The no-non­sense star on his Bol­ly­wood in­tol­er­ance and why he is never afraid to speak his mind.

An icon­o­clas­tic star who doesn’t suf­fer fools gladly, Naseerud­din Shah is also in­tol­er­ant of the ex­cesses of Bol­ly­wood. ‘Few things give me more joy than act­ing,’ he tells Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat

Friday - - Front Page -

Naseerud­din Shah’s rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes him, even in Dubai. When ra­dio DJ Tarana on Josh 97.8 FM’s The Break­fast Show pre­pares to in­ter­view him dur­ing his re­cent visit to the UAE to stage some of his plays along with his ac­tress wife, Ratna Pathak Shah, she is cir­cum­spect about the ques­tions. Not sur­pris­ing, be­cause he is known to be a nonon­sense very blunt in­ter­vie­wee.

Af­ter some in­nocu­ous starters, she voices the feel­ings of many peo­ple who’ve heard of or seen the out­spo­ken ac­tor: “Why do peo­ple fear you?’’

He replies with­out miss­ing a beat, and de­liv­ers with a snarl: “Be­cause I bite!”

For a sec­ond there’s si­lence as every­body as­sesses his tone. Af­ter al­low­ing them just enough time to feel the be­gin­nings of dis­com­fort, Naseerud­din’s face splits into a good­hu­moured grin.

“I sink my teeth into ev­ery per­son I meet, like I sink my teeth into ev­ery char­ac­ter I do!” he guf­faws.

The laugh­ter that punc­tu­ates this ex­change is ac­tu­ally an ex­plo­sion of relief from the small au­di­ence that’s been privy to this ex­change in the Gulf News ra­dio stu­dio.

That in essence is Naseerud­din – Naseer to his friends – an ac­tor who is not afraid to speak his mind and who en­joys ev­ery role he takes on, even that of in­ter­vie­wee.

An award-win­ning Bol­ly­wood star who has also had roles in Hol­ly­wood films, Naseer re­veals, “I haven’t had my break­fast and I’m dy­ing for a bite’’ – this time of food not a DJ – but agrees read­ily to the Fri­day in­ter­view.

So, why does every­body treat him with kid gloves?

“Per­haps be­cause I am a harsh critic, and I don’t tol­er­ate fools,” he says point­edly, but not with­out a rogu­ish charm. It is also ev­i­dent when Naseer is asked what made him stage his plays in Dubai – the sec­ond time in the past nine months. “I am not here to make the­atre pop­u­lar... mean­ing, I’m not here to cater to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.”

It’s ob­vi­ous that he’s mel­lowed with age. While he wouldn’t have both­ered to ex­plain his point of view a cou­ple of decades ago, now, at 63, he takes the trou­ble to con­vey his stance.

“It’s not that I don’t care for the au­di­ence. I care deeply for them. And if they par­tic­i­pate [and ap­pre­ci­ate the show] I am ex­tremely happy. If they don’t, then it means the play folds.”

While the­atre is his pas­sion, cin­ema and act­ing have been Naseer’s oxy­gen ever since he made his pres­ence felt with di­rec­tor Shyam Bene­gal’s 1975 film, Nis­hant (Night’s End, in Hindi).

Un­til then he had been work­ing in the­atre in Mum­bai. Post- Nis­hant, he was no­ticed by crit­ics and com­mer­cial film­mak­ers, and roles be­gan flood­ing his way. Man­than, (Churn) Bhu­mika (Plot) and Junoon

‘Awards are ut­terly mean­ing­less, in­clud­ing the In­dian Na­tional Awards and the Os­cars’

(Pas­sion) fol­lowed to great crit­i­cal ac­claim. “But my favourite is Ma­soom [In­no­cent],’’ he says. Al­though it was a run­away hit, Naseer rues the fact that Ma­soom’s di­rec­tor Shekhar Ka­pur “has not of­fered me another role”.

The other di­rec­tors he ad­mires are Malay­alam film­mak­ers Adoor Gopalakr­ish­nan and the late Aravin­dan. “They are the only di­rec­tors who kept their cin­e­matic com­mit­ments in­tact. Every­body else sold them­selves to Bol­ly­wood,” he says, shak­ing his head. Over the years, Naseer has made more than 100 films in Hindi as well as sev­eral re­gional lan­guages such as Malay­alam and Kan­nada.

He has also left his mark in Hol­ly­wood in Mon­soon Wed­ding and the 2003 film The League of Ex­tra­or­di­nary Gen­tle­men, a comic book adap­ta­tion co-star­ring Sean Con­nery where Naseer played the role of Cap­tain Nemo.

But al­though he has won nu­mer­ous awards – in­clud­ing three Na­tional Film Awards, 18 Film­fare Awards, and last year his sec­ond Pak­istani film Zinda Bhaag was se­lected as an of­fi­cial en­try from Pak­istan for the Os­cars in the cat­e­gory of Best For­eign Lan­guage Film – he does not think highly of such hon­ours.

“Awards are ut­terly mean­ing­less, ev­ery sin­gle one of them, in­clud­ing the In­dian Na­tional Awards, the Os­cars and the No­bel Prize!” he says.

He doesn’t take se­ri­ously even the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, civil­ian awards be­stowed on him by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia for his con­tri­bu­tion to In­dian cin­ema.

“At best it makes me very happy if you keep men­tion­ing it!” he laughs.

What makes him re­ally happy is act­ing and the act­ing fra­ter­nity.

Asked to talk about the late ac­tor Fa­rooque Shaikh, his friend and col­league who died re­cently fol­low­ing a heart at­tack while in Dubai to per­form in a play, he gri­maces and tries to brush off the ques­tion.

Then very re­luc­tantly he says, “His pass­ing is a very sober­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and it makes us all ex­am­ine our own life­styles and have a stronger re­solve

to take care of our­selves. It also brings up the is­sue that an ac­tor like Fa­rooque was not given the kind of op­por­tu­ni­ties he should have been. It is true of so many ac­tors in In­dia.

“We are so fix­ated on stereo­types that any­body who falls out of that bracket finds it dif­fi­cult to find work. It’s a great loss.”

In Fa­rooque’s case, many com­mer­cial moviemak­ers hes­i­tated to ap­proach him be­cause he did not have the stereo­typ­i­cal looks of ei­ther a dark brood­ing hero such as Amitabh Bachchan or that of a heart-throb like Aamir Khan. How­ever, the award­win­ning ac­tor made a name for him­self in art films and in the­atre.

Naseer does not mince his words, say­ing act­ing in films doesn’t ex­cite him very much, though he keeps get­ting of­fers ev­ery day. “The num­ber of films I’ve re­fused is 10 times the num­ber I’ve done,” he shrugs.

Al­though he’s acted in scores of Bol­ly­wood films (ex­tremely well ap­pre­ci­ated art films as well as the crassly com­mer­cial kind), Naseer claims to have still not got the hang of act­ing in larger-than-life roles so com­mon in pop Bol­ly­wood films.

“Af­ter all the films I’ve done, I still am not com­fort­able with com­mer­cial cin­ema,” he says.

“The first com­mer­cial film I did was Su­naina [Beau­ti­ful Eyes] by Ra­jshri Pro­duc­tions and I was thrilled that I was be­ing of­fered the hero’s role. Thus far the movies I’d done had a niche au­di­ence [be­ing art house films], and I thought here was my chance. But it was an ut­ter dis­as­ter, I just could not com­pre­hend what was needed from me.

“I was to­tally at sea try­ing to be real in a film that was scream­ing out false­ness. The set­tings were false, sit­u­a­tions were false, the char­ac­ters, the di­a­logue... even the glass I was hold­ing in my hand in a scene was false! And there I was, pa­thet­i­cally try­ing to be real and cred­i­ble in a film like that. The film was a com­plete fail­ure.

“Of course, over the years I did a num­ber of th­ese films and I have to ad­mit I was never com­fort­able.

‘There I was, pa­thet­i­cally try­ing to be real in a film like that. The film was a com­plete fail­ure’

I have never quite got the hang of the kind of nar­cis­sis­tic panache that’s re­quired for pop­u­lar Bol­ly­wood movies. I am not sure whether that’s a loss or a gain for me.

“It’s taken me quite a few years to un­der­stand that when you act in th­ese movies the ref­er­ence must not be to real life. It has to be to other com­mer­cial movies. I hadn’t seen enough com­mer­cial Hindi movies and I de­tested most of the Hindi movies I saw; they all seemed very silly. My opin­ion hasn’t changed much since then.’’

That said, Naseer has come in for praise for his role in the award­win­ning hit movie The Dirty Pic­ture where he co-starred with Bol­ly­wood star Vidya Balan.

His method of choos­ing a film is in­stinc­tual. “I don’t in­sist that a first-time film­maker has to have a com­plete script to in­ter­est me,” he says. “But he must have a clear idea of what he wants to do. Hav­ing a com­pleted script is no guar­an­tee of mak­ing a good movie.

“For Ma­soom [based on Erich Se­gal’s novel Man­Woman and Child], which is one of my favourite films and one of the best I’ve done, there was no script. And I hadn’t read Erich’s novel in de­tail be­cause I found it too silly.

“But I thought the idea, the plot, was very in­ter­est­ing and so I went into it with the in­ten­tion of hav­ing some fun.

“Shekhar Ka­pur [the di­rec­tor] is a nice guy and I en­joy his com­pany. I never thought

Ma­soom would be still in cir­cu­la­tion 35 years later and am pleas­antly sur­prised that even to­day peo­ple watch the film.’’

He is con­vinced that the plot of the film and the treat­ment are what set it apart. “That’s why I shrink from tak­ing full credit for my suc­cesses and full re­spon­si­bil­ity for my fail­ures.”

Al­though he is one of the top-rated ac­tors in Bol­ly­wood to­day, Naseer does not think twice about the length of his role when sign­ing up for a film.

“When I do a role, I look at the en­tirety of the film be­cause I feel the com­plete work is more im­por­tant than my own per­for­mance. “For in­stance, my part in Khuda Ke Liye [In the Name of God] or Zinda Bhaag [Stay Alive], both of which I did in Pak­istan, were im­por­tant; or in

Zindagi naMi­legi Do­bara [Life Will Not Give You a Sec­ond Chance] where I did a one-scene role, what re­ally moved me was that scene. I felt that it was a cru­cial scene in the film be­cause it was a turn­ing point for one of the lead char­ac­ters.”

He ad­mits that it takes a lot to get him to do a com­mer­cial film th­ese days. “Some­times when I am sought out by the pop­u­lar film­mak­ers I just dis­ap­pear, but I am al­ways ac­ces­si­ble to a new­comer. I get ap­proached

‘Shakespeare’s plots are re­ally thin, very pre­dictable… and have been done to death’

a lot, to the point of ex­as­per­a­tion some­times, at places like Prithvi The­atre in Mum­bai when I go to per­form there and I never brush them off, or snub them. I al­ways make it a point to talk to them, be­cause I know what they are go­ing through.”

And as for plays, he’d clearly rather por­tray a con­tem­po­rary sub­ject than, say, Shakespeare. “It’s dif­fi­cult to find ac­tors who can speak Shakespeare prop­erly,’’ says Naseer. “And in Shakespeare, speech is ev­ery­thing. Un­less the verse is spo­ken beau­ti­fully, it’s point­less do­ing it.

“Also, Shakespeare’s plots are re­ally thin, very pre­dictable, strain cred­i­bil­ity, and have been done to death… The Lion King is Ham­let, you know?”

He also had an ex­pe­ri­ence while stag­ing Shakespeare that has put him off the Bard for good. “I once did

Julius Cae­sar in Mum­bai, and I am­bi­tiously tried to turn the so­lil­o­quies into con­ver­sa­tions re­tain­ing Shakespeare’s words.’’

Will­ing to ex­per­i­ment, he also changed the end. “A bunch of school teach­ers who turned up for a show were out­raged and said what I had done – chang­ing Shakespeare – was blas­phe­mous.”

His voice takes on a Shake­spearean ac­tor’s sonorous tone when he says that line. “So I asked, ‘Are you go­ing to hang me next?’ I re­alised how deeply we wor­ship Shakespeare in In­dia. More than they do in Eng­land!”

Another rea­son he re­fuses to touch any Shakespeare play is be­cause, “Hindi cin­ema has bor­rowed so heav­ily from Shakespeare that if you do a Shakespeare play to­day it will look like a Hindi film.

“There isn’t a cliché in Hindi cin­ema that’s not bor­rowed from Shakespeare!” But for all his crit­i­cism of Bol­ly­wood movies, Naseer does not pan its ac­tors. “A num­ber of to­day’s ac­tors are truly world class.”

He rates Bol­ly­wood star Om Puri, who has acted in sev­eral ac­claimed Hindi, re­gional and Hol­ly­wood films, highly. “Om has proved his cre­den­tials by act­ing in a whole lot of English movies as well. Then there’s [ac­tors] Bo­man Irani, Ar­shad Warsi, Ir­rfan Khan, Nawazud­din Sid­diqui, Kay Kay Menon, Manoj Bajpai, Vi­jay Raaz… I think th­ese young men have a grasp of their craft. They do not be­lieve that act­ing is a gift. Any­way, in my opin­ion, that’s non­sense. Act­ing is a craft like car­pen­try or pot­tery for which you have to train your­self.”

Though Naseer di­rected a film in 2006, Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (What If…), which he con­sid­ers a ‘mis­guided ef­fort’ though it re­ceived favourable re­views, he’s not sure if he wants to do one more. “The prob­lem is I find writ­ing fic­tion dif­fi­cult,” he says. “I haven’t at­tempted writ­ing fic­tion, ex­cept for the rewrit­ing I did on the script of my first film. I think writ­ing is a very dif­fi­cult job.”

So, what is act­ing, ac­cord­ing to this great thes­pian? “Act­ing is con­nect­ing with the au­di­ence,” he says suc­cinctly. “Oh, there’s no mis­tak­ing that sen­sa­tion! Which is why I love the­atre so much more. There are those mo­ments on stage and I wish those mo­ments could be en­larged. And if they oc­cur through the play it would be a truly great play.

“While per­form­ing, at times I’ve felt com­plete union with the au­di­ence, this feel­ing I can fly right now… I can’t de­fine it any bet­ter than that. I think it is the mo­ment where the au­di­ence and you are on the ex­act wave­length, when the feel­ing in the au­di­ence’s heart is the same as the look on the ac­tor’s face.

“In the­atre, there is no mis­tak­ing such mo­ments be­cause you hear the deaf­en­ing si­lence at times, which is the most wel­come sound to me as an ac­tor on stage. And as ac­tors it is our life’s mis­sion to go on search­ing for th­ese elu­sive mo­ments. I don’t think such mo­ments will ever oc­cur in such a way as to last for two hours, the en­tire du­ra­tion of the play. Which is why you do lose the au­di­ence in the the­atre ev­ery now and then. I don’t care much for ap­plause, peo­ple ap­plaud even sec­ond-rate things.”

Con­sid­er­ing his tem­per and pol­icy of not suf­fer­ing fools gladly, how does he deal with the in­evitable mo­bile phone ring­ing in the the­atre mid­per­for­mance? “Sure, I get bugged by mo­bile phones go­ing off but that is some­thing the­atre ac­tors will have to live with,” he says re­signedly.

Then he perks up while nar­rat­ing a funny in­ci­dent. “The best way to re­act to a phone ring­ing mid-per­for­mance was what my wife, Ratna, did while she was per­form­ing in Is­mat Aapa Ke

Naam [In praise of Is­mat]. The phone rang and she stopped in her tracks and told the erring mem­ber of the au­di­ence, ‘Please an­swer the phone, we will all wait for you to fin­ish!’

“How­ever, my favourite is a com­ment by [per­cus­sion mae­stro] Zakir Hus­sain who was per­form­ing at Prithvi The­atre in Mum­bai. When a spec­ta­tor’s phone rang, he con­tin­ued play­ing and quipped, ‘If it’s for me please tell them I am busy!’ And now I al­ways bor­row that when a phone rings when I am per­form­ing.”

Al­though Bol­ly­wood di­rec­tors may con­sider him fickle for his see-saw­ing at­ti­tude to­wards their films, the fact is that Naseer has been as stead­fastly loyal to films as he has been to his fam­ily.

He’s known Ratna Pathak Shah for nearly 40 years and they have two chil­dren, Imaad and Vi­vaan, who are ac­tors. An ac­tor-daugh­ter, Heeba, from his first mar­riage to the late Ma­nara Sikri, is also part of his the­atre group, Mot­ley.

“Yeah, we are quite close, though there have been mo­ments when we wanted to kill the other!” he says.

He re­veals how he first met Ratna. “It hap­pened in 1975 when I was a strug­gling ac­tor, and went to meet Satyadev Dubey, the doyen of the the­atre scene in Mum­bai, look­ing for work,” he says. “As I was chat­ting to him, a pretty young girl came and handed me a note, and said, ‘This note is from ac­tor Amol Palekar [a pop­u­lar In­dian ac­tor]. That girl turned out to be Ratna! See how the universe con­spires?”

Naseer with co-stars and the crew at the pre­miere of The Dirty Pic­ture in Mum­bai

Seen here on stage in Dubai, the­atre is Naseer’s pas­sion

Naseer and Ratna met at the stage door nearly

40 years ago

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