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It’s humiliating to peddle a script: Naseer

Naseeruddin Shah opens up about movies and muses, television and theatre and why he will never direct another film.

bollywood Updated: Jan 15, 2012 13:36 IST
Hindustan Times

Naseeruddin Shah opens up about movies and muses, television and theatre and why he will never direct another film.

What according to you is a film?

I don’t think there can be a generic definition. It’s a story told in pictures. Within that definition, many types of films can fit. To me, a significant film is the one which acts as a record of its times. I think that is perhaps the only serious function it can perform. Cinema can’t be an educative tool. It can be used for educative purposes. It’s not a medium of change.

NaseeruddinJaved Akhtar was asked this question, and he said, "Film toh woh hoti hai, jiske peeche ek line hoti hai" (A film is one that generates a queue). And that’s a right-wing definition— that it’s all about the money people can make while entertaining. It’s not surprising because for a majority of the Bombay industry that is what film is, a project which generates big bucks. And that mindset continues to be perpetuated to a point where you see young, filmmakers, who should be doing work of substance,

succumbing to the lure.

What’s your earliest memory of watching a film?

It was Bahut Din Hue (1954). My dad was Deputy Collector in Nainital. We had free access to cinema halls. There were three in Nainital then. Dad never saw Hindi movies, mom never saw movies until I started acting in them. I must have been three years old when I saw this film. Madhubala was acting in it. The film was about a magician whose life is in a parrot. The magic of cinema got me early. We were permitted to watch a lot of English films like Peter Pan (1953) and The Living Desert (1953), a documentary about the Sahara Desert. Also swashbuckling films like The Thief Of Bagdad (1940) and Morgan The Pirate (1960).

At school, St Joseph’s Convent, Nainital, we saw a movie a week. It ranged from Mickey Mouse to even Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). I’ve even been exposed to Elia Kazan’s, Frank Capra’s and Spencer Tracy’s work when I was 10 years old. He blew me away because until I saw him, I was convinced that actors aren’t people onscreen, but unreal photographic tricks. How could anyone be so impossibly good-looking and perfect? Not a hair out of place.

There’s a film, The Old Man And The Sea (1958), which is not a terribly good film but it affected me greatly because, here was an actor who looked real, like my grandfather. When Spencer Tracy was sitting on that boat, he looked like a fisherman, sun burnt and wearing tattered clothes. That’s when I decided that I would be an actor, because I thought I could play this kind of a part. Cinema can’t be used as an educative tool. It’s not a medium of change

You’ve done films, television and theatre. What is the difference for an actor in being part of the three mediums?

Theatre is life, cinema is larger-than-life and TV is smaller than life. That’s the only way I can put it, in terms of the image that you see. As far as an actor’s work is concerned, I don’t think there is much of a difference. You got to have a certain showmanship and flair to be good on TV. You can be a contemplative actor, and be good in cinema. Theatre is life, cinema is larger- than-life and television is smaller than life.

Would you agree theatre is more a left-wing art form and cinema is right wing?

You could call it that. There are people, who use theatre as propaganda and political tool. Brecht, most importantly, whose plays were like pamphlets, literally; then there was Utpal Dutt in Calcutta, who also did very political plays and Baadal Sarkar too. I don’t know if there were any such activist people in the Hindi theatre apart from IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). But you can hardly call some of the pseudo broadway productions here, leftist in any way.

AmitabhOf the number of actors who are deeply influenced by your work, one of them is Kay Kay Menon. He has worked with you and Amitabh Bachchan. When asked to deconstruct the two of you in terms of how you go about your craft, he said that Amitabh Bachchan will take a scene, sit in a room, constantly rehearse it to get it right each time. Whereas with you, he said that if you’re given one take, the second time you do it, it will be completely different from the last one because the moment is lost.

Well, not completely different, but not identical. I don’t think actors should strive to produce a carbon copy of the previous performance. Your acting should bring freshness. People who call themselves spontaneous actors are lazy actors, who don’t bother to rehearse. I believe in preparation of not preparing and leaving that much freedom, so that your responses can differ depending on the stimulus that you receive from the other actors. If it demanded of me to do the same thing rehearsal after rehearsal, and take after take, I’d get very bored.

Personally, which method do you identify with in the theatre — the Stanislavski’s method or the Brechtian method?

The methods are extensions of each other. Brecht doesn’t contradict Stanislavski’s. He goes beyond. The Stanislavski system is like a person who has been in an accident, describing it; and the Brecht method is a person who has witnessed the accident, describing it. Brecht believed that the actors should not get involved emotionally. Even fake tears can cause an audience to weep. Brecht said that you must keep the audience objective because his plays were of a political nature. To keep the audience objective, it is important for the actors playing the parts also to be objective. Stanislavski propagated the subjective approach where you approach the character from inside, feeling whatever the character feels.

Have you done any film or perhaps a play, where you have been crazily involved with a character you have played, and it has been hard for you to get out of?

No. That’s all pure indulgence propagated by American actors. There is an instance of Daniel Day Lewis, who I consider a great actor. He was playing Hamlet on stage, and one day actually saw his own father’s ghost and not the ghost of Hamlet’s father. And then he went after this ghost, outside the theatre, and the audience was thinking this is part of the play. He was hallucinating and became Hamlet. That’s what happens when you become a character.

All the stuff about Robert De Niro driving a taxi for two years while working on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, I consider a practice for playing a taxi driver. You don’t need to do it for two years, you could have done it for six months or two months and you would have figured life. I can grant training as a boxer (for Raging Bull) because you need to do that physical work or Marlon Brando living in a wheel chair or Daniel Day-Lewis insisting on being cleaned and fed and so on, while he was doing My Left Foot (1989). I don’t think any of this is becoming the character.

Isn’t that easy though, for you to get a shot and then just go out for a smoke and then become the same person that you were before the shot?

While playing Pestonjee, I won’t go out and play a game of cricket in between shots whereas while doing something like Masoom (1983), I would. The camera catches everything and fakery most of all. So, you have to get your entire bodily apparatus functioning like the character even when you’re off camera. In something like Tridev (1989) or The Dirty Picture (2011), it’s different. The Dirty Picture would be fun to stay in character.I was convinced that actors aren’t people onscreen, but unreal photographic tricks

Dirty PictureHow many actors like the kind you played in The Dirty Picture, have you come across in the course of your career?

Quite a few. But I am not familiar with them. I hadn’t modelled anything on any of them except the look, which was in bits borrowed from different gentlemen, and the behaviour too. I didn’t want it to be a caricature. That would have been too easy and it would have seemed like a personal attack. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the character because when we first did the look test, it was looking over-the-top and ludicrous. Milan (director Milan Luthria) and I sat together and thought it’s not going to work.

Out of 225 characters that you’ve played on screen, there are only so many stories they say. Do you ever reference your character with another film? For example, a lot of people thought that your character in Masoom seemed like a younger version of what you played in Monsoon Wedding (2001). If the man in Masoom were to age, he would be the person in Monsoon Wedding.

This is a sharp observation. The Masoom guy could have grown old to become this kind (Monsoon Wedding) of person. In fact, the character I played in Main Hoon Na (2004) was also in a way the Masoom character. The starting point of the film was Masoom. I did a film recently in which no background was given for the character. But as an actor, the background I gave to it was the character I played in Jalwa (1987) because there’s a lot of talk about a sequel to it, which is never going to happen. But one of the ideas I had was similar to what I play in this film, a recluse who grows marijuana for a living. I used the memory of Jalwa sometimes while doing the film.

Imagining that guy retiring (from Jalwa) and becoming something like what you play in The Hunt?

I worked out the journey. How after battling the drug world; this guy becomes something like this. I worked out a strong story around it which I normally don’t do. An actor can’t be absolutely different in every film. It’s stupid to do it for the sake of it.

It’s famous about you that if asked a question, you are going to name names
I have become a bit careful because I sometimes name a name to underline a point, but people take it as a personal attack. So, I have become diplomatic.

People who call themselves spontaneous actors are lazy actors, who don’t bother to rehearse.

What was not a personal attack and something that’s also a part of legend is the way you rubbished the so-called new wave cinema of the ’70s and the ’80s. And one of the points you made was that, it was convenient cinema. Why did you feel so?
Because those guys, at least most of them, were not making it out of conviction. I was cast in film after film after film because I was working free of charge. Maybe, I could deliver goods in a few of those films that went in my favour.

But you were the superstar of…
...Of new-wave cinema? I guess so. Unfortunately, the new wave also had to have a star system because there were instances when I was told that if you and Shabana Azmi don’t work in this film, it wouldn’t get made. So, in what way is it any different from a money-hungry producer, who goes to a star and says, ‘Please please please kar lo meri film.’

You have also tried your hand at direction. A film by Naseeruddin Shah maybe?
No, I insisted it wouldn’t be called that because in no way was it my film. I consider myself only the director. And I am no good. It’s too much hard work. I would rather concentrate on acting and direction in theatre. That’s what I enjoy.

You’ve mentioned that during your stint as a director, you have to go through the humiliating experience of meeting a lot of people you don’t want to.
…and handling too many egos that you would rather have nothing to do with, and making quick decisions, which have to be the right ones, which I find myself chronically incapable of doing. I don’t think visually, that’s my shortcoming as a filmmaker. And I made the big mistake of imagining that all I needed to do was to get my actors to perform truthfully, which I can manage. And I had wonderful actors, who cooperated with me and went out of the way to accommodate me. What I overlooked was that you need a defining moment each time.

Do you feel it’s a hustler’s job?
Yes, it’s humiliating to peddle a script that you have written with love and sweat. You go to somebody (while miming flipping pages) ‘Hero kaun hai? Hero kaun hai?’ (Who is the hero, who is the hero??) And if you say, ‘Koi hero nahi hai?’ (there is no hero). He would say, ‘Kya? Hero nahi hai? Toh kaun dekhega ye?’ (What? There is no hero? Then who will watch this?)

When I was in the drama school, my parents used to stay in Mussorie. Sometimes I would travel to the place to meet them. I’d take a train from Delhi to Meerut and then a bus to Mussorie. And on the train, (a co-passenger would ask), ‘Kahan jaa rahe ho?’ (Where are you going) I would say, ‘Meerut jaa raha hoon.’ (I am going to Meerut).
He would ask, ‘Kya karte ho?’ (What do you do?) To which I would reply, ‘School mein padhta hoon.’ (I study in school) He would ask, ‘Kahan padhte ho?’ (Where do you study) To which I would reply, ‘National School of Drama.’ And his reaction would be, ‘Ayeein.’ (What?) ‘Accha (really)? National School of Drama. Drama ka bhi school hota hai! Ayeein, udhar kya seekhatein hain.’ (Really? There is a school for drama also? What exactly do they teach you there?) After a point, if someone asked me, ‘Kya karte ho? Padh rahe ho?’ (What do you do, are you studying) I would say, ‘Haan, padh raha hoon, BA kar raha hoon (Yes I am studying, I am doing my Bachelors in Arts). End of the conversation.

Do you remember any character that became bigger than you?
Ghalib. It’s a heavy burden to carry.

Your work in Ghalib is remembered even today in an era when TV is all about kitchen politics. Can we bring back something like Ghalib?
I doubt it because no one is interested in a 12-part series any longer. They are interested in 1,200-part TV series. And poor Gulzarbhai (director Gulzar) hasn’t been able to make another one after Ghalib. He hasn’t got money from Doordarshan or any other channel to make another series. He wanted to make a series on the stories of O Henry, but it was rejected. He had plans to make a TV series on a poet called Nazeer Akbarabadi, but that of course didn’t happen.

Do you see a filmmaker like Ashutosh Gowarikar who made Jodhaa Akbar taking up Ghalib for a film?
You need deep knowledge of the subject to tackle something like Ghalib. And Gulzarbhai had that knowledge. Whatever information you need about the character should be there in the script. You shouldn’t have to grow old researching the character.

A spate of award functions are ahead. And The Dirty Picture will be nominated…
I’ll be out of town. I will go underground. Award functions bore me. I’d have to carry my corpse out if I had to attend any of these award ceremonies.

Transcribed by Serena Menon and Prashant Singh

First Published: Jan 15, 2012 12:37 IST