When viewing and critically pontificating on the parallel /art cinema of India in the 1970s and 1980s, it was an assumption among the intellectual types that the people involved in it were part of some mission to set the course of cinema in the right direction. But as revealed in the autobiography of Naseeruddin Shah, one of the most active members of that cinema, he did not choose to begin his career in art house films.
He considered himself lucky to be offered a leading part, in a great script (Nishant) by a reputed director, at a time when he would have accepted the part of a third dead body in a film by I.S Johar. He just happened to be around when actors like him were needed in Shyam Benegal’s films.
The motivation for becoming an actor was not to uncover the secrets of the craft or to serve meaningful work or to make my contribution to society but to be noticed. He wanted to be known, to be rich, to be looked at and talked about, and when it started to happen in a serious way he found himself shying away from all this. The luxury of wallowing in this paradox came much later.
Theatre was satisfying but did not pay well. Art Cinema too paid but not sufficiently and there was not much left by the end of the day. Getting tired of the hand to mouth existence, Naseeruddin wandered more towards popular cinema which paid if not obscenely well, at least vulgarly well.
After achieving some success in popular cinema, too, he started to toy with the idea of writing about himself and his life. After he had written a few pages, conquering self doubt and indolence, with some resolve he continued to do so during shootings, sitting in trailors awaiting the next shot. Above all he felt like writing for his own amusement, all that he could recall, and had great fun reliving those times.
He was a bright student in the initial years but as he progressed in the grades he found himself at the bottom of the class. He was sent to Aligarh like some other members of his family and his description of the environment was quite brilliant. An institution which existed in a time warp “where others mind your business and women wanting to be on their own are called very forward person” like Zahida Zaidi, who offered him his first role.
He then chose to go to National School of Drama Delhi, later to the Film and TV Institute of India in Pune. Since he was born in Barabanki to a civil servant’s family there was hardly any appetite for acting or the thespian arts, the destination of this rebellion was to make him debut as an actor.
He played many roles in theatre and to acclaim but he ran away secretly to Bombay to act in films. He was cast as an extra in Aman and two of the shots made it to the final version. His father wondered where the son had disappeared and guessing it must be Bombay called up the sisters of Dilip Kumar to find him in their city and send him back home. His father knew Dilip Kumar’s family — being for many years, the custodian of the shrine in Ajmer Sharif and Dilip Kumar’s family visited the place regularly.
On being discovered on a footpath Naseeruddin was made to stay in the house of the great man where he also met him (and tried to lift the many awards displayed on the shelves but found them to be too heavy) was bounded off after a few days to his home following instructions from his father.
He admitted to never having a certain kind of sensibility and an unshakable belief in himself that would help him become an actor of popular cinema so he earned the reputation of being a “crabby bitch” because of the dissatisfaction with what he was asked to do. He increasingly became cynical, swallowed the bitter pill that he was not cut out for mainstream Hindi cinema, but had since been continuously offered work in it. Being circumspect that the stock parts invariably went to respected actors of the theatre, he carefully chose the projects he thought would be fun to do.
Besides details about his family and personal life, the autobiography gave a very good account of the Indian theatre and film scene of the past 40 odd years, He was not really enamoured by the courses at the National School of Drama, particularly the teachers and the methods that they were adopting. Except for Alkazi’s great zest, sense of design and grand productions he recommended little of the institution.
The people he had something positive to say about during the course of his life were Girish Karnad, Om Puri, Ebrahim Alkazi, Dubeyji (Satyadev Dubey). Shyam Benegal and the Kendals. He realised on seeing Goeffrey Kendal’s performance of Shakespeare that the “action of the play seems to be pushing not towards an accurate representation of, or a significant statement about a society, or even an individual but towards a resolution which more often than not strains credibility , but attempts to be as dramatically entertaining as possible.”
When he got to know that Gulzar was making a film on Ghalib, he wrote to him wanting to play the lead in it. This was in the early 1980s and it never got made. When it was made much later by Gulzar as a television serial, he played the lead. When Naseeruddin Shah reminded Gulzar of the letter he had written decades ago that must have been instrumental in him being cast, Gulzar denied having received any letter. Similarly his burning desire to play Gandhi in Attenborough’s film and his participation in the workshop of Grotowski were both funny and heart-rending.
He considered himself lucky to be at the right place at the right time greatly aided by the kind of cinema he continued to be identified with and which gained him a reputation in the first place. He had the best of bothworlds and an opportunity to make his mark in both.