We are at actor Naseeruddin Shah’s office for this interview and surprisingly, the accouterments essential to a star are nowhere in sight. Most often, the announcement of a film celebrity’s arrival is made with a series of silent gestures – an assistant stepping in to place a lighter or a bottle of water or some such. Shah, however, steps in quietly sans the expected shenanigans. It’s not for nothing that one of the most powerful actors of Indian cinema has a reputation for marching to his own beat.
Presently, he is in the midst of hectic rehearsals for his upcoming play The Father, by playwright Florian Zeller. The play is about an old man with dementia and his daughter who takes care of him. In present times, when spectacle is popular form even in the theatre, a play as spartan as The Father is a surprising choice. But then Shah has always been something of a poster boy for what is known as high-concept content.
“The stuff that is done on Broadway is hardly theatre. It is part magic show, part rock concert, and part conjuring things. In India, we are not equipped to do that kind of theatre and I am glad that experiments like Mughal-e-Azam are few and far between. But the audiences love it and they are flocking to it because it makes them feel they are watching Broadway. I don’t do that kind of theatre. I don’t think that is what true theatre is about. I don’t say that I don’t enjoy watching these plays, but I prefer theatre, which doesn’t depend on the machinery and magic. To me, the most important elements in a theatre are the actors and the texts. The magic of theatre is how much can you stimulate the mind of the audience, not how many illusions you can create. That’s the kind of theatre I believe in. The Father, which we are doing (from 1st September to 30th September) every night at NCPA is an attempt at that. If I had discovered the play (The Father ) 10 years ago, I would not have touched it. I don’t think I would have been able to understand it at that stage. Today, I can, because my body reminds me of it now and then. I go out of my home and I go to my car and I forget where I was going,” he says with a smile.
Quite evidently excited about his play despite its grueling schedule, the actor says that the universe must have conspired for it to be so to allow him to give theatre his undivided attention.
“I enjoy the work of acting. I love movies as much as I love the theatre. I can’t say I am basically a theatre person because I did my first movie and my first play in the first year. When I dreamt of being an actor, I dreamt of being a film star like everybody else. But also, I have to admit that now I am enjoying theatre more than I enjoy working in movies. I am also pretty dissatisfied with the quality of the movies we make by and large. I am getting interesting offers, but they are few and far between, which is fine with me because then I can give that time to theatre. When my bank balance runs low then I sign a big Bollywood monstrous movie and I make sure that I am safe for the next few years,” he chuckles.
His relationship with films began rather innocently – despite his father being rather strict, watching movies was an indulgence that was allowed. Ever since the age of three, he grew up watching English films starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Spencer Tracy. That he went to a school—St Joseph’s College, Nainital that screened English films every week, only helped.
Among Indian actors, although Dara Singh and Shammi Kapoor films were undisputed favourites, it was Dilip Kumar who impressed Shah the most with his craft.
“I have to admit that nobody who has been in the Hindi movies cannot have been a fan of Dilip Kumar because he was distinct from the rest. Dilip Kumar realised the importance of economy of movement, economy of expression, economy of speech and he had wonderful diction. He had an emotional truth that set him apart from the rest. The others were entertainers in their own right but they didn’t have that quality,” he says of the veteran actor.
His own inspiration to turn actor, however, came from watching Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, which helped him understand that actors need not look like the Gods. “I did not understand the distinction between an actor and being a film-star until I saw Spencer Tracy who was both. So it was all about trying to be both if I could.”
When he performed on stage at the age of 14, he felt so stimulated and alive that he became certain that this was something he would like to do.
He explains that he was drawn to it because “I really wanted to express myself because I was an introvert child. I had few friends. I didn’t get on well with my parents. I was always doing wrong things according to them.”
Aware that his parents would not take kindly to his ambition, he decided to take matters in his own hands and chart his future—Shah made his way to Mumbai (then Bombay) all by himself at the age of 16. Luckily for Shah, he had a friend who supported him for a while and he even landed some work in films like Aman starring Rajendra Kumar, Saira Banu, Balraj Sahni, and Chetan Anand. “It was one helluva star cast,” recalls Shah, adding an unexpected name to the list – Lord Bertrand Russell! He also featured in Sapnon Ka Saudagar, which marked Hema Malini’s debut. However, his luck soon ran out. No work was coming his way as he was too old to play a child and too young to play an adult role. The filmi escapade, even though it ended soon did give him some significant insights into what life in the show business was going to be like.
“It taught me that it is going to be very hard to achieve. I was a 16-year-old who was just looking at this world and thinking maybe I have made a very big mistake, but I know I want to be here. I never felt insecure or alone in Mumbai. The city never awed me. I took to it like a duck to water. What it taught me was that I had better be well prepared. I went back home when everything was looking very bleak but I am glad I had that experience,” he says of the episode.
Years later, his second coming, was marked with bravura performances in both parallel and commercial cinema, besides the new-age independent cinema in India. Shah blazed a trail with films like Nishant, Manthan, Mirch Masala, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Masoom, Monsoon Wedding, A Wednesday among others, earning himself the title of a thespian, something that was not ever expected when he began his career. For in those days, acting as a career choice was frowned upon, especially by the middle-class.
“The stigma has gone because people have realized that it is a perfectly valid career choice and it can be respectable profession too. My dad would have been very proud of what I have achieved. That I have gone to Rashtrapati Bhawan and shaken hands with the President and so on. He never thought that I would end up having the kind of regard that I am lucky to enjoy. For him, acting was a thing done by a wastrel. I don’t know whether that attitude has changed but I still get a lot of parents who come up to me and say ‘Mere beta padhta nai hai, usko actor bana do.’ Any youngster who comes to me and say he wants to act, I tell them, ‘You got to complete your education first.’ Because for too long, uneducated actors have ruled the roost in the acting world. We need educated people. We need people who are aware of their craft and their responsibilities to the craft.”
Coming from an actor with a career spanning almost 40 years and someone who has performed roles that have left a significant impact on the art of acting in India, these are wise words indeed.
Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior journalist, author, and digital media specialist.