Naseeruddin Shah just turned 70. A bona-fide film institution, Shah has been in front of the camera for 53 years, with 235 acting credits in IMDb, and 3 National Film Awards under his belt. While promoting Bandish Bandits, a musical, streaming on Amazon Prime from August 4th, were he plays an imperious sangeet-samrat, he spoke lovingly and candidly, about his notorious temper, his love for Faiz, and the recent conversation around not having actors over the age of 65 on film sets.
After Irrfan passed away, I read this lovely thing you said in an interview with The Indian Express, that when you watched him act, you always felt like Salieri to his Mozart. But you’re such an incredible actor. What did you feel he had that you didn’t?
He was much more assured in his beliefs as an actor, I was not. I was an agitated young fellow, who was not sure of himself, yet, pretended to be sure of himself, and thus I got into many unpleasant situations with a lot of filmmakers I worked with, all of whom, luckily, stayed friends.
With Irrfan I never felt that sense of self-doubt. He was a more evolved actor than I was, and I just wished I had been this good when I was his age. And I feel that about several other young actors I see, I feel that about Rajkummar Rao, I feel that about Gulshan Devaiah, who is an absolutely stupendous actor; I wonder when the film industry is going to wake up to that enormous talent. Or what one sees in like actors like Arshad Warsi or to an extent in Nawazuddin [Siddiqui] and several others. I envy these chaps. They are much better actors at their age than we were at that age. And I think one can take a little bit of credit for that, because had we not been around, this generation would not have been around. In the same way, if the Balraj Sahnis and Motilals not been around, maybe Om [Puri] and I would not have appeared. Those people formed the context for actors like Om and myself, like we formed the context for actors who are unusual, but that is what I felt about Irrfan. That he has got his craft down.
I directed him, in this terrible film I made and I found him to be the most receptive, easiest to direct actor. I just had to tell him a thing once and he would not only deliver, he would go beyond. I have seldom seen that. I don’t think I’ve seen a weak performance by Irrfan, except, perhaps in parts of Life Of Pi where he tried to do a Canadian accent or something, which didn’t work. But apart from that I don’t think I’ve seen a weak performance by Irrfan.
You’ve always been very vocal in your criticism of Hindi cinema and the Hindi film industry. But right now during this pandemic, all the systems have been upended. The very tragic passing of Sushant Singh Rajput has unleashed a whole new conversation. There’s a lot of focus on things that need to be fixed. Are you at all hopeful that we will use this as a time for introspection and actually mend what needs to be mended?
One can only hope for that. Though, the level of the debate is getting more and more juvenile. Why are we washing our dirty underwear in public? Why are actors complaining that they are not on the posters? Why are actors who didn’t get a certain film complaining that they didn’t get it? If every one of us starts enumerating our complains, the film industry will seem like the worst place on Earth. And I dare say that it’s true of any industry. My hope is that, first of all, that poor Sushant is laid to rest and people just leave him alone. My hope is that people will realize the futility of making blockbusting ‘seeti’ inducing, applause inducing, coin throwing kind of movies because, that is probably not going to happen anymore, not for a while at least.
I think Faiz is probably the greatest poet of the 20th Century.
It’s going to be very interesting to see what kind of reaction a Salman Khan film gets on the OTT platform. People watching it alone in their homes… will they still throw coins on their screens? No they won’t, because it’s a fever which infects everybody. When there’s a thousand people there, you find yourself screaming, and laughing, you find yourself participating in that mass thing. That also explains the psychology of mobs, where it takes no time at all to infect the whole mob. I’ve seen Rajnikanth movies in the theater, I’ve seen Salman Khan movies in the theater, and I know how this works, I felt it myself. So it would be interesting to see how a family of five, watching a blood-soaked revenge drama on their dining table at home… how will they respond to it? Will these kind of movies last? Or, will the Bombay industry finally see sense, like Hollywood did after Cleopatra, did them in, and then Easy Rider, a small film made by two freaks on motorcycles rescued Hollywood. So, maybe they’ll see the sense of smaller investments, and overcome the greed of bigger profits. That’s a pipe dream maybe, but that is my hope.
If you could choose one thing that you think should change after the pandemic, what would it be?
I wouldn’t know where to begin, but I think that the bane lies in the fact that [cinema] is considered a currency manufacturing factory by most of the filmmakers and not enough heed is paid to the writing. That is really the curse and of course all the superstitions about mahurats, dates and numerology, all this nonsense enters into the picture which is very irritating, but then nothing you can do about blind faith.
The level of the writing certainly needs to get more regard, but they will only get more regard if writers come up with original ideas and I think there are very few who come up with original ideas because some of our biggest money spinners have been totally plagiarized movies. Plagiarism has become legitimate, since the 70s in fact. I’ve often talked about this- that the decline began in the 70s, with the coming of color, with the coming of several unworthy stars and with the legitimizing of plagiarism. I am not taking any names, but everybody knows this is what happened then, until it came to a point where you have two music directors, both of whom had plagiarized the tune of Come September, which is a tune I used to hear when I was in school, accusing each other of stealing each other’s tune. I mean how absurd can you get? This sounds like a situation written by Samuel Beckett or somebody you know.
We have to reduce our dependence of Shakespeare. I’ve been, in the lockdown, going through all the Shakespeare plays I haven’t read, and there are several. I’ve finished almost all of them by now. It is astounding; my argument has been totally solidified that every single cliché of the Hindi movie is borrowed from Shakespeare. Everything is there, every masala formula!
So, somehow, we have got to put old Shakespeare behind us and I hope, we can start using real life as a template. You know the trouble is with our actors- most of them don’t use life as an inspiration, they use older actors’ performances as their source material, and so do the writers and so do the directors. “Arre yaar Sholay meine kaisa scene tha, aisa daalte hain”, “Mother India mein, Ganga Jamuna mein aisa ek scene tha, aisae kuch scene daalo”. Its sheer laziness!
I gave Kundan such a hard time in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro… So, the scene of the telephone which everybody talks about… He and I had such a violent argument over it and I gave the poor guy sleepless nights.
In your memoir you said that you said that you were “trouble, unreasonable, opinionated, hot headed and a dope smoker.” How much of this is changed?
I don’t think I am trouble anymore. I am trouble to some people, but much fewer. I have to say a lot of my the directors from the 70s will be very relieved to hear this, I am not a troublesome actor any longer. I try to do what the director asks before launching into objections, like I did with poor Kundan [Shah]. I gave Kundan such a hard time in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. I didn’t know what he was up to, since I hadn’t watched enough Marx Brothers’ work at that time and what Kundan was trying to do was a Marx Brothers. After that I watched all the Marx Brothers’ movies and I kick myself- why was I not open? I was into method acting and stuff at that time you know- a thing has to be true to be effective, a thing can’t be funny unless it’s true and so on. So, the scene of the telephone which everybody talks about… He and I had such a violent argument over it and I gave the poor guy sleepless nights. But that is what I believed in at that time na. I couldn’t have pretended that I was convinced, I wasn’t and that is what I meant when I said I was an agitated actor who was not sure of what he did. What Kundan was trying was absolutely valid and it’s pretty damn hilarious despite my reluctance in doing that scene.
[T]he things I said about Rajesh Khanna were uncalled for. I overlooked the fact that there are millions who loved him and it must have hurt. I was not making a direct attack at him, I was talking about a system which encouraged and nurtured mediocrity.
During this lockdown you’ve been reading a lot of Faiz
Yes, I have been reading a lot of Faiz. I discovered Faiz shortly after discovering Ghalib, and before Ghalib I felt that Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats are the only poets in the world. These Urdu poets … what do they write about you know, romance and love and sharab and kebab and gulab, Urdu poetry’s all sentimental bosh. This was my ignorant opinion. Through Ghalib I discovered Urdu poetry, I discovered the Urdu language, which was the first language I learnt to speak, and the first language I heard. So I could pick it up easily and then I realized some of Ghalib’s stuff is so profound and so amazingly perceptive about life and death and God and faith and about every subject under the sun. Gulzar bhai told me that a massive amount of Ghalib’s writing in Farsi is lost. I don’t know Farsi, so I don’t feel the pinch, but you can imagine what a scholar would feel and then gradually I started reading a bit of Faiz, a bit of Iqbal, a bit of Firaq Gorakhpuri and I keep going back to English poetry also, to read Keats and to read Shelley and Robert Frost and so on. But I think Faiz is probably the greatest poet of the 20th Century.
In the last couple of years, you made headlines with very frank opinions about many things whether it is Rajesh Khanna or Virat Kohli or your concern for your kids in a world that’s becoming very polarized. Do you ever stop and say to yourself, “Maybe I am not going to say this because it is too tiring to deal with the noise.” Do you ever get exhausted? Do you ever censor yourself?
Sometimes, when I realize that, I’m perhaps preaching to the converted. It’s impossible to have a rational argument with a person who has made up his mind. So perhaps, the things I said about Rajesh Khanna were uncalled for. I overlooked the fact that there are millions who loved him and it must have hurt. I was not making a direct attack at him, I was talking about a system which encouraged and nurtured mediocrity. That was my real intention and unfortunately people took it personally. Anyway, the only person I really care about who was hurt was Dimple and I apologized to her for hurting her feelings. But I also said I do not take back my words. And about Virat Kohli I don’t take anything back, nor about any of the others.
So, you’re definitely not getting more mellow with age?
Well, I don’t yell at my actors anymore, not much at least, much less, compared to what I used to do. No, but see it’s as simple as this, that if you feel a thing needs to be said, it has to be said.
And tell me finally, you know there’s this whole thing about not hiring actors over 65 years because it’s now too much of a risk. Do you look at all that is unfolding now and have concern for yourself, or are you at a place of serenity where ‘it is what it is’?
See, actors above 65 are too many in number and too indispensable. I am not the only one; there’re so many. Starting with Mr. Bachchan who is 75, they can’t do without him. You need elderly characters in any movie. You can’t make a film about youth without having elderly characters in it. So we will be accommodated sooner or later. It’s the others in the unit that I am concerned about, what if a makeup man is over 65, what if a hairdresser is over 65, what if an extra is over 65, so many other departments, the spot boys, the light boys, the camera attendants, they are easy to get rid of.
So, this above-65 thing is an absurd rule and I don’t know who came up with it, because just tossing the threshold of 65 means you’re in danger? If you’re 64, you’re safe? Doesn’t make any sense at all, and I just hope the film industry is large hearted enough to recognize this fact and, and go out of their way to accommodate.
Because it breaks my heart to think of what the daily wagers have been doing over the last 5 months, particularly those who’ve not been wise enough to save; the waiters in restaurants, the people who work in the kitchens, shop attendants, the guys who sell fruit on the road. There were these two flower sellers on either side of the road just after Bandra Gym. It would laden my heart every morning to see that sight- rows and rows of flowers on either side of the road. I don’t know what’s happened to those two guys, they’ve vanished. So, actors don’t have as much to worry about as some others.