No room for stage frights

Toast of the town

No room for stage frights

He is a living legend. He does not mince words. His concern is with facts — as he sees them. Tact and diplomacy are alien to him. His track-record is replete with extremes: from blockbusters like Hum Paanch, Karma and Tridev to exotica like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Katha, Being Cyrus and A Wednesday! and from art house productions like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai all the way to cinematic excrescences like the recent Sona Spa and Jackpot.

Stage, small screen and cinema — he has done them all in a career that began in 1975. Yes, Naseeruddin Shah has entered his 40th year in cinema.

We begin our interaction with a ‘risky’ query that might infuriate the man — why did a dedicated actor like him go in for a commercial trick like a sequel in Dedh Ishqiya, which released this week?

Shah smiles and says, “I think that a film being a sequel isn’t important. We were not on shaky ground, and it was a new adventure of characters who have been known before and have been clearly worked out. The only advantage is that the film will take a good start, unlike Ishqiya, or A Wednesday!, which needed a good word-of-mouth to pick up.”He adds, “Let me also mention that after working with him in Ishqiya, I was keen on Abhishek (Chaubey) making another film, not necessarily a sequel.
I was also impressed that he did not sign multiple films after its success. As Vishal Bhardwaj’s assistant, I have known him for long, and he was no callow little boy. He was always on the ball, sharp and perceptive. Did you know that I signed both his films without reading the script?”

He goes on, “Abhishek brings a certain North Indian sensibility to his story. There is a certain zany humour that comes from his background — he is from Jamshedpur. I too am from Meerut — a small town.”

We mention how Gulzar was upset when he saw that Shah did not lip-sync the popular Dil to baccha hai ji in the previous film. He laughs and says, “Yes, Gulzar saab told me that. But that has been rectified in this film by Arshad Warsi and me!”

About romancing Madhuri Dixit (again after his negative turn in Rajkumar in 1996), Shah says, “I was first impressed by her in Tezaab. I also saw her in parts in Ram Lakhan and Mrityudand. She has imbibed the best qualities of the greatest stars and is like Madhubala. But apart from her star status, it will be interesting to see the turn in her career now.”

“Also, in this film, I am older, and a bit infirm,” he lets on. He is probably the actor who has done the greatest variety of roles. But he stresses, “I think that a film always works in totality, it is always the performance plus the film. An actor cannot be better than a film, because the film is always bigger than the performance.”

What explains his choice of films like Jackpot? Speaking specifically about this film, he states, “I do feel bad about it because the structure of the entire film changed in the editing.” He smiles wryly and nods his head in complete agreement when I mention what Shahid Kapoor says, that actors only sign films on information given at the time of the narration. “That’s true! We cannot control what happens afterwards.”

He says that he is not really anti-mainstream cinema. “I watched even B-graders like Do Chattane and Ranga Khush happily in the ‘70s,” he points out. “But I am ill at ease doing certain things. For example, the action sequences in Dedh Ishqiya are realistic and not about supermen. I was never comfortable playing the invincible hero!”

Songs were a similar problem, though Shah has even recorded a song for Chor Pe Mor (1990) and sung the themes of Tridev and Vishwatma and a few lines in Asambhav (2004). “I was comfortable reciting poetry as Ghalib (the television serial) but songs like “Tirchhi topiwale” in Tridev need a different kind of skill.” 

In an amused tone, he narrates how he always missed the ‘playback’ classes when he was training as an actor at the Film & Television Institute of India. “I did not develop those skills. Besides, I am not big on poetry, though I was moved by the tiny part I did in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.” So, did he enjoy doing any completely mainstream movie? “Yes, I loved doing Chamatkar for Rajiv Mehra.”

And what about his misadventure as a director with Yun Hota To Kya Hota? Shah’s eyes twinkle as he declares, “I am not directing any film again! In retrospect, I think I cannot think visually the way all directors do. I think more about the dynamics of a character. That works on stage when you can alter or improve a performance. Not when you are directing a film.”

How involved does he get in his work? “I go by instinct,” he says. “But if you mean whether I get nervous — I don’t. I cannot understand nervous actors. You cannot mistake anxiety for involvement when you are doing something you love. And you are not a cricketer who has to perform in front of 50,000 people.”

Shah calls himself an ‘outsider’ in the industry. “My friends too are mostly from outside films,” he signs off candidly.

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