Naseeruddin Shah: “I Do Have A Utopian View of the World”

The veteran actor talks about his latest directorial venture, the younger generation of actors, and reflects on the idea of legacy
Naseeruddin Shah: “I Do Have A Utopian View of the World”

Naseeruddin Shah's recent short film, Man Woman Man Woman (MWMW), released on YouTube in August this year, marks his return to the director's chair, following his directorial debut in Yun Hota... Toh Kya Hota (2006). It follows a young couple, portrayed by Vivaan Shah and Saba Azad, who come to the realisation that their single parents, essayed by Tarun Dhanrajgir and Ratna Pathak Shah, have recently started seeing each other as well. In contrast to the myth surrounding Shah's image as an intense and intimidating actor, this film showcases his lighter and more buoyant side. 

The film also has a certain whimsy to it, the closest example of something similar perhaps would be another film (also a Ratna Pathak Shah starrer) Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (2008), which has Savitri (Ratna) conversing with the portrait of her husband (Shah), who responds with prideful remarks about his lineage (the remarks, and the bickering, are mined for comedy). Though the short film induces a similar gleefulness, it is also awkwardly executed in scenes where Shah orchestrates a kitchen mishap or depicts a sudden traffic stop. The final product, however, exudes enough warmth to be characterised as extremely hopeful.

When I mentioned to Shah that people often expect a film closer to Govind Nihalani when they see the credit "Directed by Naseeruddin Shah," yet he has crafted a film akin to Zoya Akhtar's style, Shah burst into the hearty laughter for which he’s known. During our conversation, he candidly shared his regrets regarding his directorial debut, the valuable lessons he applied to his short film, insights into the current state of Hindi cinema, and his admiration and envy for the emerging crop of actors. 

Excerpts from the conversation:

FC: I remember reading around (the release of) Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (2006) that you would never go back to directing. What about Man Woman Man Woman convinced you otherwise?

Naseeruddin Shah (NS): Making Yun Hota… was a very sad experience for me. I think I wasn’t up to the task. I had a team which wasn’t very cooperative, but I have to admit that it was ultimately my fault. I made a lot of wrong choices: including ones in the screenplay, which I realised was faulty much later. And it was a bum trip. I decided that I would never do it again, because it was a lot of hardwork and it still ended up in the trash-can. It was embarrassing for me, and I still haven’t rewatched the film. I’d resolved I wouldn’t make another feature film, which I still think I won’t, but the medium of short films really appealed to me. It’s because so many wonderful short films I’ve acted in are mostly made by young filmmakers, who seem to be trying something unconventional, where they don’t have to pander to the whims of a producer or distributor, where they’re not compelled to cast stars, or have unnecessary fights or song sequences. There are many little short films – not just the ones I’ve acted in, but also films starring Jackie (Shroff), Ratna (Pathak Shah) and Raghubir Yadav, Neena Gupta and Tisca Chopra. 

A Still from Man Woman Man Woman
A Still from Man Woman Man Woman

I chanced upon this story of a friend, who had been unmarried all her life. She was 65 when she met this 70-year-old widower. They met online initially, and then hit it off. They proceeded to tie the knot – and I’ve not seen this lady happier. I think it’s been around 10 years since they got married. She’s been in a blissful state since, we meet them very often. I always thought this would make for a very sweet love story. I tried to write it, but it was going nowhere. 

Meanwhile, Ratna was getting a few offers around romances of elderly couples – which spurred into top-gear. The idea of the son and the daughter came like a brainwave – I thought it was a lovely dilemma. I didn’t want anyone to be the sacrificial figure, I didn’t want it to be a sentimental and sloppy film. I wanted to represent today’s youth, and the old people of today’s generation – who are perhaps cooler than the younger generation. I wrote a rough script, sent it to Hussain Dalal, who helped me get it registered. I’d written it with Ratna, Vivaan (Shah) and Saba (Azad) in mind. It went through many iterations, with some valuable suggestions coming from Vivaan and Ratna. Many sentimental things got cut out, and it took about a year to finalise a draft I considered satisfactory. We also changed a few things while shooting – Imaad (Shah) was an associate director on set. He made some wonderful suggestions for the film’s climax.

I remembered that I’d been approached by Malavika Banerjee of Large Short Films, years ago – she’d asked me if I wanted to make something. At the time, I had no intention to make anything, but when I reached out to her – she was immediately on board. She spoke to her bosses, and we got the money to make the film we wanted. We shot it in 2022 around July, in six days it was done. Those six days were absolutely exhausting for me. I resolved I’ll never make another feature film for sure. But I’m not opposed to making another short film.

Ratna Pathak Shah in Man Woman Man Woman
Ratna Pathak Shah in Man Woman Man Woman

FC: What’s a lesson from your directorial debut that you carried into the short film?

NS: Good performances don’t make a film. In Yun Hota…, I just decided to take the best actors around and I had this marvellous cast. All of them cooperated beautifully, several friends of mine – Tinu Anand, Rajat Kapoor and Makarand Deshpande – all rallied around me, for little to no money. At a moment’s notice, all of them were on-board. But I was rushed into the film — I wrote a script that makes me cringe today. I see the possibilities of the world I wanted to create. I thought my job was to get these wonderful actors into the space where they’d be able to perform to the best of their ability, and I had to cover those performances. That was my big mistake. I should’ve paid more attention to the screenplay, I should’ve consulted someone like Shyam (Benegal) or Shekhar Kapur – or other filmmakers I admire. I couldn’t because I was rushed into it. In this one, I knew that the performances are important but I also knew that I had to pay attention to how the scenes were set up. The colour schemes of the scene. It’s not enough to have good performances in the can, and hope that it can carry the film. I was more attentive towards the entire frame, rather than to individual performances, which was what I’d done in Yun Hota….

FC:I almost saw the film as your attempt to add a footnote to correct this perception around you of being this overly intense, intimidating persona. Am I reading too much?

NS: I don’t think you’re reading too much, but there wasn’t a conscious effort. I thought it was a story of our times, and I think it’s a film I would’ve liked to see. And I don’t think this aura of me being a hard-boiled, intense person, was my doing. It just so happened that I got those kinds of parts, most of the time. I also did films like Masoom (1983) and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), which weren’t as widely seen. I do believe that one aspect of me that wasn’t utilised as much, was my feel for comedy, lightness or froth. 

FC: Somewhere the film also told me that underneath all the cynicism, there’s an eternal optimist in you. With everything going on around us – are you still hopeful?

NS: You’re right — I do have a utopian view of the world. I wish life could be like it was in my film here. As for the father-son relationship, it’s the fulfilment of a fantasy that I had for a really long time. I didn’t have a pleasant relationship with my father – so it’s not taken from my life, but from my dreams about how a father and son should be able to be. They should be able to slap each other on the back, hug, arm-wrestle, play football together. They should be able to understand each other, something I never enjoyed. I think all films are wish-fulfillments in their own way. 

FC:What are the pros and cons of working with actors with whom you share such familiarity?

NS: There’s only an upside. I trust them completely, they’re available without any nakhras (loosely translates to “airs”), and they were completely on my side. They were all willing to rehearse, and we did rehearse quite a bit. Except for Tarun (Dhanrajgir), who was the last person to be cast. I wanted several well-known actors for the part, but they turned it down probably thinking it won’t be seen. I’m glad that happened because Ratna (Pathak Shah) reminded me of Tarun Dhanrajgir, who we had worked with almost 40 years ago. I remembered him as a sincere, proficient actor. I asked him to send me a picture of himself, and he looked very different from what I remembered of him. He was this scrawny kid just out of college, doing modelling. In the picture was this handsome, silver-haired gentleman. I asked him if he wanted to act, and he said that he would love to. He was going to be visiting his daughter, who lives in Bombay, and he turned up. I asked him to lie down on my couch, and read a few lines, and it was immediately clear that he was right for the part. Vivaan is a really intense person in real life, and I told him to be this cool creature. He’s a fine actor and I think he still hasn’t gotten the kind of recognition that he deserves, but it will come. 

Anil Mehta – who I’ve known since he was in FTII, and whose work I’d admired greatly – I’d called him up to ask for suggestions on a female DoP (Director of Photography). I wanted a woman’s sensitivity in the frames. He personally agreed to come on board saying, “you know I can do sensitive work myself.” I told him that this might not be worth his time – he’s making big films with Aamir Khan and God knows who, but he was very sweet and came on-board. I’ll never forget this. 

FC: Would you say, with age, you’ve become kinder to yourself and those around you?

NS: That’s for those around me to say. I’d certainly think so, given that I’ve shed my addiction to anger. It was an addiction and nothing else. I used to resort to it every now and then when I was younger – some sort of a defence-mechanism, I suppose. Yes, I do think I’ve become a milder person. I don’t scream at my actors anymore. I’ve come to realise that it’s wrong on my part to do that. Actors are usually in an insecure place, they don’t need to be kicked in the pants – they need love and tenderness. And that’s something I resort to when I’m directing on stage. The occasional outburst obviously happens, but I think I’m usually tender with my actors… and life around me (laughs). 

FC: What do you make of the obsession with the ‘pan-Indian’ film? Or are you indifferent?

NS: I’m indifferent to commercial cinema. It doesn’t interest me, I don’t see much of it in any way. I tried watching Pathaan (2023) recently, and I couldn’t sit through it. But I do understand why people loved it. I tried to watch RRR (2022) and Kantara (2022) – I’m sorry to say, I couldn’t sit through any of it. That kind of fantasy doesn’t interest me – which is about supermen, who are only black and white. I’m not a big fan of the music either, I’m still stuck in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I’ve not been a fan of the commercial films made post the seventies, and it’s unfortunate because I’ve acted in a bunch of those – whether it was Tridev or Karma. Some people might say that they liked me in those films but I don’t think I was particularly good in any of them. I abhor love stories, especially the ones that are simplistic and predictable. This (MWMW) is the kind of love story I would like to watch – one that can be charming. 

FC: Are you watching anything on OTT these days?

NS: I watch a lot of the short films. I haven’t seen any of the gangster stuff that Anurag (Kashyap) might have made or Made in Heaven (2019) – it doesn’t interest me at all. I’ve been watching shows from abroad, which I think are far superior. I watched shows like Succession (2019), House of Cards (2013), but not too many of them. I prefer watching old movies on YouTube or Netflix.

FC: I have a thesis – Yun Hota… would get eaten up on OTTs if it came out in 2017. Especially with the way you pull the rug from under us in the last five minutes. Would you agree?

NS: I guess a few more people would’ve seen it. As it happened, the film disappeared from theatres within a week. The producer wasn’t particularly interested in the film, and didn’t encourage it at all. But I’m not sure people would’ve liked it more. There are some people who come and tell me that they like the film, but I think they’re being generous. The last scene, except for the twist, I think I failed very badly with the scenes on the plane. I think I was reasonably happy with the Ratna-Paresh Rawal track and the Ankur Khanna-Ayesha Takia story, but I let Irrfan down. The great thing is he never held it against me, we remained friends. A lot of his stuff got cut out, and I didn’t have him do much. You can’t have a principal character do nothing. If he belongs to a crime family, there are a zillion possibilities to what he could be doing in the US. It’s too late to think of it now, but I wish I could make it again. Except, I don’t have the energy for it, neither would it be topical.

FC: What do you make of the current state of Hindi cinema – where films like The Kashmir Files (2022) and The Kerala Story (2023) are successful, while some of the most acclaimed documentaries are not getting a release in India?

NS: [It’s sad], because who will pay money to watch a documentary? Something like The Elephant Whisperers (2022) or a marvellous documentary called All That Breathes (2022) — it’s hair-raisingly good. Jingoism is the prevalent mood of the country. It’s not enough to love your country, you have (to) beat your drum about it, wear your patriotism on your sleeve. And unless you do that, you’re not getting the approval. Recently, Anubhav Sinha’s Bheed (2023), Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah (2023), Hansal Mehta’s Faraaz (2022), Nandita Das’s Zwigato (2022) — none of the films got the response they deserved. 

But I think these filmmakers should not feel discouraged. These are the films that will be treasured in posterity – not the Gadars or The Kashmir Files. I can assure you that The Kashmir Files will be one of the most reviled films in the future. And for it to get a National Award for National Integration – I’d posted on Facebook that it was the Best FIlm for “National Dis-integration”. It’s a joke, it’s simply unbelievable! It confirmed my suspicion that even the National Awards are a hoax. I’ve won three, but I didn’t go to receive the third one. I’ve never taken these paan masala awards seriously, and I keep telling young actors who are thrilled to win one, to not take it very seriously either. It’s all a result of lobbying, and influencing juries. 

It’s a pity that films that truly reflect our current circumstances are not being watched. The ones that are being watched are either Pakistan-bashing or just plain Muslim-bashing. It’s a slightly scary situation.

FC: Are you surprised by the sheer number of people going out to watch them? Irrespective of ideology, they’re such tackily made films…

NS: Yes, the quality of a film’s craft has rarely made a difference to our audience. It’s the story they go for. The tackiest film, if it can strike a nerve, can put bums on seats. Quality has never been a criteria. After the pandemic, there was a lull – where a lot of the star-laden films have not done well. So, now I think a lot of people are flocking back to the theatres because they really want to go there. As it turns out the Islamophobia that seems to be widespread these days, these films seem to be catering to that. As the great Mr Satyajit Ray had written in his book, Our Films, Their Films – “I wish our audiences were more demanding and perceptive.” It’s been over five decades since he wrote that, and I don’t think anyone paid attention. These commercial monsters will exist, it’s futile to fight against them. They’ll keep making the same movies they always have – but it’s important to make the film that one wants to see, one that reflects the truth of our times. 

FC: Do you think about legacy?

NS: (Laughs) No, that’s not my business. Whether I’m any good or not, I leave it to posterity to judge. What I do consider my responsibility is to help young actors discover their own version of the craft. Which is why I often go to institutions like Whistling Woods, FTII or NSD to conduct workshops. That’s the only worthwhile thing I think I can contribute professionally. 

FC:What’s a performance from the last five years that filled you with envy?

NS: I think I envy and admire the younger generation of actors. There’s a marvellous bunch of actors – and OTT has given opportunities to these lovely actors like Pankaj Tripathi, Gajraj Rao, Kay Kay Menon or Nawazuddin. Among women – there are people like Kalki Koechlin, who I think is wonderful. Also, I think Alia Bhatt is exceptional from the popular bunch. I do envy them — I wish I was a young actor today. But I obviously don’t resent them. I did get my own variety of films to showcase my talents.

I’m very proud of the younger crop of actors. Gulshan Devaiah is fantastic. These are all very savvy actors, they’re obviously more exposed to cinema than we were. And it’s great that they’re standing on the shoulders of Om Puri, myself, Farooque Sheikh, Shabana (Azmi) and Smita (Patil), just as we were standing on the shoulders of Balraj Sahni and Motilal. So, I’m very hopeful that the standard of acting will get better in our films and shows, I only hope they keep getting worthwhile scripts and they don’t sell out at the first opportunity they get. 

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