Patcy N in Mumbai
Naseeruddin Shah turned 64 in July but is nowhere close to hanging up his acting boots.
He has eight films on hand, as well as his plays with his theatre group Motley.
This Friday, he will be seen on the big screen with JohnDay, co-starring Randeep Hooda.
“I was very affected by the script when I read it," Naseer says of the film. "I hope it has turned out well.”
The accomplished actor speaks to Patcy N about his choice of films, his favourite actors and films and the future of the industry.
At the age of 64, how do you decide what films you want to do?
I may feel like doing a film for a variety of reasons.
There are some movies that you feel like doing because of the script. Some because it sounds like fun, some because that’s the director you want to work with, some because it’s a project that you want to be involved with, and some because you will be paid lots of money.
But the bottom line is I must feel like doing it.
'Bombay Boys is among my favourite movies and my favourite performance of myself'
Photographs: Reuben NV
So why did you feel like doing Jackpot?
Because I like Kaizad (Gustad, the director) very much, I enjoy his company. I very much enjoyed Bombay Boys.
I didn’t enjoy the next one (Boom). And then he had some bad luck. Bombay Boys is among my favourite movies and my favourite performance of myself.
I told Kaizad I will do Jackpot on one condition: you give me the print of Bombay Boys in English, because the English version is lost completely. Only the Hindi version is available but it is a lousy one.
He gave me the DVD and that’s why I signed his film (laughs). Also because the role sounds like fun, and the narrative is very interesting, the story travels backward.
You have a different hairdo in the film…
It looks good na? Finally, I have realised that it is important to look good (laughs).
'Lot of films that are being remade shouldn't have been made in the first place'
You have done so many movies, what are the movies that gave you creative satisfaction?
There are other kinds of satisfaction apart from creative; there is financial satisfaction (laughs)
It is difficult to say, I have never done anything I never wanted to ever in my life. I have gone into every project with the same enthusiasm and the same hope, but some have worked out and some haven’t. So, it is unfair to say these are my favourite films.
Everybody tells me they like Masoom, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Monsoon Wedding, Ghalib (Mirza Ghalib, his television series). I get lots of good wishes and positive reaction when people talk about this work. I feel lucky that I had these movies.
Masoom has introduced me to three generations. Even children of today’s generation still watch it. It’s a great movie. Probably the best made movie that I have acted in. It is one of the best films ever made in India.
Are you worried about a remake of Masoom?
I didn’t know Masoom was being remade. Who is doing it?
I don’t understand this remake business. I suppose they must have some reason for doing it. I don’t know anything about it.
You think movies shouldn’t be remade?
Lot of films that are being remade shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
Bollywood is just betraying its own lethargy mentally by doing this. They are admitting that they can’t think of anything new so let’s remake the old one. Earlier, they did the same thing but under different packaging.
Unless you have really got some new angle to bring to it, I don’t see why you should be remaking anything. I don’t think Masoom can be bettered.
I don’t think anybody should try making Masoom. In this modern world of emails and mobile phones, how is it possible that a child grew to the age of 10 and his father had no clue of his existence?
'We have never had a hero in the Hindi film industry other that Shammi Kapoor and Dara Singh'
You have directed only one film. Why?
It is too difficult. I don’t have a good visual sense and I can’t make the right decision quickly. Both are qualities you need to be a filmmaker.
I need to think over what I have done, chew upon it, think about, look at it, chop it, and increase it. That’s why I enjoy directing in the theatre not in cinema, because in cinema once you have made a thing, it is going to be there forever.
I cringe at the thought that it will be seen 20 years from now and I will be judged as a filmmaker on that.
I don’t feel impelled to direct another film; may be I will, may be I won’t.
You are aging gracefully, you never dye your hair, and you never hide your age. What makes you different from others?
It could be that my aspirations were never limited to the Hindi film industry. We have never had a hero in the Hindi film industry other that Shammi Kapoor and Dara Singh. I am quite serious when I say that.
They were two actors who I envied and who made me feel that I couldn’t do what they did and in fact I couldn’t. Dara Singh, of course, it is obvious why (because of his build). With Shammiji the complete fearlessness with which he performed in a song, it’s a definitive way to do a song.
He gave Hindi film songs a form and every male actor post Shammi Kapoor has done nothing but Shammi Kapoor. No choreographer post Shammi Kapoor has done anything but Shammi Kapoor, they have just elaborated on him.
Shammi Kapoor was an absolutely wonderful dancer but never did any great film except Teesri Manzil. You can’t call that a great film, but it was great filmmaking and it is memorable for its songs. I wish he had pushed the envelope a little bit.
I did not aspire to be another Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar or Dev Anand either.
I aspired to be another Spencer Tracy, Charles Laughton, Jose Ferrer. These were the actors I idolised even as a child. I was lucky to see their films when I was in school.
All three actors were very big stars but most unusual looking people. They had no business being stars -- they were not physically attractive. I saw The Old Man and the Sea, I Accuse, Witness for the Prosecution and I felt that I could be an actor like this.
I can’t be Gary Cooper or Marlin Brando but I can be an actor of this kind. I was 10 or 12 when I saw Old Man and the Sea and I remember wanting to be an actor since that age.
I was greatly inspired by these people. These were people who made no attempt to hide their age, who were, in fact, proud of it and carried it well. What the Indian stars do always seems rather pathetic.
'If you study the movies carefully, we haven't made much progress'
Do you think Bollywood is biased about good looks? That it is not about acting but about physical looks? Are performances day by day going down?
It was never really up there ever, you know. Apart from Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni, I am hard put to think of a third actor of that time whose performance had conviction.
It was all acting by semaphore. If they ask ‘Tum yahan kyun aaye’ they would also move their hands like that and signal, which is atrocious. Even in the good movies of Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt, parts are very badly played unless there is Balraj Sahni or Dilip Kumar
Everybody says ‘Oh, but they were made in the 1940s.’ Bicycle Thieves was also made in the 1940s and Rashomon was also made during those days and so was Citizen Kane. We kid ourselves about it, we say, ‘we are a little bit behind but after all this was a long time ago’.
If you study the movies carefully, we haven’t made much progress.
In recent times do you think we have any good actors?
Oh, sure. Among the ladies there was always Waheeda Rehman and Nargis, who I think were the finest actors. Madhubala was like a female Shammi Kapoor. After that there was a long vacuum until Shaban Azmi and people like her came along.
Today I rate Irrfan Khan and Arshad Warsi and Manoj Bajpayee very highly; these are actors who have the smell of the earth around them. It is a quality that is very easy to lose, but these chaps haven’t lost it. A guy like Paresh Rawal hasn’t lost it despite doing so much crap over the years. I think there are lots of wonderful actors around.
The trouble is an actor can only be as good as the film he is in. So, until we start making better movies, these actors will have to suffer.
It is unfortunate that truly great actors like Shriram Lagoo, Nilu Phule, Bhakti Barve, world class actors, will be remembered for the shitty movies they have done.
You mention Shriram Lagoo to today’s generation and they won’t take his name with respect because they have seen him in some rubbish movie. They haven’t seen him on stage. They haven’t seen Bhakti Barve or Nilu Phule on stage.
'I tell my sons to go their own way and find their own answers'
Photographs: Reuben NV
What do you think about Sunny Leone and Sachiin Joshi with whom you are working in Jackpot?
They are sweet and they are professional. They seem to understand that there is more to acting than just having fun. Sachiin is producing the movie as well. I wish them well.
I also hope they realise that there won’t be films like Jackpot being made. It’s true. How many more films like A Wednesday or Ishqiya have been made? Who can make another Munnabhai?
What do you tell your sons who are both actors?
I tell them to go their own way and find their own answers. They make their own decisions. I don’t give them any advice because nobody gave me any advice.
If they are desperate they will ask for it and I will give them the benefit of my experience. But I don’t think I have the answers to their problems.
'I love working with Arshad, I wish I could do more work with him'
What about Dedh Ishqiya?
Great fun. We have a little bit of work left on it. It is better than the first script. It has nothing to do with the first script at all except that we are still called Khalujaan and Babban.
Vidya (Balan) is not even mentioned because it will be difficult to explain where did she go. The film has Madhuri (Dixit) and this lovely girl called Huma (Qureshi) and there is the great Arshad (Warsi) and Vijay Raaj who is something. It has a marvellous team of actors. I had great fun with them.
I love working with Arshad. I wish I could do more work with him. He is the most secure actor I have ever met. He is completely sure of himself, he is confident about his abilities and he doesn’t take himself seriously at all.
Will new kinds of movies like Ship of Theseus, Gangs of Wasseypur, Udaan change Indian cinema?
They will have an effect over the years, in the same way that films like Aakrosh, Ankur, Manthan, which were made in 70s, are having an effect now. If it was not for those filmmakers there would be no Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia.
Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Rajkumar Hirani and Vikramaditya Motwane are preparing the ground for future filmmakers.
The progress is going to be slow as I am afraid it has been from the advent of cinema in India. But these films are all serving their purpose. Therefore, one should celebrate them but one must not get carried away by thinking that things are changing anything. Nothing is changing yet.