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
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