Naseeruddin Shah: I’m hardly an example worth emulating

Naseeruddin Shah on his love for theatre, stimulating audiences’ minds, and the joy of mentoring young actors.

Written by Priyanka Sinha Jha | Updated: September 12, 2018 6:51:27 am
Naseeruddin Shah’s next play is The Father. (FIle)

How do you like to think of yourself — as a star or an actor?

This was the question that I grappled with when I was very young and decided that I wanted to act for a living. One of my older brothers wanted to join the army, and the other wanted to be an engineer. When I was 14 and went on the stage for the first time, it stimulated me so much that I was convinced that I didn’t want to do anything else. My dad wouldn’t hear of it. I really wanted to express myself because I was an introvert. There was also the temptation — seeing photographs of actors at parties and driving limousines. However, I knew that I’m not the matinee idol type of guy. When I saw Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, I realised the distinction between being an actor and a film star. He was both, and I too resolved to try and be both.

You mention your struggle of being accepted as an actor. Have things changed for the better now?

Acting is no longer a taboo. The stigma has gone because people have realised that it’s a perfectly valid career choice. My dad would have been very proud of what I’ve achieved, very proud that I’ve gone to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and shook hands with the President. I still get a lot of parents who say, ‘Mera beta padhta nahi hai, isko actor bana do’. Any youngster who comes to me and says he wants to act, I tell him to complete his education first, because for too long uneducated actors have ruled the roost in the acting world. We need educated people who are aware of their craft and their responsibility to the craft.

What would you say about theatre in India?

Theatre in India encountered a very unfortunate happening. When movies became talkies, the Europeans, Parsis and Maharashtrians were all sidelined. Movies were in Urdu or chaste Hindi and required actors with good voices and good speech — cinema sucked all the talent out of theatre. Not just actors, but also writers, poets, musicians, choreographers, set designers and dancers. That’s why early movies are what they are, they look like film versions of plays. Till today we’re making movies that conform to either old Parsi theatre or Urdu theatre or Shakespeare. Every cliché of Hindi cinema is from Shakespeare, whether it is a man dressing as a woman or woman dressing as a man, or twin brothers who have mistaking identity or rich family, poor girl or warring families. I don’t know what Hindi cinema would be without Shakespeare.

Is it still too derivative?

Sholay was derived from Sergio Leone. It was not copied, but a tribute. Either we have writers who are trying to ape Samuel Beckett or Eugène Ionesco, or we have writers who write esoteric stuff that nobody understands or is adapted from the West. The encouraging thing, however, is that there are several young people, particularly in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai, who are writing original plays in the living language, which is not the pure language of English, Hindi, Urdu or Marathi, but a khichdi of languages spoken in the cities. They are writing about matters that concern them and are socially aware.

Tell us a bit about your upcoming play, The Father.

I am often asked why don’t we have an equivalent of Broadway in India and my answer is that we already have Hindi cinema, so we don’t need Broadway. Stuff that is done on Broadway is hardly theatre, and caters mainly to tourists. To me, the most important elements of theatre are actors and the text. The magic of theatre is in how much can you stimulate the audiences’ mind, not how many illusions you can create. The Father is an attempt at that. We’re not using a single prop, and have all imaginary props. The play is about a character who is in the last stages of dementia and has hallucinations. The audience too, after a point, begin to hallucinate. It is great fun. It is an emotionally draining play for everybody, not just me.

You have played a father in several movies, including Masoom and Zindagi na Milegi Dobara. The roles haven’t been of an ideal father. Does the subject of fatherhood interest you?

I don’t feel any different from what I felt when I was 20. I don’t feel 69, but I can understand what it’s like. My dad died when he was 70, he hardly ever lived. There is a lot in my life that I still look forward to but the thought of mortality keeps occurring. I’m trying to learn new things even at this age. I’ve been learning to read and write Urdu. I’m beginning to read poetry and want to learn carpentry and pottery. But the body doesn’t keep up with your brain any longer and that’s a reminder. If I had discovered a play like The Father 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have touched it I think. I don’t think I would have been able to understand and empathise with this person.

Where do you stand on the nepotism debate?

Why is the film industry accused of nepotism only? In every profession, the father wants the son to follow in his footsteps. The problem is that the film industry is the envy of too many people. What about the industrialists, politicians, everybody hands it over to their children.

In your book (And Then One Day: A Memoir) you’ve mentioned that you’ve experimented with drugs and sex. Did you get any flak for it?

I don’t think anybody in the film industry reads books, so I don’t think anybody read my book in the industry, except Aamir, who I believe has read it, because we chatted about it. Everybody else who I’ve met is very appreciative that I feel no embarrassment. What is there to be ashamed about? I’ve admitted that I’m hardly an example worth emulating.

You have spent 40 years in the profession of acting. What can we expect in the next phase of your career?

I hope before I die I’ll be able to make a decent feature film. I’m not looking forward to playing any great roles. I’m interested in being part of projects that I feel will be remembered, no matter in what capacity. What I’m enjoying most is working with young actors, helping them. That is something I really relish.

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