Book: And Then One Day
Author: Naseeruddin Shah
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Price: Rs 699
At the rather advanced age of 64, Naseeruddin Shah has turned writer. A rattling, banging good writer, and some of the dramatis personae in his autobiography, And then One Day, could be rattled enough to reach for the mind-altering substances or sharp instruments, according to taste. The title of the book is from Dark Side of the Moon, the story is all about drugs, sex and acting, with much bohemianism, some adolescent gunplay and a stabbing thrown in — Shah was literally stabbed in the back by a close friend who was too blown to know better. Fortunately, he was too blown to stab better, too. There is also a bizarre interlude in the Polish woods with the celebrated Jerzy Grotowski, who emerges as the Jim Jones of experimental theatre.
Throughout, Shah’s voice rings true. This account, far too strange to be fiction, is the joyful mea culpa of a young actor who believed that he should not be cast because he looked like Alfred E Neuman. Also, because he “was trouble, unreasonable, opinionated, hot-headed, and a dope-smoker”. At the Film and Television Institute of India, he took “huge doses of Dexedrine to trip and then Mandrax to sleep”. That’s just this side of speedball hell.
Shah’s blistering honesty is a refreshing improvement on the state of the craft of autobiography, plastic surgery performed on personal history to remove every last blemish and prepare the sad, dead thing that remains for canonisation. Shah’s story is all warts. He finds a wild beauty in the very embarrassments that autobiographers conceal — failure, inhumanity, self-destruction. And Then One Day, the first readable autobiography I have seen in years, is like a mouth-freshener after the indigestion of the last big title on the market — K Natwar Singh’s One Life is Not Enough, a CV tarted up to resemble a literary work. The big one of 2014, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Hard Choices, was much more real. But just how unwary and unclever can you be when you’re president-in-waiting?
Honesty is a beautiful thing, but, as with the atom, the collateral damage can be awesome. Rarely has the creative community been so lovingly, respectfully, taken apart. “Mr [Alyque] Padamsee… had a secretary called Miss Pope, the better I suppose to savour the appellation ‘God’ by which he was referred to…” “[Junoon] appears like an acting contest and the only one who emerges with any laurels at all is a non-actor in a tiny part, Ismat Chughtai… and that’s because she’s the only one of us not trying to act everyone else under the table.” “[Ebrahim Alkazi’s] reputation rested chiefly on his impeccable productions in which the opening lights coming up on an elaborate empty setting could garner applause, but in which the acting was somewhat soulless…” “The producer of [Sparsh], Basu Bhattacharya, could have done with some sensitivity himself.” “Peter [Brook] was… intent on mythologising himself and had not only never bothered to learn how to pronounce the word ‘Mahabharata’, he turned out to be easily the vainest, most self-absorbed person I have ever met.”
Shah owes Shabana Azmi: “It was generous of her, a mainstream star, to consent to do [films] with me — a nobody.” But he also notes the “smug reverence she has for her own acting and her tendency to perform with background music playing in her head, not to mention the eccentric preference for her right profile over her left (or is it the other way around?).” And there is the late Satyadev Dubey slipping him two hits of Purple Haze as a parting gift from the sets of Nishant. Wonder if he ever suspected that one day, Shah would reveal all.
Amidst this carnage Shah reveals, inter alia, that his creative gods are mostly Western, “from Mickey Mouse to Orson Welles”. He studies Sholay for its myriad Hollywood ripoffs, and Dara Singh is his only serious Indian obsession. At the National School of Drama, “an astonished (Nemichand) Jain saab had to ask me thrice over whether I was absolutely sure I ‘hadn’t read a single Hindi play ever??’ I assured him that such was indeed the case. Thereafter he always treated me as somewhat special and perhaps somewhat challenged.”
Shah’s book offers an accurate portrait of upper-class India half a century ago: the picnics, the mango-eating contests, guns and shikar, discipline-mad ‘convent’ schools, the ridiculous cult of quasi-military masculinity left behind by the Raj, which poisoned relations between ramrod-straight fathers and their wastrelly sons, all stoned immaculate. In the telling, he matures to the point where he can write bluntly of his inhumanity to his daughter from his first marriage, whom he abandoned: “I have no idea in what sort of light I will appear if I say that for an unconscionably long time I felt nothing whatsoever for the child Heeba, but it is necessary that I confess it.”
Shah debuted in 1967 as a cut-price extra in Aman, one of the mourners in the funeral procession of the star, Rajendra Kumar. Aman featured another significant debut — it is the only film that Bertrand Russell ever acted in. Kumar, playing a medical student in London, visits the great pacifist to seek his blessings for his quest, to travel to Hiroshima in search of a cure for radiation sickness. Russell was then in his 90s and sadly, his deeply philosophical reply, perhaps one of his last public statements, is washed away by a blathersome Hindi voiceover.
But the point is, 14 years earlier, at the age of 81, Russell had launched his career in fiction with Satan in the Suburbs. Naseeruddin Shah is only 64. His first tale, the story of his life, ends abruptly in his 30s. He feels that life became boring thereafter, but surely it could be prinked up fictionally? A man who can write the following non-fiction sentence could run riot in the realm of the imagination: “The Abdullah Girls’ College is, to male students in Aligarh, a mysterious erogenous zone they can venture nowhere near…”