Kangana Ranaut (KR): So first I’ll pick. The first thing that I saw is heartbreak. I’m a huge fan of Naseer Sir but honestly I don’t know much about his personal life. So I would like to know about all kind of heartbreaks that he’s gone through.
Tape: I once read an article which said thirty of your films remained unreleased. Why was this the case? Doesn’t this break your heart?
Naseeruddin Shah (NS): Haha. Got you. So it’s not about my ex-girlfriends but we’ll talk about that another time.
KR: No, but tell me about that also.
NS: Well see, like any healthy young boy, I fell in love several times by the time I was 16 years old. First with the teacher who was the prettiest, then with a girl who I met in a very romantic circumstance in Meerut from where my family comes. The lights were off, and this cousin of ours had taken us to see this family and he was showing off his lighter. So when the lights were off he kept introducing all the girls one by one. He’d light the flame under the girl’s nose and say this is this one and this is that one and when he came to that one, my heart stopped for a second. But I was 14 years old, the heartbreak didn’t last very long.
The bigger heartbreak is the question here with all these movies. I made a list, in fact. There are 35 of them. Largely responsible for those is the shoddy treatment of the NFDC, who went on producing these movies but didn’t bother about releasing them. Several of them are NFDC productions. Some of them are made by reputed filmmakers. There’s a film by Gulzar bhai in that list. I guess they were not saleable.
KR: How did they even get on floor?
NS: It was made with a starvation budget. I wouldn’t even say small budget. We made movies in three and a half lakhs. It seems difficult to believe. I’ll tell you movies like Saza-e-Maut, Albert Pinto, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron have been made in 5 lakh.
KR: Do you think that these days since we have digital as a parallel medium, it’s become easier?
NR: It’s easier. But I would think releasing a movie on the circuit has become tougher. Making it is perhaps easier. You have many youngsters getting reasonable budgets to make the kind of movies they believe in. But then you get crushed by the big bollywood monsters who come along and take every screening space available everywhere. So small movies still have a difficult job ahead of them.
Tape: Kangana, you said that you always choose to do roles where there’s a message being delivered, that makes the viewer think differently, and that shapes their choices. Do you think actors have a social responsibility towards this?
KR: I think not just actos, all of us have. As long as we are part of the larger picture we hold that responsibility. But cinema has engagement. It could be a film, could be a spectacle, a thriller, a comedy – so cinema has greater roles and I think just to confine it to being preachy and educational, I don’t think it’s right. I do agree that the highest of them all is a film which can make a difference. But then again, that would also be arguable.
NS: Would you feel that films can make a difference?
KR: Of course.
NS: I would like to agree with you on this but I really think that if there is an effect it will be a cumulative one in the long run. I don’t think a person watches a movie, no matter how brilliantly made, and comes out of the hall thinking of re-examining his life. I think it’s an accumulation of such things which will perhaps make him re-examine his life. I really think cinema is overrated as a means of change. I think documentaries can perhaps fulfill that purpose.
KR: Sir, I think cinema is definitely overrated as a means of change in Indian society because a lot of the problems we face today in our society are courtesy of our films. Whether it’s eve-teasing, wrong portrayal of character.
NS: No, no listen. I like to knock Hindi cinema a lot also but I’ve met a person in my life who says to me, do you know, all the goodness that exists in me exists courtesy of Hindi cinema. He says, tell me one hindi film which tells you to steal, don’t respect your parents, become a terrorist, steal something or do dacoity. Every Hindi film says that one must love their country, respect their parents, work honestly. He says why do you keep criticising it? Hindi cinema teaches us such good things.
KR: But that’s the takeaway. Each one has their own takeaway from a film. But our quintessential Indian hero is a goon. You can’t deny that he is somebody that breaks all the rules. He breaks the law, he is never kind to his woman, He’s always singing behind her back, ‘no no no’ means ‘yes yes yes yes’.
NS: But what is puzzling is how come the good things of cinema haven’t affected us. It’s only these negative things and this has been immortalized since the days of my hero Shammi Kapoor who always tormented the heroine first and then she hated him and then she fell in love with him despite all behaviour. As a child I found that very charming and I don’t say that I ever tried to emulate that. So it’s still a question that’s hanging in the air.
I never dreamt of mountains of money. I always felt money brought a lot of problems with it. My dad was a government servant. He used to get a salary of a thousand rupees a month and on that he educated the three of us in a boarding school – Naseeruddin Shah
NS: Tell me, do you feel you have made the right choices in your career?
KR: Not all the time. In fact, initially when I’d started out, any kind of a break meant quite a lot.
NS: Which was your first film by the way?
KR: Gangster. Now people say ‘you’re facing failure. How do you feel?’ I think nothing feels the way failure felt back then. Because for me it was a matter of life and death and I had no way back. That time it actually meant a lot. Now I’ve had that breakthrough and since then I don’t feel as desperate as I did long ago. So the real meaning of desperation is when you have no way back, nowhere to go. Nothing is going to be like that ever. No amount of failure can make me feel how I felt when I failed an audition every time before Gangster and didn’t make it.
NS: Did you ever entertain the thoughts of failure? What if I fail, what will I do? Because I never did.
KR: Of course, I did. In fact before, just before Gangster I was convinced that I made a mistake and I’m a tragedy story. I will be remembered as someone who has made a mistake, a cautionary tale. I was quite convinced because I’ve had a series of quite unfortunate incidents and before that I was a very confident teenager. Even when the gangster break came through and I started filming. I did not have a rush of confidence. I was still a bit skeptical about it because Anurag (Basu) was a new director that time. He’d just done a film called Murder which was quite infamous for it’s content.
I want to do everything that I can in my capacity to be a thorough professional and to be a very convenient person to work with. For that I feel that I should work on my craft. I don’t feel I should pamper egos and see what happens when I say something – Kangana Ranaut
NS: But you obviously wanted to be an actor right from your childhood.
KR: No, I didn’t. But I wanted to be successful. My great grandfather was a politician, then my grandfather. These are the stories we were told on dinner tables. So I wanted to be one of those stories.
NS: So how did you settle for acting?
KR: I went to theater in Delhi called Asmita group in India Habitat Center. Arvind Gaur took me under his wings. My career as an actor is largely only credited to him. We were doing a workshop and he said ‘Oh, you’re very good’. I was like, ‘Really? Because I’ve not heard that word for ages.’
Tape: Naseer, throughout your long and illustrious career, there might have been instances where you have seen better actors walk away with better roles. What did this do to you? Did you become resentful in any way? Did you become bitter? Did it affect your love for acting?
NS: To answer the last part of the question first – No. Never. My love for acting has survived many, many phases of being completely stone broke and going without food for several days. That’s happened not only to me, but also guys like Om (Puri) and others who were my contemporaries at FTII. We were the ones given the least chance of succeeding in the film industry. I’ve been broke in Delhi and I’ve been broke in Bombay and in between in Pune. Being in Bombay is the best place to be broke because Bombay somehow looks after you.
Bombay is like a big father or a big mother, it looks after you. Delhi I find a very hostile city. Bombay I always found there were cheaper places to eat than I ever could find in Delhi. There were cheaper places to stay. There was somehow a way to survive in this city. I never dreamt of mountains of money. I always felt money brought a lot of problems with it. My dad was a government servant. He used to get a salary of a thousand rupees a month and on that he educated the three of us in a boarding school. He and my mom survived on 400 bucks a month, out of which they even saved every month. I never saw my mom and dad buy a new set of clothes for themselves ever.
KR: That can actually have a huge influence on our upbringing. Even the type of family that I come from, my mother is particularly sensible with money and I see those values in me as well. I can’t say the same about my father. Our business can get a bit extreme. Even if you earn, there is no certainty. If you’re a government employee, there is a bit of balance in your life. You get certain amount of money per month. But even the biggest actors their lives van be pretty dramatic. We hear so many stories about yesteryear actors.
NR: So many stories and they died in poverty. They didn’t foresee a day when things wouldn’t be like this. They just took stardom for granted. I don’t think they understood why they succeeded. Some pretty phenomenally successful actors in my opinion had no clue why they succeeded and had no clue why they failed. The reasons are very obvious if you study their work. It’s all God’s blessing. I should pray like hell and I’ll be successful. There are legions of stories of people who are phenomenally successful, who had bungalows on Pali Hill, who had fleets of cars, and so on and ended up in chawls. I’m very proud of another thing. I’ve never done anything only for the money.
KR: I have done things sometimes specifically for money and that has been the most agonizing experience of my life.
NS: You know, sorry, I have to add a rider. I have done ad films only for the money. There’s no other reason to do them. But I have to say the thought does occur to me every now and then, that supposing I have to travel by second class by train at some point of my life again, would I be able to do it? Have I gotten too soft? I’m pretty certain I would if the need arose. I would.
Tape: You are among the very few actors not afraid to speak their mind. But unfortunately this industry runs on relationships. Have you ever been afraid of losing work because you won’t go back?
KR: Not really. I’ve been told, ‘there are so many controversies around you. The brands don’t like someone who is always fighting for a cause.’ So probably that’s the only thing which I have heard which has kind of made me think about it differently. I think this is how I see the world. I understand I’m a bit different but I think if you don’t state the obvious then what do you say? At times I feel that I am on the verge of people’s attacks and I want to protect myself. That also gets me too defensive. I’m a career woman. I want to be successful. I want to work. In fact I want to do everything that I can in my capacity to be a thorough professional and to be a very convenient person to work with. Why wouldn’t I? For that I feel that I should work on my craft. I don’t feel I should pamper egos and see what happens when I say something. No I can’t function like that..
NS: I’m totally in agreement with you and I think the only people that are in danger of losing work because they speak their minds are those who have got work being sycophants. I don’t think you need to worry at all. You’ve got the confidence in yourself and your work. That’s all that matter as for now.
KR: Yeah I always said that the one that can make you can break you. So always remember who has made you. If you have a godfather, you better be nice to that person. But if you have on your own ability and on your own confidence and your own hard work made yourself, then it’s only you. You know who tells me that, Arbaaz Khan. Every time I meet him he tells me, Gabbar Singh ko sirf Gabbar hi maar sakta hai.
Tape: Naseer, what do you dislike about the Hindi film Industry?
NS: Do we have a few hours? Well, that’s a very good question. If you would’ve asked me what I like my answer would be briefer. No I love the Hindi film industry. It caters to millions and millions of viewers every day and entertains them with the most mindless content. It’s serving a very useful function. It’s deadening minds which is very necessary. It’s lowering tastes which is again very necessary. We have plagiarists who are acclaimed as great writers which is a very good thing. We have not only scripts which are borrowed from Hollywood, but we have also the poster album. There’s a guy that comes up with an album of Hollywood posters and says we’ll do this from this one and this from this one.
KR: What I don’t like about Hindi films is that if something works, everyone does it. I have had big studios come to me and narrate Queen’s script. They just narrated my own film to me. They want to make the same thing again. I’m like are you guys realising this is the same film.
NS: It’s herd mentality but it’s also a complete indolence and laziness you know in my opinion. How many filmmakers in Bombay bother to produce something original? Remaking this and that, at least now they’re admitting that we are remaking something. Earlier, they would be remaking it and not admitting it. I mean Deewar is nothing but a remake of Gunga Jumna. Shaan is a remake of Sholay and so on and so forth. Now at least they are saying, we are remaking movies which shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
In the old days instead of a script you were given a cassette. They’d give me the Godfather and say we are doing something like this. We’ll give a nice twist to it. Next week a cassette of Mughal-e-Azam is given to me. They said we’ll combine Godfather and Mughal-e-Azam. That must have been made also.
I will tell you the most classic story about Hindi cinema which nobody will believe, but I swear to you it is true. I was shooting this film which I will not name in which I’m playing this honest police inspector. Three brothers who are gangsters, come to my office and say what do you think of yourself, etc. And the guy who was doing this part, he had this long dialogue and there was this applause and stuff after the shot was over. Everybody went happily for lunch. The writer was there applauding also. While I’m having lunch the director comes into my makeup room with a white face and says, ‘Naseer Ji we have to reshoot the scene’. So I said why? He said, ‘That third character sitting there, he’s dead by now.’ I swear to you this is true. And the writer himself is applauding ki what a scene I have written. So these are some of the reasons why I deeply love the Bombay film industry.
Catch the full episode of Tape Cast here