In praise of Naseeruddin Shah, the consummate actor
An intelligent, intuitive and highly skilled performer, Shah’s gift lies in making even peripheral parts memorable.
As a journalist, you aren’t afforded the freedom to get over-awed by the people you write about. Being human, every once in a while, you slip and make a fool of yourself. Like the time I had to interview Naseeruddin Shah about a new play he was acting in. This was in the late-1990s and anticipating the possibility of a fiasco, I’d taken a friend along to boost my courage. As expected, I stood speechless before the man, while my friend poked me to get going with the interview. I recall asking a few routine questions self-consciously, both in awe and for fear of invoking his infamous temper, and ultimately doing a very ordinary piece about the play (which was, of course, thoroughly enjoyable).
Naseeruddin Shah has been my enduring screen hero in terms of longevity and the extent of my admiration for his talent and exceptional body of work. He took over from a man who was his very antithesis— larger-than-life, proclamatory, melodramatic. It was difficult not to like Amitabh Bachchan in the '70s and equally, to continue idolising him thereafter. The film that tipped the scales in Shah’s favour was Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom, an uncredited adaptation of Erich Segal’s Man Woman And Child. As for Bachchan, Mr. Natwarlal gave me a pounding headache even as a child and that was the end of the affair.
The protagonist of Masoom was a difficult character to pull off convincingly. He’s a man who has strayed from his marriage, and is unaware that he has a child from that brief relationship. The child lands up at his doorstep many years later and he has to shoulder twofold guilt – towards his wife for betraying her trust, and the child for being absent from his life and continuing to deny his identity. The film’s end, which provides a neat resolution (unlike the original novel), is convincing as much on account of Shah’s deeply felt performance as Jugal Hansraj’s innocence.
In a similar vein, he essayed Mahendra in Gulzar’s Ijaazat, another man caught between two relationships – one with his wife Sudha (Rekha) and the other with his former lover Maya (Anuradha Patel). Mahendra valiantly tries to do a juggling act and naturally, fails. But once again, Shah portrays him as a decent, sensitive individual torn apart by his circumstances rather than a man who has heedlessly wronged someone.
It is this ability to infuse complexity and layers to characters that sets him apart from most actors in Hindi cinema. And he does so effortlessly.
One of my favourites amongst his innumerable noteworthy roles is that of Anirudh in Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh, a visually impaired school principal who’s too proud to let the well-meaning heroine Kavita (Shabana Azmi) cut through his defences fearing that her love may be born of pity. Shah’s makeover is so complete, it’s impossible to believe he’s merely playing the part of a blind man. Rewind to the scene in the park when he caresses the heroine and woos her gently in his unique, unsighted way, and then, when he heartlessly insults her due to his own insecurity.
In Vijaya Mehta’s Pestonjee, his metamorphosis into an eccentric Parsi loner is astonishing. The gait, the mannerisms, the diction, and the constant twitching of his nose are pitch perfect – character, not caricature. Another distraught Parsi in Parzania and in stark contrast, a delightful moustache twirling, swaggering comic-book villain in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala. But not for a minute do you underestimate his menace and fear for the villagers who are entirely at the mercy of his whim. And let’s not forget Kundan Shah’s dark masterpiece Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro with him and Ravi Baswani making a memorable pair of dimwits caught in the swirl of corruption and deceit, ultimately paying for their ignorance with their lives.
Shah’s gift lies in making even peripheral parts memorable. Like his standout act in Ardh Satya as an alcoholic policeman, Mike Lobo, whose pathetic figure foreshadows the protagonist’s fall into indignity. Or one half of the Pandit-Purohit duo in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool – if an actor wishes to ham, he must do it as gracefully as Shah and Om Puri do as the witches of Macbeth.
An intelligent, intuitive and highly skilled performer, he brings tremendous conviction to his work, and is equally sincere in his mainstream successes such as Tridev, Karma, Mohra and Sarfarosh, as he is when playing melancholic protagonists weighed down by the ravages of life in films like Paar, Bazaar and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai.
Even today, when his reputation and laurels have stamped a definite image on the actor, Shah continues to spring surprises, like the unnamed common man of Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, who speaks out on behalf of the faceless hoards that suffer the consequences of terrorism and the state’s apathy in equal measure. He even leaves himself open to ridicule as he valiantly serenades Vidya Balan, badly dyed hair and all, in Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya.
And although his directorial debut Yun Hota To Kya Hota may not have lived up to expectations, his enviable body of work in theatre is proof enough of his abilities as director and indeed of his obsession with putting out qualitative work, regardless of the size of the stage or the age of the audience.
That, perhaps, is his most admirable virtue.
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