This family of actors straddles the worlds of theatre and film in India. At the Express Adda in Mumbai, Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah with the youngsters Heeba, Imaad and Vivaan talked to Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor, The Indian Express, about their passion for the stage, celluloid and small screen and why they are less a family and more, a gang.
There is never a dull moment when a performer is on the dais — this time there were five of them. The latest edition of Express Adda, featuring Naseeruddin Shah and wife Ratna Pathak Shah, with their children Heeba, Imaad and Vivaan, was moderated by Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor of The Indian Express. At the event, presented by Yes Bank in association with IIFL and The Olive, the Shahs, who are well-known for their wit and straight-talk, kept a houseful audience comprising theatre people, filmmakers and other eminences riveted with their understanding of art and entertainment, and their views on what makes a performer.
Time warp in Indian cinema
Naseeruddin Shah: During the 40 years that I have been acting in movies, I haven’t seen any significant paradigm shift. The encouraging fact, however, is that there are still people who are trying to break the mould and make movies that don’t conform. The ratio of such filmmakers to those who make big bonanza films remains as small as it was in the ’70s and ’80s. The filmmakers of the ’70s may have compromised or lost their fire but their presence at the time was extremely important as their works spawned the new generation of people who make films such as Masaan, Fandry and Dum Laga Ke Haisha.
It’s frustrating to see that Indian cinema hasn’t emerged from its dependency on theatre from which it originated. I refer to theatre of the ’20s, Parsi theatre and natak tolis — theatre from which our cinema drew its talent. We still like to function within that comfort zone of fairy tales and breaking into a song any moment, which dates back to the tradition of the dastangoi. Countries like Thailand and Taiwan are making more cinematic movies because cinema and theatre aren’t joint at the hip.
Issues of the small screen
Ratna Pathak Shah: I was around when television came to India. I definitely felt it’s a medium different from cinema, with a possibility to talk about different things, and that happened. Take shows like Buniyaad and Hum Log — the biggest stars on television were elderly people. Tara, that was about four women living alone and making their lives, was unusual. In the late ’80s and ’90s, we nosedived into this saas-bahu world and we’ve become more regressive over time. Also, now, we get offended at the drop of a hat. So, nothing honest can be said about anyone.
Heeba Shah: I haven’t done much of TV but, as I understand, when we try to convey something through an art form, it’s about a special moment. Probably, the most special, honest moments for those who write for TV is the extreme love they experienced when they were 16. That is what they remember and write about. After that, it has all been about making money.
Struggles and heartbreaks
Naseeruddin: There wasn’t all that much heartbreak because I was convinced, even when I had no work, that those who are not casting me now, are going to regret it some day. I never entertained the thought of failure. There was a particular day, when I was rather upset and was probably hungry also, with empty pockets. I thought I’d pray. I did wuzu but then I thought that was nonsense. One doesn’t pray in order to bargain. The only times I have prayed since then have been in gratitude. I was very lucky that I turned up at a time when actors like me were needed. When directors like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani and Mrinal Sen were making movies about real people.
Naseeruddin: Had I been a student at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, today, I would be swept up with the passion that the students are experiencing. It’s extremely worrisome that a person who instigated an attack on those students is now a member of the governing council. I wish the students had more clarity on their views. The whole issue is not about Gajendra Chauhan. But what’s gone wrong is that the students have not stated their demands clearly and, in the past, have had too many agitations on meaningless issues.
Ratna: I don’t think I would have gone to FTII today. That institution has been systematically broken down, like all educational institutions in this country. There has been no acting teacher there for I don’t know how long. The people, who have worked there to teach acting, how can they even be appointed? On what grounds?
Imaad Shah: I don’t know if Gajendra Chauhan is the biggest problem. I just hope that the film archive can be sustained and held on to.
To be an actor or not to be
Vivaan shah: I never wanted to earn a living through acting in movies. I wanted to act, but in theatre. Doon School had a fiercely academic environment, which is why acting in movies was unheard of for me, although I was from a family of actors but acting just sort of happened.
Ratna: I grew up in a family of actresses. When I was in school, everyone said, ‘You’ll be an actress when you grow up’. You want to sock that person in the face. I looked down on acting as a fluffy, insubstantial profession. It took me a long time to accept that being an actor is an all-consuming profession. If you really want to be good, it must be that way. That’s what happens to children from the profession. You end up saying no for a long time in spite of the fact that, inside your heart, you’re really keen on it.
Films vs theatre
Ratna: The two mediums — movies and theatre — are so interesting and interrelated while being so different. The big question for me in theatre is — where can an actor practise? A musician has seven swar to practise on, a dancer has a codified form, where does an actor practise? I never got any work in movies. I got work in television much later. Theatre was the one place that welcomed me, that gave me opportunities to extend my abilities. It was an absolutely important and fundamental part of my existence.
Naseeruddin: I trained for both simultaneously, at National School Drama first and then FTII immediately after. I did my first movie and we did our first theatre production — in which Ratna and I acted together, Satyadev Dubey ji’s play, Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak — at the same time. I wanted to be an actor because I wanted to be famous. There was a phase when, along with the new wave cinema, I was also involved in a whole load of terrible films. During that phase, it was theatre which kept me sane.
Naseeruddin: You should stick to the job you know, that would be the statement of your political beliefs. I may face a paradox in my work because I have done films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai and Paar and have also done Mujhe Meri Biwi Se Bachao. So, which is the one that conveys my politics? Yet, I am not too sure about actors stepping into politics full time. If they involve themselves in politics at all, they should immerse themselves completely. They should not meddle with it or pay mere lip service.
Ratna: Standing for political office is one thing and participating in public life actively is another. Since actors are recognisable and, at least some of us do shape opinions in public, we should be careful about what we endorse in the work we do. Honestly, though, you’ve got to earn. If I turn down all the work I don’t agree with politically, I’ll never be able to act. We have a little more freedom of choice in theatre, so the kind of theatre we do is probably closer to what I personally believe in. A lot of actors shoot their mouth off, and Twitter and Instagram have unfortunately ended up showing us how thoughtless and how silly a lot of our public figures are.
Vivaan: I have a big problem with this whole digital age. All three of us grew up in the ’90s and that was a time when kids could still enjoy physical objects, like cassettes, tapes and toys. Now everything is just floating around somewhere, it’s all nebulous and I am really scared that everything is digital for kids growing up today. Things have become too virtual.
Ratna : Unfortunately, Vivaan, you are sounding like a fossil already.
Siddharth Chakravarty: marine conservationist, Sea Shepherd Global
What is your opinion on the second generation of family actors in the film industry?
Naseeruddin: The sons of famous people have always been inducted into the film industry. whether as actors or producers or directors or any other kind of technician. However, don’t forget that there are a number of people in our industry today who are hugely successful and had no film industry connections. There are also young people like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan, Kay Kay Menon and Kangana Ranaut who have made a mark for themselves in the face of all odds.
Vibha Kagzi: Founder and CEO, ReachIvy
I want to ask the younger people on the panel, what is the one value that you have imbibed from your parents?
Imaad: Our home was the base for everything — we have seen rehearsals, and costumes and sets being made. The image is of a group of friends working against all odds to create a piece of art minus large funds. That has been a massive learning experience.
Heeba: I don’t want to be cliched but they showed us how to work hard. It’s not only about clicking pictures and going for auditions but about getting obsessed with the words and doing things to the best of your abilities.
Vivaan: They are very ideological. My mom told me that rules are meant to be followed; like even if there is a signal in the middle of the night, then you must stop your vehicle. Small things like these and bigger things related to art.
Madhukar Kamath: Group CEO & Managing Director, DDB Mudra Group
This question is only for the youngsters. Do you believe this family is a cartel? How do you respond to that and how do you break out of that?
Vivaan: You’re talking about, not our family per se, but the general notion of a family. Our family is nothing like a cartel. We are like a gang.
Amrita Puri: actor
In your film career, do you have any regrets? Would you have changed things?
Naseeruddin: No, I wouldn’t change a thing. I was naturally disappointed that I didn’t get the kind of success I craved but I could see why. Those movies I did were just utterly ghastly. Wild horses wouldn’t be able to drag me to see any of them.
There was huge support from NFDC in the ’70s for the new wave of cinema. Perhaps, at that time, they should have also paid attention to creating exhibition space for these kinds of cinema.
Naseeruddin: That is where the NFDC failed miserably and that is why there are 10 times more NFDC films lying rotting in the godowns than have ever been released. NFDC really should have had a marketing department and a distribution department, which they didn’t really bother about.
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