Happy 70th birthday, Naseeruddin Shah (Or “Naseer”, As I Know Him Inside My Head)

He’s just rolling a cigarette and listening a lot in ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’, and he still manages to paint a portrait of a complex, self-absorbed man who’s hard to hate even though he abandoned his son
Happy 70th birthday, Naseeruddin Shah (Or “Naseer”, As I Know Him Inside My Head)

In 2008, I spoke to a bunch of "multiplex-movie makers" about their predecessors from the 1970s and 80s, when this kind of film used to be called "parallel cinema". I asked if the multiplex movement had thrown up "stars" like the quartet of Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. Navdeep Singh said, "Not quite yet, but there's a bunch of people on their way: Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, KK Menon, Konkona Sensharma. I might even include Abhay Deol in that list." Anurag Kashyap said, "Yes, you have Irrfan today (though the smaller filmmakers can't afford him any more), along with Sharman Joshi, Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak." Rajat Kapoor named many of the same names and added, "But these actors are at the beginning of their careers, so let's see how they would be remembered after 10 years, when they have a significant body of work behind them."

This interview—and especially what Rajat Kapoor said—sprang to my mind when I was thinking about a way to write about Naseeruddin Shah, who turned seventy this week. I don't need to tell you what a great actor he is, or point out that he doesn't even need a great role to be a great actor. He's just rolling his own cigarette and listening a lot in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and he still manages to paint a portrait of a complex, self-absorbed man who's hard to hate even though he abandoned his son. Right from the point he shakes hands with the son (Imran, played by Farhan Akhtar), Naseer just—as today's kids would say—kills it.

"Naseer." That's what many of us call him, those of us who watched him first on Doordarshan in the 1980s, and grew to be cinephiles with the help of his films. There's a level of familiarity you have with "stars" that you don't have with talents that don't spring instantly to mind when talking about an era. "Naseer", "Smita", "Shabana" and "Om" were like "Rafi","Lata", "Asha", "Kishore". It wasn't disrespect. It was more that you'd internalised them so much, they were such a part of your waking consciousness (and even your dreaming consciousness) that formalities weren't needed—the way they were needed with say, a "Kulbhushan Kharbanda" or even a "Deepti Naval". To me, they never were "Kulbhushan" or "Deepti". Maybe that's one way of saying how Naseer defined and dominated an era of a certain kind of Hindi cinema.

Anyway, let's get back to that father-son stretch in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. A slow half-smile blooms on Naseer's face as he shuffles towards his now-grown son. Later, he will tell Imran, "Tumhare baare mein kai dafa socha hai maine, ke… kabhi na kabhi, kahin na kahin, shaayad tumse mulaqat hogi. Par yeh nahin samajh paya kabhi ke tumse miloonga to kahoonga kya." (I've thought about you many times, that we'll meet at some point. But I've never thought about what I'd say to you.) Naseer plays this meeting-the-son scene with the knowledge of that line that will come later. You see the transition from "Oh fuck, the moment I kinda-sorta have been expecting all my life has finally arrived" to "Wow, I'm shaking hands with my son, and I'm enjoying this feeling more than I thought I would".

A performance is rarely ever just about one person. It has to do with the exquisite writing (Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti) and staging and also the quality of the co-star. My point (and my reason for picking Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara as opposed to, say, Paar or Sparsh) is simply that forty-four years after his first film appearance—as the "boy behind the dead doctor"—Naseer was still killing it. That first film, by the way, was Mohan Kumar's Rajendra Kumar-Saira Banu starrer, Aman (1967), which, seen from today's standpoint, had another brief appearance by a luminary: Lord Bertrand Russel himself. Dwell, for a second, on how auspicious this sounds today. Naseer's first Hindi film had a Nobel Prize-winner in it.

Aman is a good vantage point to discuss Naseer. The film starred Rajendra Kumar, whose melodramatic acting was at the other end of the spectrum Naseer wanted to (and would) inhabit. It also had Balraj Sahni, who Naseer adored, though not as much as he adored Shammi Kapoor. He once said, "The only one who I enjoyed watching in songs was Shammi Kapoor. I knew I could never be a Shammi Kapoor. When you see a performance and feel 'I couldn't have done it', that's the kind of performance you really admire." (When he saw a Dilip Kumar or a Balraj Sahni, he felt he could do what they did.) That perhaps explained his push-pull relationship with commercial cinema, the fact that he would have liked to do those films but—in his eyes, and despite his many tries—couldn't.

He says as much in his memoir, And Then One Day. It's a fabulous read, and an unflinching one. Naseer professes his admiration for Shabana while also noting the "somewhat smug reverence she has for her own acting and her tendency to perform with background music playing inside her head." He was equally hard on himself. "My attitude to Hindi cinema turned even more condescending, possibly because I couldn't see myself fitting in it. I was resentful in advance of being cast in roles it would hurt my ego to play… Though I have to say the thought that I was not qualified to be the lead in popular movies pinched greatly, so this reaction was very possibly my defence mechanism working in advance to counter the rejection I anticipated…" He allowed that "the only two who could make the schmaltzy Hindi film dialogue and ersatz situations believable were Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan and I was nowhere in their league."

Some stretches in the memoir make you wonder how much actors really know about themselves. Naseer dismisses Method acting, for "giving the actor nothing except a momentary high of wallowing in memories." But read what he says about his father. At one point, we get: "I had never cared for him just as he had never cared for me." But elsewhere, on learning that his father, after an illness, wanted him to stay on another day, Shah exults, "He actually wanted my company." Could it be—could it just be—that some of this complicated father-son relationship, some of these memories snuck into Naseer's performance as the distant father in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara? In other words, is it possible that Naseer did, at times, use the very Method that he dissed?

It's fascinating to chew on all this, because of the incredible variety and body of work Naseer has built up since his first major role in Shyam Benegal's Nishant (1975), which also featured Shabana. (Was that where he first heard the "background music playing inside her head"?) Then, of course, there's Naseer, the legend of the stage. In And Then One Day, he suggests that his first love—probably his only love—was theatre. His earliest memory is that of a performance, probably a nautanki or a Ram Leela. "What has stayed burned into my mind is the thickly painted face of a person up there…" And in boarding school, when he was part of a group that enacted scenes from The Merchant of Venice, he discovered the high of being on stage. "[It] was like being submerged in warm rose water. I didn't want to ever get off."

In these COVID times, when are we likely to see a performer back on the sets, or back on a stage in front of a hundred strangers? This question comes up with every actor, of course, but more so with senior actors. It's a little heartbreaking to note that the future is uncertain. But Naseer remains Naseer. News emerged during the early part of the lockdown that, in addition to helping in the kitchen, he was reading Shakespeare plays to his son. I bring this bit up not just because it's about theatre, but because "What Naseeruddin Shah Is Doing During The Lockdown" is still news. And you know how the brutal film news cycle works: you get written about only if you are guaranteed to get eyeballs. I go back to what Rajat Kapoor said: "But these actors are at the beginning of their careers, so let's see how they would be remembered after 10 years…" Well, here we are, fifty-three years after Aman, still remembering Naseer. He's the rare "actor" who also became a star.

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