The one thing that strikes you about Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah's personality is his perfect diction that flows in a rich baritone voice. But then as he talks, the thoughts and words strike you too.
A product of National School of Drama in Delhi, Naseeruddin Shah has been impressing Indian and international audience from the time he first captured their attention in Shyam Benegal's movie Nishant (1975). Since then, the extraordinary artist has never stopped impacting his fans with his power-packed performances.
Whether it was portraying Mirza Ghalib on television, playing a role in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in Hollywood, doing a voice over for Karadi Tales or being the hero in an out and out commercial film like Jalwa, there is something about Naseeruddin Shah that appeals to everyone. His explanation about his remarkable and eventful journey from theatre to movies to television is equally remarkably simple, and pithy — it "just happened."
"The fact that I started with serious movies was not out of choice. I was an unemployed actor then. I would have taken any role that came my way. I was lucky that I was spotted by Shyam Benegal and was cast in leading roles right away. I never decided to make myself exclusive to movies, or television or theatre.
There is no point in doing that since they are all performing media. I jumped at the opportunity to act on television when I got a chance, though I am not keen on doing it again since it is time consuming," he says.
It was once in a life time opportunity for theatre aficionados in Muscat to see the icon of Indian film and theatre industry take stage for the NPA Events-organised play Dear Liar in Oman. As he speaks it is evident that Naseeruddin has a special love for theatre.
"I love theatre and that is why I do it. There is no other reason," he states in a matter of fact tone. The actor spoke with high regard about the Indian theatre guru, the late Satyadev Dubey.
"We met through Dubeyji plays in 1975. He was a genius. There can be absolutely no two ways about it. His contribution to theatre in Bombay is greater than anyone else's. Dubeyji worked under very difficult conditions. He never had a home. He used to live in a guest house all his life. His determination was totally inspiring. He was greatly convinced about his vision for theatre which went against the grand kind of theatrical style of people like Alyque Padamsee and so on," he said.
Explaining that it was a great learning experience to work with him, Naseeruddin said, "He had a knack of making us do the right things during a play. He never wanted to waste time in experimenting. He knew what he wanted. With his vast experience of theatre and tremendous knowledge, he was able to distil what he wanted to convey. He laid great emphasis on pronounciation (ucharan). That helped us greatly."
He went on to add, "Dubeyji devised his own kind of group, his own style which depended on the contacts and not on the decorative elements of theatre."
For him, the greatest benefit of working with Dubeyji is to get introduced to George Bernard Shaw. Though I had studied Shaw in school and college, Dubeyji's obsession with Shaw was something else. I had never seen a person so much in love, awe and complete understanding of the writer that Shaw was. Bringing Shaw into our lives is the biggest favour he did us."
His drama group Motley, formed in 1979, is still active in the theatre scene in India.
"We manage to stage a play a year," he said. Speaking about the theatre scene in India, Naseeruddin said, "The encouraging sign is that there are a number of young people engaged in theatre today. That wasn't the case 20 years ago.
"There are young people doing other jobs and coming back to theatre in the evening.
Besides, there is a lot of new playwriting by these youngsters which is what we really need. I can't say signs in theatre are heartening but there is enthusiasm among youngsters."
About the NRIs' response to Indian plays, Naseeruddin said, "They love it. The last play which Ratna Pathak Shah (his wife) directed, Walk in the Woods, was about Indian and Pakistani characters. We did it in Toronto and Dubai, and received a great response. If you take an Urdu play, it makes all of them teary-eyed and sentimental. They love it and are not objective about it. The response is very warm," he said, and added, "We have also staged it for audiences from other nationalities in Amsterdam and Bonn. No one understood a word."
On why there is no Broadway in India, he said, "We don't need Broadway. Thank god that we don't have a Broadway. Imagine having a theatre which will dish out the same stuff that Hindi movies offer. Broadway is jadugari (magical). Besides, nobody will invest in that kind of theatre."
On having been able to play the role of Mirza Ghalib on Indian television, Naseeruddin is grateful.
"Nothing of this quality has been attempted. It has been highly educative. It was absolutely wonderful. It was my introduction to Urdu poetry for which I will always be grateful to Gulzar bhai."
On Indian cinema celebrating the 100 year milestone, Naseeruddin says, "The only thing that has happened in the last 100 years is that Hindi cinema has gone senile. We have been making the same kind of movies for the last 100 years and are still not tired. I don't know what is there to celebrate.
There are some people doing good movies which exactly used to happen in the past when you had people like Shyam Benegal trying to make good cinema."
Talking about evolution of Indian cinema, he said, "We now don't have art and commercial films. Now, you have Rs 100 crore movie and 1 crore movie. Earlier too, it was about money, but the terms used were "art, parallel, alternative and commercial."
These terms created by the press did a lot of damage, I have to say. It immediately categorised films because people started to say "art film hai, nahin dekhna (it is an art film, I don't want to watch)." Yet many so called "art films" did extremely well at the box office. Even then, there were instances of small movies busting the box office."
But he is grateful for the cinemas opportunity to try out what I learnt about acting, experience different people and test out my convictions about these things. I am grateful to the 70s' cinema though I knock it a lot. I am grateful to it."
Talking about Hollywood films, he said, "It is the same money grabbing monster that Bollywood is. The stars are treated well and nobody else. The difference is the scale and money. Otherwise they make the same kind of rubbish as is made by Bollywood."
Naseeruddin was very touched by the approach of Pakistan filmmakers he worked.
"One or two young people are trying to do something different. I was very touched by their approach. The young people desire to make something different. I have been visiting Pakistan frequently in the last five years and was very much affected by my meetings with the youth. I have interacted with a number of students at the Lahore University. There is a tremendous sense of ferment and unease with the current situation and they have a great desire to set things right."
He went on to add, "It was very stimulating to work with those people and the fact that they are working under such difficult conditions, since making the film is not the end of the story. You have to release the damn thing. You have to try to sell it. You have to beg and plead. It is very humiliating."
Naseeruddin has great faith that great cinema will emerge from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh because these countries are going through tough times. "I am not quoting off my head. If you look at it, great movies emerged from these countries Germany, Italy, France, Poland and Czech after World War II. All these countries suffered tremendously during the war. I don't say that suffering is an essential ingredient but having gone through national trauma, these countries somewhere set their heads right. We in India are just fat, happy and contented with ourselves. So I really don't think great cinema will ever emerge from India," he feels.
He believes that "art has to find its stimulus in reality. In a utopia, there would not be great art because everybody would be so contented."
The actor said that there no theatre or films were happening that were targetted at the children.
"It is because we treat children like morons. We don't credit them with having a mind of their own. We give them stupidity and expect them to be entertained by it. There is only utter nonsense that goes around in the name of children's film or theatre," he says.
"It is great to perform in a place like Oman which has many theatre enthusiasts," said Naseeruddin Shah. He lauded the efforts of NPA Events in bringing the play Dear Liar back after a decade.
"It was wonderful working with a professional team like the NPA Events after 10 years.
Their commitment to the cause of theatre remains consistent. We appreciate their support for the cause of theatre. It was great to liaise with Ashok Suvarna, executive director, NPA Oman once again. We look forward to coming and discovering the beautiful country too," said Naseeruddin Shah.