just couldn’t buy into the kind of syn­thetic drama they con­tained. I have no clue how Mr Bachchan or Dilip Kumar did it. The de­gree of ex­cel­lence th­ese two gen­tle­men have…they did the kind of act­ing one as­pired to but couldn’t do.”

But Naseer is aware – how could he not be? – that he was, in­deed is, re­garded as one of the great­est ac­tors in Hindi cin­ema. Tell him that and he doesn’t look en­tirely pleased. “I’ve never taken it se­ri­ously,” he says. “It’s nice… But it cre­ated prob­lems for me as far as my de­vel­op­ment was con­cerned. I couldn’t even bring my­self to sing a song prop­erly on screen! I didn’t rel­ish terms like ‘method ac­tor’ or ‘com­mit­ted ac­tor.’” Almost as a re­ac­tion, as ther­apy, he did films like Te­helka, where he dressed in drag. “I had to do it,” he in­sists. “I had to chuck this man­tle of se­ri­ous ac­tor.”

But it was too late. Naseer’s for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion had al­ready been ce­mented through his art films. There are worse things an ac­tor can be stuck with. But like we said, Naseer is dif­fer­ent. As a young man, he yearned for fame and recog­ni­tion. To­day, he’s not sure whether he likes it any­more. “If I’m not recog­nised, will I miss it or not? I don’t know,” he says.

As the golden evening light dark­ens, it’s time to leave. Not with­out giv­ing a mes­sage to Naseer how­ever: he should write part two of his mem­oir now. He smiles and says, “Well, as E Alkazi told us in NSD, keep your au­di­ence want­ing more.”

pho­tos by Satish Bate

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