I did whatever the hell I could… that’s my reward: Naseeruddin Shah

When you actually manage to pin down a legend, who makes no bones about enjoying being a media recluse, you ensure you pick his brains about all and sundry. That’s precisely what Shubarna Mukerji Shu did with Naseeruddin Shah.

 With ‘Dedh Ishqiya’, he was back to playing the good ol’ romantic with his heart on his sleeve. Sipping our tea and discussing the sequel, movies and inspiration seemed too tempting… and inadvertently, also unraveled the person behind the legend and the legend behind the actor.

 Being Iftikhar…

I did whatever the hell I could… that’s my reward: Naseeruddin Shah

He is not me, far removed. To begin with, he is a thief. I had to find it in me to be able to play such a person. With every character we play – be it a thief, a priest or a saint, a slum-dweller or a murderer – I have to find the potential in myself to be such a person. He here deems himself to be in love, to be a poet. All of us have every kind of potential in us, everyone falls in love, the emotion in right us. As for pretending to be a poet, I have pretended to be Mirza Ghalib quite successfully, so pretending to be a modern day poet was not so difficult. I would say pretending to be in love with someone like Madhuri Dixit, is not difficult at all!

Acting and its charm…

Film acting has, to a certain extent, lost its charm. In some of the films I did in the mid-phase of my career, I really wondered why I did them. I did them in the hope of making a mark in the commercial movies and I also accepted anything that came my way which was of a different nature but then I was hounded by these chaps. I was cast in every damn film that the NFDC made. Any film made with a budget of Rs.3.5-7 lakh, I was cast in and those guys won’t take no for an answer!

There were so many other young actors around at that time, none of them got leading parts. They deserved to have got the leading parts and all of those parts came to me. I don’t deny I felt flattered and great, but I did wonder – there are a lot of actors who could have played that part… why have I been chosen? Is it only because I am available and I don’t charge these guys money? The thought did start to bother me, so I put off a lot of those new wave filmmakers because of that…

However, if you have already signed up for a bad film, you are kind of stuck. All you can hope for is that the school master has fallen off his bicycle and broken his neck. But then if it’s a movie you enjoy, like ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ or a film I recently did with Homi (Adajania), ‘Finding Fanny Fernandes’, absolutely glorious fun, you just can’t wait to get onto the sets.

It’s the work itself that makes it fun, nothing to do with the company. Though the company, in both these films, was also fun. But it has nothing necessarily to do with that, it is the output…The chance of playing a part which people of my age don’t normally get. So everything pointed to the positive for these films. But that doesn’t mean the others are out of my life. Some things don’t necessarily change with time.

My last release was ‘Crackpot’ (that’s the name he chooses to give ‘Jackpot’!). I have not seen the film. I know you are itching to ask me about Sunny Leone, she is a very sweet girl and very hardworking. Please don’t ask me about Sachiin Joshi. As for my wig, it was a pain in the neck but I thought it looked kind of cool. So what I am trying to say is, you take the rough with the smooth, I guess. You cannot expect everything to go your way. So I go by instinct. And my instinct is often wrong. But that’s alright. I don’t regret a single film I have done.

Anger bouts on set

I lose it only when I feel that I have been guided wrongly or I haven’t been guided at all. If people are intimidated, I don’t know what I can do about that because I don’t make it a habit to throw my weight around. I just try to do what the director asks of me. In most cases where I have enjoyed my work, in films like ‘Masoom’, ‘Mirza Ghalib’, ‘Monsoon Wedding’, Shyam Benegal’s films or Kundan (Shah)’s and so on, there has never been any problem. I don’t think any one of them will call me a difficult actor. Abhishek (Chaubey) doesn’t find me intimidating either because he knows his job.

When I confront a director and say, ‘Hey I don’t think this is right, and perhaps we should try it this way,’ normally I find that the directors like Abhishek would try it. If what I am saying is right he will incorporate it but I have met others who would say, ‘This is the way I want it’. So if they say it with certainty that this is the way they want it, then I do it like that… like in many commercial films with Subhash Ghai and all, people like that who would demonstrate to me how they wanted the acting. So I did that kind of shit and it looked like shit but I did it. I don’t think I gave Subhash Ghai, Rajeev Rai or Umesh Mehra a hard time either.

Where I did turn difficult was when I felt that a director was vacillating and didn’t really know what he wanted. I don’t have any problem with a director who knows what he wants – even if he tells you, ‘Show me anger’, you show him anger. What gets my goat is when he goes into complex psychological states, saying the character is confused, he is also betrayed, he is also hurt and he is completely shattered – all these things mean nothing. Then I lose it. And that’s the kind of director I have also often encountered and those are the incidents that people have heard about, that I kicked the director’s ass and so on… So yeah, I did on occasion, but they thoroughly deserved it.

Favourite films

I like all kinds of films, there is no one genre that is my favourite. I loved Shammi Kapoor’s movies. ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ is the greatest film made in India, and ‘Guide’, a close second. I love Vijay Anand’s films, Bimal Roy’s, Raju Hirani’s films, Kishore Kumar’s films. Mehmood, I think was the greatest comedian we ever had. So my taste is varied…

Just because I have been more recognised in a certain kind of cinema doesn’t mean I like only those films. My favourite film of all time is perhaps ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, which was a masterpiece as a film and a great story, superbly told. Which is what a film should be. I have been very lucky that in the past 40 years I have been able to work in at least four to five movies which, I think, will be remembered…

The man behind the inspiration

The actor who has inspired me is no one your readers would have heard of – he is Geoffrey Kendal, known – if known at all – as Jennifer Kapoor’s father, Shashi Sa’ab’s father-in-law. I have watched him since I was five years old. He used to come and perform in our school. He had a troupe called Shakespearana which performed plays by Shakespeare, Sir George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde etc. Spencer Tracy, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn – these are my favourite actors but only Geoffery Kendal has inspired me. His whole attitude towards his work was one-off. He was English, but he decided to spend his life performing Shakespeare for people who needed it.

When I met him, I told him I thought he was greater than Laurence Olivier or Gielgud, why didn’t he stay there and become a knight or a lord?! Imagine, he chose this life, to be without a home, travelling around the world teaching Shakespeare to schools not even doing commercial performances, and getting nothing for it. They had one little trunk which had props and costumes and used to travel by jeep and train to whoever wanted to see them. I have never heard Shakespeare spoken better than he did. He is the man because of whom I became an actor.

The reward

A happy life, to die without regrets. I did whatever the hell I could. For me, that’s my reward.

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