Naseeruddin Shah

Naseeruddin Shah

On the occasion of the veteran actor's 70th birthday, we revisit our conversation with him.

Naseeruddin Shah is something of an enigma—the coiffed silver hair, measured drawl, charming wit and the overpowering intensity with which he holds you, is something else. And Then One Day (Penguin Random House, India) is a beautiful memoir and a remarkable debut for the 64-year-old. In the book, Shah lays it all bare. As he waltzes with the past, he uses the pages to map his journey into cinema and reveals in nuanced detail, the achingly painful roadblocks and the triumphant milestones. He speaks about his fractured relationship with his father and how he ‘disappointed’ him with his Icarus-like fervor to become an actor. He also tries to reassess his complex relationships: the impetuous first marriage to a woman (Purveen) almost twice his age, his ineptitude as a parent towards his first child (Heeba), and how the release of the first film Nishant wasn’t as exhilarating thanks to a love affair (the mysteriously named, R) that'd gone sour. As he sifts through three decades of memories, he talks about the friends he meets on the way and the undoing of a friend named Jaspal, who at one time was an inseparable companion. 

It’s a book that has an equal measure of poignancy and levity. And Then One Day is cunning, confessional, witty and wistful. It’s also conversational. He denies you the role of a mere reader or of a spectator who is privy to the events in his life. Rather, you feel like an old friend listening to him over a cup of tea in the comfort of your home. On an early Friday morning, I had the opportunity to speaking to Shah at the Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi where he spoke to me about his experience while writing the book, how he was able to come to terms with his past, and the hopeful probability of a film on his life. 

With And Then One Day, you explore a new realm that is, writing an autobiography, which strangely, took you over a decade to write. What was the experience like?
Oh thrilling! Absolutely thrilling. Much more than the release of my first movie Nishant, I have to say that.

Really, how so?
Because there was a great deal of anxiety attached to that first movie when it released in 1975, and I was terribly anxious because on it depended my future prospects—whether I would be able to feed myself or not, because theater could not do it in those days…it probably still can’t, which is what determined my move from the National School of Drama to the Film Institute. And as I have written, I went to the Film Institute with a very condescending attitude, but to my surprise, it really opened up my mind being in that place. I suppose there was a terrible urge within me to learn, which is why there were 22 others in my class to whom the classes meant nothing. Only two students made it: Shakti Kapoor and me. 

And I was very wary of the kind of roles I would be offered in Hindi movies. I was sure I didn’t want to play the doctor who has one line though, you know, I had somewhere resigned myself to the idea that these are the roles I’m going to get, and as it happened, I got absolutely nothing after Nishant. I didn’t enjoy the release of Nishant—even though it was a success, it was acclaimed and my performance was praised, but the anxiety just consumed me. Also, I was going through a very bad time personally as I have written in the book. So, the release of Nishant didn’t mean that much to me, really. But this [the response to the book] is something else. It’s a reaction I had never expected. I was of course, very curious to know how people would respond to this and whether my writing would be engaging or not, and my heart is completely overwhelmed by the positive response. 

So now that you’ve got a positive response, do you consider writing another book after this?
I’m sure, though, I will be judged much more harshly (laughs). I’m pretty sure because since this is my first time, they are saying, 'Ah, first time' and all that. But unless the next book turns out to be as engaging as this one, I’ll be crucified I know that. So I’m not so keen to write another book (laughs). Although, I have enjoyed writing this, I have to say. When it was over, I felt kind of lost. Like how one feels after the rehearsals of a play; when the play gets done and the next day there are no rehearsals, then you wonder, 'Now what?' There is a kind of empty feeling. So I’m searching desperately what to write, but I haven’t found it yet. 

You’ve spoken about some very trying situations in your life. We learn about your first marriage, about your indifference towards your first child, Heeba, about how you were betrayed by your best friend, Jaspal, and so on. How challenging was it to excavate memories and pour them onto paper? 
Not very, because I didn’t write it for anybody’s consumption; I was writing it for my own enjoyment. I started writing because I just wanted to wallow in memories a bit. I was getting very bored in Prague; I had no friends there and the film was a huge bore. I used to spend hours and hours waiting for the next shot, because there was so much blue screen work that they used to take up one whole day to set up a single shot sometimes. So I just started writing it to amuse myself, really. And as I kept on writing, it started grabbing me more. And it took a long time; it’s not been written in one flow as I wish I could claim it was. It was written painstakingly over 12 years; bits were written at a time—2 pages, 3 pages, 4 pages—I don’t think I’ve ever written more than 10 pages at a stretch. 

And I revised things, went back on it, deleted  things which I thought were a little too vehement, and I was advised by a very good writer, Ramchandra Guha who pointed out things which he felt were extraneous. Like there was an incident about a school friend’s dad who tried to bugger me, which I wrote about and he said, 'Eliminate this because this has no connection to the rest of the story.' But he said that it was a very interesting incident and that I should save it for another book.  Then there was another incident where my pocket got picked, which was a completely fascinating event, which I have to film someday because it’s quite unbelievable the way it happened, but again he said, 'Don’t have this because there is no connection.' He said, 'Just follow the thread of your development.' So that’s what I did. And the thought did occur to me that so-and-so might feel offended if I write this, but that was not as much consequence as the obligation to put it down, with as much clarity and straight forwardness as possible. Because if I wasn’t going to be straight forward about it then, what was the point of writing it? 

And was the process cathartic?
Very. Extremely. I was able to come to terms with my dad finally, with Purveen [his ex-wife], with the other girl, R. And I could look at their point of view also, and I tried very hard not to wear my heart on my sleeve. And I’m impressed by myself and the self-control I’ve been able to exercise. 

You talk about your strained relationship with your father in great detail and how he considered you to be a disappointment, how he hadn’t supported your dreams or your choice of profession. Do you believe that if your father at the time did support you, you would have still gone out with the same degree of vengeance to become an actor?  
I can’t answer that question because I don’t know. I’ve often felt that facing resistance is perhaps a good thing for a young actor because he then learns to fight for what he wants. I think it would have made life much easier if my dad had a wider worldview and if it had occurred to him that this could be pursued as a profession. He would instead employ tutors who would bore the life out of me! And they would try to teach me Physics and Biology, and I wouldn’t listen to a word those tutors would say (smirks triumphantly). So it might have been easier…but the thing is that he, despite protesting vehemently, never forbade me. I think perhaps he knew that I wouldn’t listen. But he didn’t try to obstruct me in any way, that much credit I will give him. 

And he was going according to his beliefs. He was from a time where you did not show affection to your children, where your children did not speak up in front of you, they could not crack jokes in front of you; they kept their mouth shut unless they were spoken to. His own father, that is my grandfather, was one hard creature whom my own dad could not meet without an appointment. He had to address him as ‘sarkar’, not as ‘abba’ or ‘baba’. So my dad came from that tradition. So he may have considered himself to be a very cool guy, for all you know. 

For the longest time, you grappled with your sense of self image and felt you never looked like a ‘hero’. You’ve mentioned how you felt “discriminated against by nature” and a “strong attack of resentment at nature” for not having given you a face like Rajesh Khanna. There is an underlining sense of under-confidence that is evident in your early years. When do you think you finally overcame that? Or did you ever overcome that?
Yes, I did, because time was short and I knew I had to get cracking on fulfilling my dream. So this was more or less in school that I came to terms with it. In school, my reflection in the mirror disturbed me a great deal, and when I saw myself on screen for the first time in the Film Institute screen test, I was shattered. But searching for any vestiges of handsomeness of myself in the mirror, I stumbled upon the fact that, okay I may not be Gary Cooper, but I could be Jerry Lewis. I have a malleable face; I have a face that I can change. Because I used to observe myself after getting a haircut, for example, and I noticed how different the face looked. With women of course, it’s even more startling; if they get a haircut the entire framing of the face changes, but for men it’s not so extreme, but still. Any guy who’s had a haircut looks like a plucked chicken for a couple of days! So I would ask myself, ‘How would I look with hair down to my shoulders?’ Would I look like Jesus? Would I look like the Wild Men of Borneo? And I imagined myself in these disguises, and I think I stumbled upon my strength. Which is that I have a face that is a) expressive; b) capable of change—and those have been my strengths. So the fact that I didn’t look like Shammi Kapoor didn’t hurt because I realized that it’s not that important to look like him; it’s more important to be able to do what he did…or something approximating that. 

With Nishant, Manthan, Sparsh, you became a part of the New Wave and were heralded as "an exciting new talent". If the streak to Art-house films hadn’t hit at the time, what route do you think your career would have taken? Do you think you would have made an extra effort to find your niche in mainstream cinema then?  
I did make a big effort to be a part of mainstream cinema—little as I enjoy it, but I certainly wanted to be a popular actor. I can’t deny the thought of being a hero. You know, the thought of beating up the baddies, wooing the heroine and so on. I don’t know what turn my life would have taken had Shyam Benegal not entered my life. But I think the universe conspires, and that’s what happened. And if this meeting with Shyam had not happened, something else probably would have. I needed it so badly; I wanted it so badly, that I deserved it. Shyam would have found me, I feel, even if it had not been for Girish Karnad's intervention and recommendation, because apparently he was looking for the 'right actor' for many months and he had turned down many, because they were too good-looking (he winks). There you are! They were too good-looking and I got the role because I looked like a funny gunk and he would have found me, you know?  

I think my life would have been more or less the same…If it hadn’t been for Nishant, it would have been for Manthan, because if I wouldn’t have done Nishant, I would have camped at Shyam Benegal's doorstep and would have got his next film! So people say it was ‘good luck’ that I met Shyam and all, but I feel good luck is a combination of factors that you create for yourself. So yes, it was good luck, but Shyam cast me because I deserved to be cast. He wasn’t taking pity on me and casting me, you know? 

Your memoir inhabits all the essential elements required for a Hindi movie. You have drama—literally and figuratively. You have a string of disappointments balanced with an equal measure of success. You have a strained relationship with your father, initiation into manhood at 14, a series of love affairs and heartbreaks, and you have a best friend [Jaspal] who stabs you in the back, literally. If you were approached one day to have your autobiography made into a cinematic biopic, would you allow it?
Tell me where the song and dance will come in (laughs)! Well, I have kept the filming rights to myself because I don’t want anybody to just stand up and acquire them and start making some rubbish, where Brother Burke sings a song to me or something. I really don’t know…I’m not a filmmaker by temperament; I do not have a visual sense. I can’t tell a story through pictures, I can tell it through words better. So I don’t know. I will be very, very careful if a filmmaker approaches me to film this because it can so easily go wrong. It can be misconstrued and presented cornily. I wish someone like Victorio de Sica was still around to film it, then I would let him film it without a question, but if Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra comes to me, I’ll send him away! 

What about Raju Hirani? You seem to admire him a lot. 
Yes, Raju Hirani! But I don’t think that the form Raju Hirani uses would be right for a story like this. Raju makes wonderful movies. I love his films. And I’m dying to work with him and I know I never will…He likes Aamir Khan for some reason! 

But what if he got Aamir to portray you?
Oh, I would nix it immediately! The actor who would play me needs to look like a rabbit badly in need of a meal, as I have written in my book…a frightened rabbit badly in need of a meal. Aamir Khan looks like he’s just had a huge meal! (laughs)

This conversation was printed in a previous issue and is a part of our extensive archive.

Text Radhika Iyengar