An honest actor's survival

An honest actor's survival

Naseeruddin Shah, the name immediately evokes respect and awe. Starting in the 70s with the so-called parallel cinema or art films genre, he has acted in some of the most memorable Hindi films.

He later made forays into commercial films as well and delivered with equal aplomb. After four decades in the field, the actor is still batting with élan though he confesses that it is theatre which attracts him more these days.

Shah is an ardent admirer of Satyajit Ray, but to his great regret, he never got an opportunity to work with him. Shah remembers how seeing the filmmaker during his student days at the National School of Drama, Delhi, affected him.

“The school was screening Ingmar Bergman’s Silences and Ray was seated right in front of me, his towering figure almost blocking my view. But it didn’t matter because I was more busy staring at his great back than watching the film.” He cherishes the time when the maestro shook his hand after the screening of his Mirch Masala. “I was overawed,” he admits.

Expressing his opinion on the term ‘an honest actor’, Shah says he finds that by its very nature, acting is being ‘false.’ So an ‘honest actor’ is a contradiction in terms. “An actor can’t plagiarise like a writer can and he can’t improve on a grand performance. It has to be definite, certain and once for all. An honest actor is ‘a work in progress’. An actor is a messenger who is entrusted with the task of delivering the ‘goods’ honestly. There just can’t be a ‘dishonest’ actor,” he observes.

For the actor who has given the audience such great performances as in Paar, Mirch Masala, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro etc to name a few, acting is an art which is not to pretend to disguise oneself in order to emote but ‘to do’. He feels that an actor is being dishonest when he considers himself to be more important than the work he is involved in. Saying that, he also concedes that when an actor becomes a star, “he or she becomes self-indulgent and that is when dishonesty steps in.”

When asked about his workshop for the newcomers who worked with him in the Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag, Shah says he did it because he was deeply touched by the script and he was the only known actor in the entire cast. As a teacher, his first advice to the budding actors was eclectic. “Go and look for the meaning of the word ‘act’ in a dictionary,” he advised.

The reason — he wanted to surprise them. “It doesn’t mean delivering great dialogues, or wearing great costumes. The meaning is simple. Acting is not an end in itself: you don’t act for the sake of acting, you don’t act for showing off your abilities; you act for a purpose, and that purpose is to communicate a text to the audience. That’s more important than your own performance.”

Today, there is cut-throat competition in the film world to make a mark as a popular actor. But often connoisseurs complain that the quality of acting has gone down in the process. The perfectionist in him agrees but he also adds that sometimes there are conditions over which an actor has little or no control.

“How can one expect a person to be objective when he has to convey someone else’s ideas, concepts, ideologies? The audience can’t distinguish between real tears and glycerine-induced tears. Sometimes, for some actors, glycerine-induced tears can be more effective than natural tears. The blame should be squarely placed on people who are making films,” he feels.


Shah is dismissive of the current quality of actors’ output, finding it “abysmal”, and emphasises that it is only when the audience begins to demand fresh and new films can an ‘honest’ approach emerge. “The refinement and the restraint we saw in films like Kaagaz Ke Phool and Do Bigha Zameen is lost. I sincerely feel that some of the acting today can be described as ‘grotesque’. But again, the poor quality of acting is a reflection of poor writing and the poor quality of vision around it.”

Shah has a vast repertoire of acting encompassing different genres. Even then, admirers of his work are ever eager to know about his ‘favourite roles’.

He has fond memories of working in Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, which brought him critical and public recognition; Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, in which he portrayed a straightforward, committed lawyer; the self-respecting, blind teacher in Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh was another, as also the drug addict in Robin Dharmaraj’s hard-hitting Chakra; the confused husband and father in Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom; the role of a low caste man in Gautam Ghose’s Paar, for which he shed more than five kilos, etc. “These films are unforgettable not so much for my work as for the films themselves. But I truly consider it an honour to be chosen by Gulzar saab to play Mirza Ghalib in his bio-serial on the great poet,” he admits.

But then, what about his roles in commercial films where he made forays after the so-called parallel cinema of the 70s and mid-80s faced a slow death? Shah does not balk at the challenge. “I never believed Tridev would run for a day. Yet, it prolonged my career by 10 years.

The film gave me a box-office hit I had never experienced before. Ten years later it gave me Mohra. And 10 years later it gave me The Dirty Picture. In fact, my dossier has more commercial films than all the art films put together. Even today, films like A Wednesday, Ishqiyan and Dedh Ishqiyan are the kind of films one looks forward to.”

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