‘HOLLYWOOD IS THE ULTIMATE DREAM DESTINATION’
Ahead of his next film’s screening at a film festival, Naseeruddin Shah talks about life and his career
After four decades in the industry, one would expect Naseeruddin Shah to be a professional at tackling all kinds of questions thrown at him. But he manages to surprise you each time with his earnest answers, which he admits might sometimes ‘land him in trouble’. Yet, he has always called a spade a spade and continues to do so. In an interview with HT Café, the actor talks about his long career, his next project Hungry (an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), the trend of remakes, and why Indian actors going to Hollywood makes sense. Excerpts:
An adaptation of a play by Shakespeare isn’t a new concept for Bollywood. What was it about this play that appealed to you?
These were new people who were trying to make their first movie against great odds, and that affected me. I know what it is like to struggle and the humiliation you have to go through to raise money. Even when I was in the position that I was, when I was trying to make a movie, I had to face quite a lot of mortification when I went asking for money. The director (of Hungry) Bornila Chatterjee and executive producer Tanaji Dasgupta came to meet me and I just liked them. It was an adaptation of the Bard’s first play, so I immediately pulled the play out and read it, because I hadn’t read it. I don’t think anyone has read it. It’s far from being his greatest play, but it’s very shocking and makes for great drama. What do you think about books being made into films? They just never work. They don’t work for the people who’ve read the book, because they expect the same experience. That is why the works of truly great writers like Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess have never been filmed, because the exquisite quality of their prose cannot be translated to cinema.
Is that your opinion of remakes as well? You recently said that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) should not be touched.
Why would anybody in his right mind want to remake something that has already been done? For example, take Mughal-E-Azam (1960). For God’s sake! You think you can better that effort? I don’t think so. Some idiot wants to remake Masoom (1983). Why? In this day and age, a child with Facebook, email and WhatsApp still can’t find his father? Hindi movies are being remade by the score, because they’re too lazy to think about fresh ideas. What was Deewar (1975)? The remake of Ganga Jumna (1961), set in the city. What was Shaan (1980)? A remake of Sholay (1975), set in the city. They had the same premise, the same story and the same character scheme. They just didn’t call it a remake then. Now they’re calling it remakes.
A lot of Bollywood actors are actively pursuing a career in the West...
I don’t blame them. It’s international stardom. Like Pakistani actors are dying to come here, Indian actors are dying to go there; it’s the ultimate dream destination. I dreamt of it, which is why I was dying to play Gandhi. It was because I wanted international stardom. I never got it. It’s fine. I got my due elsewhere. If I had got the role of Gandhi, what would have become of Ben Kingsley? (laughs) Everyone gets their share.
Why would anybody in his right mind want to remake something that has already been done? Hindi movies are being remade, as they’re too lazy to think about fresh ideas. NASEERUDDIN SHAH, ACTOR >> I DON’T CONSIDER ACTING AS A CONTEST: NASEERUDDIN SHAH>
After so many years of working in the industry, is money an incentive to take up a project?
It’s instinct that sometimes leads you to good choices and sometimes to really ghastly choices. Money is definitely an incentive. Especially when I know that the guy who is making it has lots of it (laughs). But I am yet to meet a film-maker who has money. It is only broke people who make films.
Do you think filmmakers may sometimes be afraid to approach you considering the kind of weight your name carries?
I haven’t really sensed that from film-makers, but I do feel it from other actors. This is such a stupid thing, to be honest, because, I don’t consider acting to be a contest. Unfortunately, that attitude is propagated by our industry and by too many of our directors. “These two actors are pitted against each other” or “this actor dominated over the other” — all such nonsensical ways to describe a role. It is harmful, in my opinion. But that isn’t the case with film-makers, because, by now, the only ones who come to me are those who feel that I would be right for their movies. They know my track record and reputation and what they’re in for. I am kind of a schizophrenic in the sense that there are some filmmakers who would describe me as the most difficult actor they’ve worked with and there are others who would say the absolute opposite. It was my mistake to choose the kind of movies in which I was unhappy and where I made a nuisance of myself.
Is it difficult to turn down a project?
Not at all. If I don’t feel like doing a role, I have no compulsion whatsoever. I detest narrations and I never listen to them. I can’t bear that sh**. I always insist on a script, and within 10 pages, I can tell if I want to read further or not.
Are you happy with the final outcome of your films?
As an actor, one has to be if you want to keep growing. Others’ opinions are all good and it’s very easy to praise, so I don’t listen very carefully to it. My own opinion matters the most.