I wanted to sing, beat up bad guys but was terrible at it: Naseeruddin Shah
Naseeruddin Shah's soon-to-be-released autobiography, And Then One Day, is elegantly written and also brutally honest. In an interview with Brunch, he talks of his years in Ajmer to his tryst with cinema.Updated: Aug 31, 2014 18:02 IST
It’s a cloudy, damp evening in Mumbai and Naseeruddin Shah’s Bandra home is suffused with a soft golden light. The mellow setting seems just right for the 64-year-old actor – long considered to be the gold standard in acting – to talk about his soon-to-be-released autobiography, And Then One Day. There’s something of a rash of film stars’ memoirs these days. But Naseer’s book is different – rather like the man himself. It is elegantly written (no, there is no ghostwriter), but what really makes it stand out is its searing honesty.
“Why fantasise?” Naseer counters in that famous gravelly voice, as he lounges on a sofa, drinking tea. “If I’m going to paint myself in heroic colours, I might as well write a novel.” Naseer says he began writing about his life for his own “amusement”. He wrote intermittently over ten years and then gave the 100-odd pages he’d come up with to his friend, the historian Ramachandra Guha, who urged him to finish it.
And Then One Day spans Naseer’s life from his childhood to his early film career, ending rather abruptly around the time of his marriage to actress Ratna Pathak and the return of his daughter from his first marriage to India. In between are the crucial life-changing years at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Television Institute at Pune (FTII). This rather bald summary conceals tumultuous decades, the troughs of disappointment and regret balanced by the highs of bittersweet success and the discovery of enduring love. It’s quite a journey.
Naseer’s childhood was spent in Ajmer, the Rajasthani town dominated by the marble shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, where his father was the administrator. Soon enough though, Naseer and his two older brothers, Zameer and Zaheer, were packed off to St Joseph’s in Nainital.
In that cool and hilly setting, Naseer got his first taste of Hollywood films. The school would show English films every week and Naseer was swept away by the dashing Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper, by Charlie Chaplin’s whimsy, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers’ skill… Hindi films just couldn’t compete.
“My tastes were shaped by The Wizard of Oz and Tarzan rather than Dilip Kumar, whose films were actually the best Hindi films of the time,” recalls Naseer. “I saw Uran Khatola, but I’d also seen Knights of the Round Table. Where was the comparison? I saw Ben Hur. And then I saw Yahudi, which was an embarrassment. Dilip Kumar looks like he’s in another film. Right man, wrong movie.”
The Hollywood films also transported Naseer to a seductive world that he badly wanted to be part of, rather than the real world where he was. He didn’t care for studies unless it was poetry, literature or drama. As he says with a grin, all he knew of geography was that the Earth was round. When told to mark the Thar desert on a map, he would draw faces. History lessons were spent sketching beards on pictures of Akbar. “Pretending was the only thing that made sense to me,” he says. “I was dissatisfied with myself as a child. I wasn’t happy in my own skin.”
At the heart of this brooding discontentment, perhaps, was his difficult relationship with his father. Aley Mohammed Shah, not unusually, hoped for his son to ‘do’ something, to ‘become’ someone. But Naseer’s waywardness and poor performance in school only brought disappointment.
At a time when, as Naseer says, walloping your kids was considered normal, his father never lifted a finger on him. But neither did he perhaps try and ‘understand’ his child. This fraught relationship continued all their life, with the father struggling to come to terms with his son’s foolish dream of becoming an actor. And Naseer struggling with his father’s stern disapproval, terrified of him, but certain that the “urge could not be silenced”.
“Now, with the passage of time, now that I’m getting older and dealing with children myself, I can understand how my father must have felt about the fact that I ignored him,” says Naseer. “He felt I was indifferent to him. But I had to put on that indifference because I thought he was indifferent.”
Their relationship was further tested when Naseer went to study at AMU. Instead of applying himself to his studies, 19-year-old Naseer plunged into theatre – and an intense relationship with 34-year-old Purveen, a Pakistani studying medicine in Aligarh. Cheerful and loving, she was deeply supportive of his acting ambitions.
They ended up getting married on the 1st of November, 1969. But it did not – perhaps inevitably – end well. Naseer was, in his words, “insecure and ill-adjusted.” He had got admission to NSD and left for Delhi. In Aligarh, Purveen was already pregnant. Ten months after they got married, she gave birth to a baby girl, Heeba.
This is the point in the book where you pause and catch your breath in some surprise. Because Naseer, like a detached medical examiner conducting an autopsy, unsparingly chronicles how he resented the arrival of the baby, was too absorbed in his exciting new life in NSD to bother about marriage and fatherhood, and eventually stopped visiting, writing to or phoning Purveen altogether. Purveen soon left for London with her child, and it would be 12 years before Naseer saw Heeba again. Today, she is part of his family and his theatre company.
“My story wouldn’t have been complete without this chapter of my life,” says Naseer. “Purveen was hugely encouraging and I owe her a great deal in determining my direction and finding my spot.” He has been equally candid about other controversial aspects of his life too – such as being almost always stoned at various phases of his life. “I’m not recommending it or advocating it to anyone, but it was okay for me,” says Naseer. “It helped me become aware that I have a mind. I think I’d credit ganja with making me a little more intelligent!”
Though this is not to say that he has kept no secrets in his memoir. “I felt I didn’t have to tell the truth about everybody,” he says. “I had to safeguard some people.” And so he doesn’t reveal the name of the person he had a long-standing relationship with, right from his NSD days. She merely goes by the moniker R – maybe because the relationship ended and today, R is a happily married woman.
It was when Naseer was recovering from his broken relationship with R (soon after his film career took off with his first film Nishant) that he himself found The One. He was standing at a roadside sugarcane juice stall in Mumbai with theatre director Satyadev Dubey, discussing Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak, a play Dubey was directing, when Ratna Pathak, who was also acting in the play, turned up.
Framed: Naseeruddin Shah with wife Ratna Pathak Shah, the love of his life. The two got married in Ratna's mother's home - for sentimental reasons
It was a hot day and Naseer found it hard to take his eyes off the glowing, striking-looking young woman in front of him. He even considered the possibility of spending his life with her. As it turned out, he did. And if there’s one person in the book who is the object of his unstinted love and admiration, it is Ratna.
Naseer’s film career, a brilliant if complex and contradictory maze, began with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant, a film overflowing with the cream of Indian theatre talent, from Vijay Tendulkar to Mohan Agashe. The movie pushed Naseer into the forefront of the parallel cinema movement, and he got a string of powerful roles in films like Manthan, Bhumika, Sparsh, Aakrosh, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Bhavani Bhavai and too many others to enumerate.
Though his book has sketches of many of the people he worked with, he’s written next to nothing about Smita Patil. “I didn’t know her very well,” shrugs Naseer. “To be honest, I didn’t find her a very interesting person.”
He concedes that these films gave him the opportunity to play all kinds of roles, and gave him the reputation he acquired. But the experience was also disillusioning. Given their minuscule budgets, Naseer often ended up working for free or almost free. Even when the budget was better – as in the case of the Basu Bhattacharya-produced Sparsh – Naseer found he was not paid.
If he thought he was somehow being noble by not taking money, all it took was a poignant conversation with actor Satish Shah to disabuse him of the notion. “Satish asked me, ‘You think you’re doing something great? But what about people like me? How will we manage?’” says Naseer. “That’s when it struck me that I was being taken for a ride. I realised that a lot of directors were cashing in on me because they couldn’t get another actor for free. There were only a few exceptions – such as Shyam Benegal, who was always very fair.”
What kept Naseer’s home fires burning were the commercial films he did. Contrary to popular perception, he says he never dumped off-beat films to do commercial films or vice versa. “I was doing both alongside,” he explains. It is also untrue, he points out, that he did not want to act in commercial films. “I wanted to sing, beat up the bad guys, fight,” he smiles. “But I was terrible at it.”
In his first commercial film, Sunaina, Naseer was anything but impressive. Nor was he in most of the other such films he did (anyone remember Hero Hiralal?). “I couldn’t do it and not for want of trying,” he admits. “The reason I wasn’t good in these movies is because I just couldn’t buy into the kind of synthetic drama they contained. I have no clue how Mr Bachchan or Dilip Kumar did it. The degree of excellence these two gentlemen have…they did the kind of acting one aspired to but couldn’t do.”
But Naseer is aware – how could he not be? – that he was, indeed is, regarded as one of the greatest actors in Hindi cinema. Tell him that and he doesn’t look entirely pleased. “I’ve never taken it seriously,” he says. “It’s nice… But it created problems for me as far as my development was concerned. I couldn’t even bring myself to sing a song properly on screen! I didn’t relish terms like ‘method actor’ or ‘committed actor’.” Almost as a reaction, as therapy, he did films like Tehelka, where he dressed in drag. “I had to do it,” he insists. “I had to chuck this mantle of serious actor.”
But it was too late. Naseer’s formidable reputation had already been cemented through his art films. There are worse things an actor can be stuck with. But like we said, Naseer is different. As a young man, he yearned for fame and recognition. Today, he’s not sure whether he likes it anymore. “If I’m not recognised, will I miss it or not? I don’t know,” he says.
As the golden evening light darkens, it’s time to leave. Not without giving a message to Naseer however: he should write part two of his memoir now. He smiles and says, “Well, as E Alkazi told us in NSD, keep your audience wanting more”.
My feelings for Purveen were reaching obsessive proportions now and it had become normal for us to meet every evening – if I hadn’t stayed over, that is...Fascinated by her energy and constant good cheer, her vast learning and varied life experience, her interest in almost everything, her skill with her hands, her compassion towards life and the attentions she bestowed on me, I began to feel a deep gratitude for her friendship and an overwhelming love for her... We soon became an ‘item’, in Aligarh parlance. Wherever she was present it was taken for granted I would be too...
One morning, answering the door at Purveen’s I saw two gents whose white bush shirts, khaki trousers and brown shoes instantly announced their identity. ‘CID,’ said the one in front. ‘Miss Murad lives here?’ Purveen went even higher in my estimation. What an interesting life she leads, thought I, and had a quick vision of myself in mackintosh and felt hat, smoke curling from my cigarette, flashing my identity card at a terrified wrongdoer.
Turned out that they hadn’t come to dispatch her or me on a guns-and-gals mission, they had come to check if she was still in India and to remind her that her visa was due to expire soon. Those were days of frosty relations and mutual suspicion between the neighbours. The Bangladesh conflict was beginning to fester and the explosion was round the corner. Pakistanis visiting India had to register themselves and report weekly to a police station, and in some cases they were even kept under surveillance through their stay.
I have no idea if she too was, but she had stayed on long enough to warrant notice... A couple of days later I was taken into confidence. She was on the verge of overstaying in India and the penalty for that would be deportation and a ban from ever visiting again. She had to return to Pakistan within the month. There was no way for her to stay on but to seek Indian citizenship which, considering the existing situation, would be far from expeditious.
There was one way, however, by which she could stay and that was to marry an Indian citizen. To me there didn’t appear to be any hitch at all. Here I was, a bona fide Indian citizen, madly in love with her; all I had to do was wait for my big break and I’d be marrying her anyway, sooner or later.
The news of Richard Attenborough’s dream project—to film Gandhiji’s life—had been circulating in India since I was a child in school... The person slated to play the part then was Sir Alec Guinness but at that time it was just an announcement.
Over the intervening years many other respected thespian names were floated: Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Hopkins, Brian Blessed, John Hurt. And just around the time that Aakrosh came out, the news broke that an Indian actor would be chosen to play the part and Sir Richard was to visit Bombay shortly to look for such an actor.
My antenna vibrated madly, I thought I was in with a pretty good chance... I thought I could age convincingly, I had done it several times on stage, but getting the eponymous role in a huge Hollywood biopic—it all seemed too unreal to actually happen but reason told me it wasn’t impossible at all. Which European actor would be able to get Gandhi’s body language, I thought vainly; and there weren’t too many other accomplished actors in India either who could manage the physical resemblance...
Not suspecting that the dice was loaded, I got an appointment to meet Sir Richard, friendliness itself. He had just seen Aakrosh, waxed eloquent about my work and kept addressing me as ‘maestro’... Every second actor in Bombay was making the rounds of the Taj Hotel where he was staying, in the hope of a meeting, but I secured another one at which he asked me if I would like to travel to London for a screen test.
I was growing a beard for a forthcoming movie but hastily got rid of it, leaving the moustache, got into one of the new suits I had by now acquired and embarked for Vilayat for the first time, travelling executive class along with Smita Patil, Bhakti Barve and Rohini Hattangady, all contenders for the part of Kasturba Gandhi...
My spirits soaring like the clouds on that gorgeous summer day, I swaggered down Oxford Street, soaking London in... Next morning at Shepperton Studios, the first sight that greeted me in the corridor was the back of Ben Kingsley’s head and my heart sank. He turned around as we were introduced and it went further down somewhere near my ankles. The man already looked more like Gandhi than I ever could. I had been too smug in my belief that there couldn’t be an English actor who could manage the resemblance but here he was right in front of my eyes...
I later deduced that Ben had in fact already been cast, as had Rohini, and this whole business of tom-tomming all of us being tested and sneaking the news to the press in India that I had been chosen was a masquerade conducted to pre-empt objections that inevitably would have arisen if a white actor were announced straight away...
It’s a pungent irony that in my entire career this is the one part I went after and it eluded me. I don’t know if I was so eager to play the part itself or eager for the worldwide exposure it would involve. I did think though, when I saw it, that Ben was quite wonderful, he got everything right except Gandhiji’s ear-to-ear smile.
I was not at that time skilled enough to have pulled it off the way he did, though. My curiosity to know if I could, however, was finally stilled many years later when I played Gandhi on the stage in a hugely successful production; and merely repeated that performance in a film with so much prosthetic on my face it could have made a Mongolian actor resemble Gandhi if his head were shaved and he wore granny glasses.
Shabana and I over the decades have worked together in more films than you can shake a script at. Her dramatic abilities are too well documented to need a testimonial from me so I won’t go there, except to say that but for the somewhat smug reverence she has for her own acting and her tendency to perform with background music playing in her head not to mention the eccentric preference for her right profile over her left (or is it the other way around?)
I have never found her to be anything but a consummate professional ... Playing off her has always been non-competitive, full of mutual regard and trust and, therefore, a great joy... Never once while working have I seen her at the mercy of her moods or indulging in displays of temperament; something I, on the other hand, have often been guilty of.
I had looked up to her ever since she had conducted a class in speech in our first year at the Film Institute, and receiving her encouragement and approval now was a great high. Many of my personal favourites among the films I have done are the ones with Shabana; films it was generous of her, a mainstream star, to consent to do with me – a nobody...
Despite spending so much time together, we have somehow escaped becoming close on a personal level, which I am inclined to think is not a bad thing. We do consider each other to be friends, but visit each other’s homes on an average once every two years or so. The roles in our real-life relationship are not at all defined so when we meet there are no expectations, and when we approach two characters at work it’s like drawing those people on a clean slate, the baggage of things personal does not intrude.