He was confident he would make a fantastic actor. She grew up looking down on the art form. Today, Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah are one of the most talented actor couples, with three decades of experience in cinema, television and theatre. On the evening of August 11, at the Express Adda, hosted at Olive Bar & Kitchen, Bandra, the couple, along with their two sons, Imaad and Vivaan, and Heeba, Naseeruddin’s daughter from his first marriage, spoke about their journeys, the state of the film industry and the FTII controversy.
Moderated by Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor of The Indian Express, the session began by Naseeruddin dismissing the belief that the current indie wave in cinema is a “paradigm shift”. As an actor who has been at the forefront of India’s indie cinema scene ever since it emerged in the 1970s, he said, “The percentage of filmmakers trying to make that kind of cinema remains the same. The films only look slicker and the marketing has become smarter.” Ratna added that Indian cinema continues to be influenced by Hindu epics, except that storytelling has changed due to the influence of the West.
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That talent often flows through genes is reaffirmed by the Shah family. Heeba is actively involved with her parents’ theatre group Motley, and they produce, direct and act in plays, only occasionally stepping out to experiment with television and indie films. Imaad is also a musician and one half of the successful act Mad Boy/ Mink. Vivaan, over the last few years, has acted in films such as Happy New Year and Bombay Velvet.
The youngest of the three siblings, Vivaan said Bollywood wasn’t on his radar while growing up. “At school, my friends would tell me I didn’t need to study because I was sure to pursue a career in acting… That, as a child to actor parents, it was expected that I would follow their lead would upset me,” he said.
Saying he was unimpressed with the quality of films made in Bollywood, Naseeruddin admitted that he’s been part of several such movies. “Zinda Jala Doonga, Mujhe Meri Biwi Se Bachao, Dil Aakhir Dil Hai, Pyaara Dost,” he said, laughing. He added that he did these films and danced on the screen in the hope of becoming a popular hero.
At this point, Vivaan interjected his father, telling the audience that he undermines his work in commercial cinema. “He was the first to build body, he’s done some great action. If you watch some of those films on YouTube, he kicks a** more than any other commercial hero,” said Vivaan.
The audience, which included noted sports journalist Ayaz Memon, actor Amrita Puri, filmmaker Onir and Mumbai’s former commissioner of police Julio Riberio, asked the Shahs about their favourite films and the values the children have imbibed from their parents.
Asked about the ongoing protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, Naseeruddin, an FTII alumnus, said if he was a student at the institute today, he would have been swept up by the students’ passion too. “It’s not without a cause. It’s extremely noisome that a person who instigated an attack on those students is now a member of the governing council, who was responsible for sending those children to the hospital,” he said, referring to Dr Narendra Pathak, who was the president of ABVP’s Maharashtra wing, which allegedly attacked FTII students in 2013 over a film screening and cultural programme by Kabir Kala Manch.
He, however, added that he wished the students had more clarity about their demands. “The whole issue isn’t about Gajendra Chauhan; everybody knows he’s been scraped from the very bottom of the barrel. But what’s gone wrong here is that students haven’t stated their demands clearly enough and in the past have had too many agitations on meaningless issues,” he said.
Ratna said FTII has been systematically broken down, “like all other educational institutions in the country”.
“It’s not a coincidence. There has been no acting teacher there for long. The ones who have worked there as acting teachers, on what grounds were they appointed?” she said.
The family also spoke about their shared passion for films, especially the ones they have watched together over the years, such as the 1954 classic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Talking about his passion for theatre, which often seems to outweigh his love for cinema, Naseeruddin told the audience, “During the phase when I did those terrible films, it’s theatre that kept me going.”