Right now, the 58-year-old actor is being crowned with laurel leaves for a tour de force performance in A Wednesday. More movies are on the way: Shoot on Sight, Firaaq and 7 to the Palace. Yet the actor has never wavered from his commitment to theatre. Four months ago, his theatre group — Motley — celebrated the completion of three decades with a play fest which ran to full houses.
Over time, Motley has explored varied works like those of Samuel Beckett, Ismat Chughtai and Munshi Premchand. A new play Tilism-E-Hoshruba is in the works for the year-end. In the foyer of Juhu’s Prithvi Theatre, an hour before Motley’s All Thieves premieres, I grab the quintessential Shahspeak with a sting: <b1>
What kind of a response did you expect for A Wednesday?
For me, it was important to make this film happen. Of course, I am glad that it has been well received. If not, I would have felt bad and moved on. Neeraj Pandey (the director) would have been devastated though.
Anupam Kher and you teamed up after..
How was it working with him?
(Irritated) This question should be banned! (Pause) I like Anupam as an actor and a person. He has been hungry to do good cinema for a long time. I’m glad this film happened to him. I’m happy about the acclaim he is receiving for his performance. <b2>
Doesn’t the success or a failure of a film matter to you?
I don’t act in films with any kind of expectations. I just do them. At times, it’s for the money or the script. At times, it’s because it’s a friend’s project. And at times, it’s because I like my role.
What’s your primary concern while acting?
Being honest to the performance. In fact, I don’t like meeting anyone from the audience after a stage performance. They are very self-conscious and pretentious in their responses. Instead, I enjoy the reaction of the audience during a performance. In the case of a film, it’s a longer affair.
Some films have been joyous experiences but of some films, the lesser said the better.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was sheer hell and torture, it wasn’t fun at all, it was horrible. I would never like to go through that experience again. On the other hand, some dreadful films have been great fun to make. Like Chakra was a wretched film but it was among the first art movies to do well commercially.
Has luck or coincidence played a part in your career?
Perhaps. Luck involves being at the right place at the right time. From the National School of Drama, our batch went to the Pune Film Institute. I hoped that would make my entry into films easier. So I was at the right place at the right time. Shyam Benegal spotted me and cast me in Nishant. Around then, filmmakers were looking for actors like Om (Puri), Kulbhushan (Kharbanda), Anupam (Kher), Amol (Palekar), Amrish (Puri) and myself, who could represent real people. We fitted the bill perfectly.
Does cinema portray real people at all today?
You cannot portray a real person in Yash Chopra’s movies. Some movies at least try, like Mumbai Meri Jaan and Life in a Metro. Anurag Kashyap and Rajat Kapoor also make an effort to be real. I have hope from the generation of relatively young filmmakers. They won’t make esoteric, arty and boring films. They are less pretentious, unlike the moviemakers of the 1970s.
Are you hinting at some specific directors?
There were these filmmakers who were making tall claims, beating drums and swearing that they would change the face of Indian cinema, the world and all that rubbish. Nothing of the sort happened. But during the 1970s, there was a new wave of Indian cinema.
So what happened to this wave?
Make a list of the work of all the filmmakers of the 1970s. Then, make a list of the films they are making today and you’ll see what happened to the new wave of Indian cinema.
Does the intelligence factor work in the realm of Bollywood?
Yes. Astuteness of a certain kind does.
(Laughs) The intelligence to promote yourself.
Does star power supercede quality acting?
Of course, it does. Why do you even ask such a question?
Can theatre actors find their foothold in films?
Yes.. only if you go by the graph of Amrish Puri. He did some marvellous work in theatre and some lucrative work in films. You won’t find a single actor who began his career in the movies, excelling in theatre. Never.. there isn’t any actor in the world. But the reverse has always been true. All the highly regarded actors.. whether in America, England, Poland, France or Germany.. started off in theatre.
Would you attribute your acting skills to theatre or are you an effortless actor?
You have to work very hard to look effortless on stage as well as cinema. When you see a proficient dancer performing, it has to be effortless. Over the years, I have learnt to disguise the effort. This could be called an actor’s technique.
But your friend and mentor Satyadev Dubey believes that acting cannot be taught.. but it can be learnt. How do you teach someone acting?
I gave him that line, some years ago. (Pause) Anyway, I believe in that too. An actor’s parents are not concerned whether their child will become a good actor. They are more worried whether their child will make a living as an actor or not. So it’s very important that each actor must find his own path and technique. A teacher can only open windows for a student. That’s what I meant by saying acting cannot be taught. Now, go ask Dubeyji what he meant.
What kind of films work for you?
I despair that good films can’t come out today of what we call ourselves.. Bollywood. The two Munnabhai films are the most wonderful ones which have come out of Bollywood in the last I-don’t-know-how-many-years. Movies like those don’t happen often. They were a freak phenomenon.
Have you given up direction since your first attempt (Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota) didn’t click?
I won’t ever direct a film again. I am not as committed to filmmaking as I should be. Also, I don’t think I am capable today of investing in the kind of physical labour that’s essential for filmmaking.
What went wrong?
I did what I could do as a director but that wasn’t good enough. I was a bit too complacent. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. There were many reasons for that and I don’t blame anyone except myself. It hurts to admit the fact that I wasn’t a very good filmmaker but I have to accept that. I’d rather act and direct on the stage.
How has Motley survived the vagaries of time?
Our madness has sustained us. Last week, we staged Kothri No 42 at Prithvi. There were only 20 people in the audience.. the actors were a little disheartened but I gave them a pep talk, saying, “There are 20 people who want to watch you. Go ahead, break a leg.” They gave a wonderful performance. I guess such moments have kept Motley alive.
Who inspired you to pursue theatre?
Geoffrey Kendal. He will remain the deepest influence in my life.
Have you influenced your children (Heeba, Imaad and Vivaan)?
Even if I have, I don’t want to. I must resist the temptation of fantasising to make them do things that I wanted to pursue. Heeba and Imaad are into theatre, music and films. Vivaan is in Delhi, studying literature at St Stephen’s. I would love my children to do things that I couldn’t but that would be unfair. Why place a burden on them? I accept them for what they are.. and will support them for what they want to become.