The Naseeruddin Shah interview | 'Writing has been the bane of Hindi movies. We were happy to plagiarise all the time'
In conversation with Firstpost, Naseeruddin Shah opens up about the bane of plagiarism in Hindi cinema, the joy of rediscovering Shakespeare and reciting Faiz in lockdown, and his fear of becoming a liability on his family.
In director Anand Tiwari's newest web-show Bandish Bandits streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Naseeruddin Shah's central character of Pandit Radhemohan Rathore, a Hindustani classical virtuoso, cuts a formidable figure. He is a patriarch with a conspicuously inflated ego that urges him to establish a gharana named after him, thereby setting the backdrop for the story that traverses the musical terrain of the country. Co-starring Sheeba Chaddha, Atul Kulkarni, Rajesh Tailang, Amit Mistry and Kunaal Roy Kapur in supporting acts, with newcomers Ritwik Bhowmik and Shreya Chaudhry in the lead, Bandish Bandits sees Naseeruddin Shah assume centre-stage after a rather underwhelming response to his 2019 venture, The Tashkent Files.
In a Zoom call with Firstpost, the veteran actor opens up about landing a meaty role after years, the plague of plagiarism in Hindi cinema, and his fear of becoming a liability on his family.
What really struck me about your character of Pandit Ji in Bandish Bandits is how, despite being an elderly character, it is well-written with nuances — a rarity when it comes to how aged characters in Hindi entertainment are written. What about Pandit Ji stood out for you the most, and how difficult was it to play him physically? Considering he was a classical singer, and it involved certain mannerisms and idiosyncrasies specific to his profession...
First of all, I found the whole story very interesting; I will come to the character in a bit. But I thought the way the story was unfolding, and the theme of the conflict between the different styles of singing and also the conflict between the various gharanas themselves, along with the politics that goes on — was extremely interesting. The fact that Pandit Ji wasn't a 'goody-goody' guy, and that he had grey shades — negative shades also — reminded me of a lot of some people and teachers I've known, my father being one of them. I drew upon him to give this benevolent, but stern attitude to my character.
The challenge itself was to be able to sing those numbers, at least to be able to lip-sync to them. Lip-syncing to songs has not really been my strong point — I think the only time I have done it successfully was in Ghalib, where Jagjit bhai sang so beautifully, and also in a song for Masoom. Otherwise, I've always failed to bring off those sizzling numbers, which sometimes I have been asked to do, and which I was completely ill-suited for.
But here were some very complex compositions, which I first had to get my head around. Luckily, I had this wonderful young man named Akshat as a teacher, who explained the aalaaps to me. When he [his character of Pandit Ji] goes 'aaa aaa aaa', it's not just 'aaa aaa aaa'. There's a different sur in each of those 'aa's. So Akshat would work out whether it was a sa, or a pa, or a ga, or a re, or whichever of the seven notes it was, and would say that this is what Pandit Ji would have to sing. So, he first made me practise singing the notes, and then do the aakaar, as they call it, where one goes 'aaa aaa' with each of the notes. I had to work really hard, but I must say I enjoyed it because it has been a long time since I had a part which extended me, and for which I had to do actual physical work. I really enjoyed that because I haven't done too many film roles in the last few years, and nothing very exciting has come my way. What I have done have been cameos mostly. So, after a long time, I had something that I could really sink my teeth into.
Incidentally, another one of your projects, Mee Raqsam, is slated to release on another OTT platform soon. As someone who has been vocal about the mediocrity celebrated in Indian cinema, do you think the entry of digital platforms has made a significant difference to the quality of work being done in the country?
It's too early to say. But one has to admit that all the work that's happened during the lockdown on the OTT platforms has been commendable. Some of it has been absolutely brilliant; none of it has been worthless, I'd say. Without any of the trappings, big budgets, and the unnecessary ornamentation, filmmakers have been trying to tell their stories — stories they believe, stories that have affected them. So it certainly has garnered an audience, I think. I don't deny that there are still millions who want to see the blood-drenched revenge dramas. But an audience even wants to see content-driven drama — at least they've suddenly realised that they like to see content-driven drama. I think it's the same dormant audience, which was watching Pakistani serials some years ago when they were being telecast, because those had tremendous content. The writing was incredibly good; the presentation also. And a lot of the acting also was excellent. Their films are very shoddy, but their television work is very good. I think it's that same audience which was craving to watch this. I believe they've had enough of watching blood gushing from people's wounds while they're having their dinner, you know. I don't think it's the most palatable thing to watch.
But it remains to be seen whether this will have a lasting effect. As soon as things return to normal — if they ever do — will we just go back to the '300-crore' monsters? Or will we finally learn our lesson? That's the question hanging in the air.
During the lockdown, a lot of art forms have migrated to online spaces, including theatre that is currently witnessing numerous experiments. You have claimed to enjoy performing live the most, and you've also said in an interview that the prospect of your films being watched a 100 years from now terrifies you. What about it terrifies you? How are you coping in a world that is increasingly attaining a dubious permanence through its digital footprints?
[Laughs] Actually, I have no reason to be terrified. I think it's something I like to say — it's a clever line. But the fact is that no one remembers the crap, you know. They remember the good things. And luckily, I have done a few good things. The crap far outnumbers the good, of course, but it's the good ones that'll be remembered. When I name some movie I am thoroughly ashamed of, I am much relieved to know that no one has heard of it. So, it shouldn't really terrify me.
But, as I have said before, we stand poised at the moment to take a creative leap, as far as the writing, the presentation of movies, and as far as the presentation of theatre are concerned. I really wish that will happen, and we leap in the right direction — and it certainly seems to be happening. It's very heartening to note that the majority of people putting things out during the lockdown are youngsters, and not the older generation. And that is great. In any case, I have tremendous faith in the younger generation because they've proved that the future is safe in their hands. I think they're far more aware, they're far savvier, they're much better informed, and I hope that their judgement will remain unimpaired. I have great faith in them.
Even Bandish Bandits features actors from various generations, including the one after yours to which Atul Kulkarni, Sheeba Chaddha, and Rajesh Tailang belong. Then there are the newcomers like Shreya Chaudhry and Ritwik Bhowmik. Do you see significant differences in the ethics, sensibilities, and approaches of these different generations of artistes, or have they remained largely the same?
Atul is from a tradition where discipline is a way of life. Marathi theatre has always been very vibrant, very creative, very alive. Atul's introduction to acting has been through that, where you perform maybe three shows a day, that too in three different theatres. So you just got to have your wits about you all the time. Though Atul has been one of my students at the National School of Drama, I have been deeply inspired by some of his performances. I don't take any of the credit for his abilities. In fact watching him as Gandhi, and watching him in the film Natarang, was truly mind-boggling.
It's not as if all actors from my generation were very professional and very dutiful, and so on. I was a pretty indisciplined actor myself when I was younger, and I am not proud of it. But I have to admit that I was, and there were many others too who were indisciplined. But by and large, I think the quality of discipline improved with Atul's generation, because somewhere, acting no longer remained an indulgence. Acting started to be taken seriously, and actors began to be taken seriously because they were not only just clowning around, they were voicing opinions, and this was around the '70s. These were valid opinions written by intellectual people, who knew what they were talking about, and actors were the mouthpieces for these opinions. So Atul comes from a generation like that. I come from a generation that was somewhat self-indulgent. And the less said the better about the generation before mine.
But I have seen that the quality of discipline getting greater and greater, the value of discipline getting greater and greater, and not just with the 'serious' actors, but with some of our younger stars as well. I have seen a great amount of discipline. I have noticed that they are punctual, hard working, they don't have too many bad habits, and that they've been exposed to so much more, so they are savvier as actors. As stars, they know exactly what to do.
And as far as actors like Ritwik and Shreya are concerned, they are of the generation, which has finally understood that it is a great deal of hard work that goes into the making of an actor. Luck has very little to do with it; I won't say it has nothing to do with it — but luck means being at the right place at the right time, and that is a matter of calculations to a certain extent. So, I do think that the quality of acting is growing, and it is getting better and better. We have several absolutely outstanding actors, both male and female. I wonder how long it'll be before the film industry begins to recognise the abilities of a Gulshan Devaiah, or a Geetanjali Kulkarni...I wonder how long it'll be. But these people are quite sensational at their jobs, and they're not just flashes in the pan — they know their job. There are so many, and I can enumerate several names of utterly outstanding young actors whom I envy. I wish I was as good as they are when I was that age.
So, I think it's getting better. But again, as I said, the quality of acting depends on the quality of the writing, and writing has been the bane of our Hindi movies. We have been just too happy to plagiarise all the time. I mean, plagiarism became legitimate in the '70s — totally shameless and legitimate. Some of our so called 'masterpieces' are totally plagiarised movies. Hopefully, that is behind us.
I recently asked this question to both Nandita Das and Javed Akhtar, and would also like to ask you — as someone who is fiercely political on screen and off it, what do you think of the apolitical artist, and their apolitical art? We see this term being used generously by people working in Hindi films. Do we have the space and luxury to appreciate apolitical artists today?
Art for art's sake? I don't think so. And Faiz Saab said this almost a century ago, that he does not believe in art for art's sake. Art has got to have a motive and a purpose, which does not mean that you compromise on its aesthetics, at all. A painter would still be required to paint with as much excellence as if he was painting a beautiful woman, while he is painting a meaningful picture. Those who shy away from expressing their opinions are either genuinely apathetic, or they fear they have too much to lose. How much can a person who has been financially secure for seven generations lose? I don't understand.
At the moment, what are your biggest concerns as an artiste above the age of 60, whose mobility and consequently, access to work, has been heavily impacted due to the pandemic — perhaps far more than the younger generations have been affected — and is likely to be this way for a while?
What are my anxieties? None, really, because I think while doing any work, which requires solitary riyaaz, you can never be lonely. A lot of actors are confused about what kind of riyaaz they should do. They know what musicians do, they know what dancers do, but actors are confused and ask ke hum kya riyaaz kar sakte hain. What do people do to stay in practice? And I say, just keep acting — but not with your family [laughs]. Though that is also necessary sometimes.
How I have been staying in touch is by reciting things, by memorising things. I have always had this nagging curiosity about Shakespeare's plays. I've read some of them like everybody has in school and college, but those are the plays everyone knows. So I resolved to go back to the ones I did not know about. Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It — everyone has read them. But there are 36 of them, and I have managed to plow through about 30. There are six still remaining, and I don't know if I will complete the record.
But my concern is not so much about being left out in the cold, or not getting employment. They'll always need an old man — even in youthful stories, they'll need an old man or an old woman. But if it happens, it happens, which means I won't be of any use. What bothers me, if anything, is to become a liability on the family, and that is why I consider it my responsibility to look after my health.
There is this very heartbreaking line in one of the plays we do, called Dear Liar, where the lady — who George Bernard Shaw was in love with and kept writing letters to — her career has faded, and she has had to go away to America to earn crusts of bread by acting in small parts in Hollywood movies. She says that 'I thought the battle of life was fought in our youth' — not a bit of it. It is when you're old and your work is not wanted that the battle rages and goes on and on.
After Irrfan Khan's passing, you gave an interview to The Indian Express, where you recalled a scene rehearsal for Maqbool, in which you thought Irrfan had actually passed out, while he was just acting. You mentioned that you had never experienced something like that before. From such anecdotes and accounts, one can gauge just how invested the man was in his craft. In his presence, and in fact also in his absence, one realises how he challenged the 'star' system Indian cinema is obsessed with. In this context, how does one comprehend the loss of an artiste of Irrfan Khan's stature? Does it subtract a kind of idiom from the craft of acting or filmmaking?
You cannot attribute such a cosmic significance to it — there's no doubt that it is a massive loss. But the fact is that he had done enough to establish himself in all our hearts and minds. And living and dying is a big joke anyway. I have always believed that the way you die, or when you die is of no importance...it's how much you've done with your life that is of any importance. I think Irrfan did a massive amount with his life in the brief time that he was given, and he has left behind an example for all of us who will have to face the grim reaper sooner or later. [He has shown us] how to confront this eventuality with courage and fortitude. And people say that, you know, they only pretend, they only pretend. Well, the hell! Bravery is all pretence anyway. Bravery is nothing but the ability to hide your fears. Everybody feels scared, it's how well you can disguise your fears that qualifies you to be brave or not. And Irrfan was one of the bravest men I have ever come across. I miss him.
You say you are someone who isn't particularly comfortable striking a conversation with a stranger, which is why you try and reach out to people through your act while on stage. For Irrfan, interestingly, you had said that the audience reaches out to him every time. Have you ever aspired to achieve that through your craft, where you wish your audience reached out to you, and not the other way round?
I can't take that chance [laughs].
But why not?
I am quite okay reaching out to the audience. I like reaching out to them, provided I don't have to reach out to them in real life [laughs].
Now that we are amidst such extraordinary times, which has allowed us to perhaps pause and introspect, what are the kinds of conversations you hope will emerge from the Hindi film industry after this ordeal has passed?
In Hindi cinema, the only conversations one can expect is gossip and anecdotes, and I don't expect it to change. People can't change that quickly. And I am not a great fan of either gossip or anecdotage.
Finally, what are you doing to seek comfort during the lockdown?
As I said, I have read quite a bit of Shakespeare; I haven't watched as many movies as I thought I would. I've been more involved in reading. I have been reading Evelyn Waugh, who also is one of my favourite writers. And I have been reading Anthony Burgess — I am finishing the Enderby Series. So yes, quite a lot of material has gone in during this period.
You have also been reading quite a bit of Faiz, if I am not wrong?
Yes, not a lot, but a bit, yes. I love reciting him.
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