In the age of golden silence, Naseeruddin Shah is a man of many words. He is one of India’s most versatile actors, a legendary theatre artist and director. With his latest release Kaun Banegi Shikharwati, a 10-episode dramedy, streaming on Zee5, the 71-year-old actor has once again proven that he can make you laugh as easily as leave you teary-eyed. Never afraid to experiment, Shah portrays with equal ease the blind protagonist Anirudh of Sparsh (won him his first National Award) and Gulfaam Hassan, the villain in the guise of a musician, of Sarfarosh. In his latest, Shah is an erstwhile maharaja who is targeted for tax evasion and his assistant (played by Raghubir Yadav) plots a convoluted solution that involves reuniting with his four estranged daughters.
“It’s like ‘King Lear’ turned on its head! I accept any part on one basis—if it sounds like it’s going to be fun and this one sure was,” says Shah. It stars Lara Dutta, Soha Ali Khan, Kritika Kamra and Anya Singh as his daughters. “These are four lovely ladies and it was delightful to spend time with and be pampered by them. Each one of them possesses a distinct personality and they’re wonderful actors as well,” he lauds. About Yadav, he says, “He has been one of my favourites ever since I saw him on stage in the ’70s in Delhi.” Shah elaborates how Yadav’s strength lies in effortlessly playing characters, being “unrecognisable from one role to another” and counts his performance in Massey Sahib (1985) as one of the high points of contemporary Hindi cinema. “This is actually the first time we worked together and we got on like a house on fire,” he adds.
Shah cherishes the OTT platform with several of his short films and web-series on the anvil. He will also be seen in interesting cameos in Shakun Batra, Ranjan Palit and Dibakar Bannerji’s forthcoming films. “I have several back-to-back shoots coming up when I finish Taj (web-series for ZEE5) which I am currently shooting,” he says. For all those waiting for Shah to be on stage, he says, “I won’t be back on stage till the middle of the year.”
For him, comedy is one of the toughest genres. Shah who has acted in the cult comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, says, “When shooting for Jaane Bhi Do... I didn’t think a single thing was funny in it—that film was hell to shoot,” he recalls. Comedy is harder to pull off than serious stuff because if you find yourself funny the audience won’t, believes Shah. “Actors are self-congratulatory people. They themselves are often amused by their own antics when they attempt comedy and that is fatal.”
Laughing comes with a cost now. “That we have lost the ability to laugh at ourselves is a fact that is staring us in the face and we are gradually losing our sense of humour, as well, ever since everyone has become the moral custodian of everyone else,” he says. Is that why there’s very little satire or dark comedy in Hindi cinema now? Shah believes it’s best to not get nostalgic as the days of Guru Dutt’s films or Mehmood’s attempt at funny but meaningful cinema, which “no one took seriously”, are long over. “Hindi cinema’s track record of comedies is abysmal. As for satire, the only film that comes to mind is Jagte Raho—an unacclaimed masterpiece. On TV, there was Ye Jo Hai Zindagi. In fact, trying to shoot the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro Mahabharat scene today would probably get us lynched!.”
When Shah speaks, people listen. “It’s scary to think how long this poison that has been unleashed by our top leaders will take to dissipate—I suspect it will be decades because it’s probably always been present under the surface and suddenly it has gained legitimacy. But I am also certain that sooner or later people will realise the self-destructiveness of hate. The rewriting of history and the burning of books of course is a staple tool of any fascist state,” he explains.
In an industry where actors are known to appease the powers-to-be, Shah has never spared anyone, including self. Be it his riveting memoir And Then One Day where he is brutal about his delinquencies or the painful outbursts in media about feeling alienated, Shah commands awe and trolls in equal measure. Why are you so honest or brave? “I don’t know whether I am honest and brave or just foolhardy but the fact is when something riles me nothing can hold me down.” An actor, driven by emotion, on and off stage, torrents of words pour out of him. He is in no mood to censor himself—neither now nor ever!
Dream Role: None
Favourite Author: It’s a tie between Ismat Chughtai and Anthony Burgess
Currently Reading: Moin Mir’s The Lost Fragrance of Infinity
Favourite Phrase: Aaj shooting cancel ho gayee (Today shooting’s been cancelled)
Pandemic Learning: Don’t take anything for granted ever again. Also, politicians will use anything to their advantage.