A dream dreamt four years back untangled the toughest knot in Naseeruddin Shah’s life. “There was this large, forbidding interview table… shiny, black-top. Behind it sat my father, alone, in the middle. He asked me what I had achieved in life, and I told him all that I wanted to say about him — his rage, his old-school backwardness, his intolerance. All the things I could never tell him in person,” says the 58-year-old, his eyes misty, his voice broken.
Naseeruddin’s father, Ale Mohamed Shah, a government employee who had a searing ambition for his three sons, didn’t live to see the success of the youngest. Before he passed away, all he saw was Nishant (1975), Naseeruddin’s first feature. He never came for the other shows, ridiculed the young actor on his career choice, and constantly compared him to the other brothers — Zaheer, an IIT engineer, and Zameer, an army officer. Between deep drags from a spliff, the subversive-that’s-me son laughs while recounting how his father had once caught him smoking up and the torrent of strictures it had resulted in. To the ambitious son, it was his father’s non-acceptance that became a long-lived trauma. And it was this ghost that was laid to rest with the vivid dream. “Now I have long conversations with him at his grave in Sardhana,” says the actor, back in his composure.
But there are also other painful memories of ‘father figures’. First there were the “cruel” missionaries at St Joseph’s, Nainital. A 12-year-old Naseeruddin was socked by one Brother Burke for imitating his accent. “It wasn’t a spanking; I bled from the blow.” Then, at St Anselm’s, the Ajmer school Naseeruddin was shifted to, there was a friend’s father who tried to get fresh with him. “I kicked his balls and walked away,” says the unforgiving one.
It was also at St Anselm’s that Naseeruddin came into his own as an actor. There was no looking back from his first role — as Shylock. “Suddenly, the idiot from the other school became popular. I got better at studies and even made it to the school cricket team, which was my other passion.”
The wave of adulation carried him right through an English-literature bachelor’s at Aligarh Muslim University and three years at Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD). Then, the wave crashed on the shore of a pitiless, self-reflected reality.
Sitting next to the NSD boys’ hostel, where his was the first batch, Naseeruddin says, “[Ebrahim] Alkazi-saab used to say how lazy I was. While revising my lines for the batch’s last production — [Eugène] Ionesco’s Lesson — it dawned that I’d been an idiot not to work hard all this while. Every revision made me better.”
The mind’s bulb stayed lit through the next course, at Pune’s Film and Television Institute. “The only one from my batch of 22 there who’s recognisable today is — can you believe it? — Shakti Kapoor. A few years later in Mumbai, there was this swanky Honda honking incessantly behind my taxi. I turned around to see Shakti, grinning ear-to-ear. I’ve not seen him happier since that day some 30 years ago. But my ambitions were, of course, a bit different,” says the actor with a wry smile, the self-assurance back in force.
“My teacher Girish Karnad recommended me to Shyam Benegal for the first film,” says the veteran of more than 145 films. Govind Nihalani, who was cinematographer of Nishant, wedges a factoid into this phase of his old friend’s career: “On Girish’s recommendation, I introduced him to [director-animator] Ram Mohan, who cast him in Loan Sharks, a short docu-feature on Pathan moneylenders. Then Shyam-babu met him.” The rest is the stuff that films are made of.
“Today, my daughter [Heeba] lives on her own. My younger son [Vivaan] has enrolled at St Stephens’ and wants to be an actor. The other one [Imaaduddin] wants to be a musician. He has a group that plays here and there, earns a few thousand rupees.” Is there a hint of his own father in that patronising tone? “You’re right,” says the man who claims that he wants to be known eventually as his ‘son’s father’. “As a man grows older he becomes his father, doesn't he?”