‘Let’s hope that in India we can find a way to subvert’

In Hope Aur Hum, actor Naseeruddin Shah plays a grandfather, who is attached to his old photocopy machine. Here, he talks about his new film, freedom of expression and ban on Pakistani artists.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Updated: May 10, 2018 12:05:45 am
naseeruddin shah, indian movies, indian films, hope aur hum, naseeruddin shah interview, indian express, talk page, pakistan actors, hindi cinema In Hope Aur Hum, Naseeruddin plays a grandfather, who is attached to his old photocopy machine (Vasant Prabhu)

You will be seen as a grandfather in this week’s release, Hope Aur Hum. 

It’s a sweet little movie about how everything has its time. I play a grandfather, who is attached to a big old photocopy machine. The old man wants to repair it while the son wants to buy a new one. I love old things too. I found the story charming — it’s the transition of generations. There are children in the main roles. I always enjoy working with them.

In the recent Marathi movie, Nude, you play a painter, modelled on MF Husain. Tell us about your association with him.
I played Leonardo da Vinci in Husain saab’s movie, Gaja Gamini (2000). I could not understand anything when he narrated the film to me. But I decided to go along. I asked Madhuri Dixit, who was playing the main part, if she could explain the film to me. She said, ‘Don’t ask me’. Shabana Azmi was in it too. We were all there for his sake. While shooting for it, I realised he had so many images in his head, which he wanted to make tangible. The movie did not have a story, but he created superb images and captured them with the help of cinematographer Ashok Mehta. The funniest meeting was when he came home to take my measurements. He pulled out a measuring tape from his pocket, and asked Ratna (Pathak Shah) to write down the details. I wish we had taken a photograph of that, a historic moment.

Your character in Nude makes a strong statement about freedom of expression.
Somewhere, obliquely, this film is about freedom of artists. Ravi Jadhav (director of Nude), by making the character barefoot, has made it clear that it is Husain. Ravi wanted to widen the scope of this comment. It could have been any kind of artist, writer or poet.

The protests against Husain, one wonders, how much it had to do with the fact that he was a Muslim. He was not a practising or a devout Muslim. Obviously, the protests were either politically motivated or triggered by the passion that was being ignited at that time. That passion has caught fire now. Watch your step; watch what you write; watch what you paint. Then it became, watch what you eat. Soon, it will be watch what you wear.

Your character makes a strong statement with the dialogue: “When I painted horses no one said anything. When I painted pigeons no one said anything.”
Humans are the only ones who are the custodians of other people’s morals. What does an artist, wishing to make a political statement, do today? Everything has to be oblique — I suppose that’s the way to get away with it. The way RK Laxman was during the Emergency, when he produced a cartoon every single day. If we have reached that stage, the protests have to be little oblique, I suppose.

Let’s hope that in India we can find a way to subvert. The whole thing about marginalisation — if it’s happening though I have never experienced it — is that it’s the marginalisation of anything subversive, whatever is subversive according to them.

You’ve said you’ve never experienced marginalisation for being a Muslim.
I’m a UPwallah (from Uttar Pradesh) and I’m born in a Muslim family. But I never flaunted it nor have I found that it has ever come in my way. Look at cricketers like Hashim Amla and Moeen Ali, who play for South Africa and England respectively, who have a beard. Initially, I thought why do they have to make this kind of a statement but that’s their belief, unlike mine. If you wear a marker of your identity, it should be respected. I have never felt the need to do that.

Do you think the film industry is more inclusive, considering that we have three Khans on top for decades now?
I was never turned down because I was a Muslim. I was turned down because I was not right for the part. Yet, at the
same time, this display of your identity has become more and more common.That’s very frightening. The contribution of Muslims to the film industry has been immense. Not only do we have the three Khans, there have been Dilip Kumar and Mohammad Rafi before this, and actors, poets, writers and music composers. As part of rewriting history, you might obliterate Rafi or K Asif or AR Kardar.

Hindi cinema has only one religion and that’s money. So saffronisation will be mild for the industry. Whatever is the best way of making money, they would go for that irrespective of the person’s faith. However, you can’t deny that the film industry has talked about progressive ideas.

You found banning of Pakistani artists in Hindi cinema hypocritical.
Banning of Pakistani artists is a convenient thing. There has been no retaliatory move by Pakistanis; they still welcome India artists there. It’s just that a big producer threatens to sack a Pakistani artist and makes a sweeping statement, that he will never work with Pakistani artists, when he has worked with them several times. And he will work with them again when the time is right. This hypocrisy makes me angry. We will ban them to make a nationalist statement but we will take advantage of them when we can.

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