Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A conversation with Naseeruddin Shah

[Excerpts from my talk with Naseeruddin Shah during the shooting of "The Hunt" in Vagamon – earlier posts about that trip here, here and here. This is in Q&A form, but I have lots of other material – watching Naseer at work, on the sets and between shots – which I'll be writing as a flowing piece at some point. When you have nearly 15,000 words that are part-interview, part-observation, it's very difficult to know how to organise them!]

In "The Hunt", Naseer plays a recluse known only as "Colonel", living in a forest retreat secured by high-tech surveillance equipment. Here he cultivates a very potent variety of marijuana, an activity that makes him the object of much unwanted attention, and his life is further complicated when he is forced to play host to a young woman who is in mortal danger.


When we spoke in connection with Jaane bhi do Yaaro last year, you mentioned that in the early 1980s you were saying yes to practically any director who came to you with a novel/offbeat script – that you wanted to support people who were doing interesting things. Are you doing this very low-budget, non-Bollywood movie for similar reasons?

I never really stopped working in small films. I may have been very critical of the "art" filmmakers I used to work with, but even when I started doing commercial movies and working three shifts a day, I always did find the time for an interesting, offbeat, low-budget movie.

I often wondered why people like Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, who had made very effective low-budget films, didn't attempt a popular film in the same budget; why were the zeroes to be increased manifold in order to make a popular film? If you could make a Bhavni Bhavai - a perfectly convincing recreation of a period - or an Aakrosh in three-and-a-half lakh rupees, why do you need Rs 20 crore to make a film today? Why can't you make a popular film with a smaller budget? I couldn't understand why no one attempted it – I believed it was possible, and also highly desirable. The ballooning budgets of Bollywood are getting out of hand, and the bubble is going to burst someday, like it happened in Hollywood with Cleopatra.

That's one of the things that drew me to Anup's project. I was reasonably impressed with his first film, Manasarovar – I wasn't bowled over, but I felt that here's someone who's trying to say what he wants to say without blowing up money on unnecessary things. When he came to me, I said yes straight away. It seemed to me that this script represented an opportunity to make a commercially viable film with a low budget.

What I meant was that Anup Kurian is outside the Bollywood circle in a way that even someone like Rajat Kapoor or Neeraj Pandey isn't – in that sense, The Hunt is an atypical film for you to be doing, more so than Mithya or A Wednesday.

True, but I thought this was a project with integrity; here is a guy whose prime motive in making this film is not to multiply his bank account but to make the kind of film that he likes.

The script, when I finally got it, was pretty damn good. I thought there were a few things I could add to it, and it's worked out well so far.

How did you prepare for the character? How did the dreadlocks happen?

When I first read the script and saw that the character is called Colonel, I said there's no way I'm going to have a handlebar moustache and a crew-cut! I think Anup wanted that sort of look. We were trying to figure it out when one day he emailed me and said "What is Colonel's real name?" The script never tells us this – he has a bunch of fake identity cards.

So I started thinking about this – where does "Colonel" come from? Now, Pankaj Parashar, who made Jalwa, one of my favourite films, has been talking nonstop about doing Jalwa 2. We never got around to it, we haven't seen eye to eye on it, but I thought to myself, hey, what if Colonel is the cop from Jalwa? This is the guy who busted a narcotics ring, shot the head guy and for his pains was dismissed from the service. It fits in perfectly, because such a thing WOULD happen to an inspector who goes and shoots a Dawood-like character; he would be fucked for life. So he has nothing to live for and he says okay, I'm going to grow marijuana and survive. Fuck honesty, fuck the police force after what they've done to me."

I saw Jalwa as a 10-year-old and I think that was the first time I really noticed you. The boring, art-house actor as muscle man. You rocked.

It was the first time a lot of kids noticed me! That film was ahead of its times, it was the forerunner of MTV and all this slick filmmaking today. So what if it was a Beverly Hills Cop remake? Even Paar was a Do Bigha Zameen remake!

There's this gym I go to – infrequently – and this beefy young man came up to me, started to touch my feet, and said, "Sir, I saw Jalwa when I was 10 and I started bodybuilding because I thought if YOU can do it, then I can definitely do it!"

Now there's a backhanded compliment.

Yes, he must have seen me in some bloody Sunayana or some such film before that! (Laughs) He was off to a bodybuilding competition. I want your blessings, sir, he said, so I told him solemnly: God bless you. No idea if he won or what happened.

Anyway, for me, this is the sequel to Jalwa. I haven't discussed it with Anup though.

I thought Colonel would be a guy who lives alone, a chap people wouldn't approach easily – an enigmatic, hermit-like figure. And I always wanted to have long hair so I suggested it to Anup – he was taken aback at first but then he saw it as adding to the enigma of the character.

This hair attachment is stitched on to my own hair – I'm stuck with it till the end of the shooting. It's horrible, but worth it for the movie.

The Colonel is a fairly laconic man, there aren't many obvious character tics.

No. He's a person you can't figure out. I thought the relationship with the girl is interesting – here's a lovely young thing brought to him, and it's impossible for him to remain unmoved, he isn't a machine after all. It's an intriguing relationship – two very different people thrown together in an unresolvable situation.


You prepare meticulously for each character, but I've noticed that you don't like theorising too much about acting technique.

Yes, because there's so much hocus-pocus about acting styles and so on, there's too much mysticism attached to it. But it's a craft like any other, it's something you have to work hard at. It isn't like some people are born with "God-given talent".

(Jokingly) Some people say 'charakter nikaalna hai', par character 'nikalta' kaise hai, yeh baat mujhe samajh nahin aati!

I believe any person can act, just like any person can sing. Any voice is capable of any sound. There's no such thing as a be-sura person. People labour under this impression "main gaa nahin sakta". But it might be more accurate to say that something happened to you in childhood because of which you can't sing, whereas other people didn't have that experience.

(Reflectively) I can recall being shouted at for singing or listening to music when I was young, by my dad – how dare you put on the radio without asking me, etc.

But when you do a Pestonjee or an Ishqiya, or play Gandhi on stage, and you're talking in a voice or an accent that isn't your own, does that need a significantly different approach?

The intent is never to look different for the sake of it, that's a wrong approach in my opinion. Acting is not an end in itself. There was a time when I only wanted to show off, but as I've grown older I've realised that you act to communicate something, you're a messenger. In order to get that message across uncorrupted and complete, if you have to use an accent or grow a beard or become thin or fat or muscular, that's your job as an actor.

There have been times when I've appeared repetitive and people have complained. But I'm built like this, I can't do plastic surgery and become a different person – I'm representing a character as best as I can given my own physicality and appearance. There are certain features which I cannot change. But if I manage to communicate what the writer and director intended, then I think it's a success.

Actors have huge egos and consider themselves the centre of the universe. But I'm trying to overcome that and this is why I've started teaching so much – because I feel it's terribly important to communicate to youngsters that everyone can't get leading roles all their lives.

I loved guys like Charles Laughton, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni – he was the first truly original film actor among those who became famous. One similarly owes a debt to the early Dilip Kumar, the early, pre-Zanjeer Amitabh Bachchan. When you see their old work now it looks dated, but you can't deny history.

I think there's going to be a quantum leap in the standard of acting in India. It happened in America in the 1950s and one of the reasons for it was the advent of TV. Because on the small screen, people saw real conversations, real grief-stricken families for the first time, and they could distinguish between that and the stylised, mannered acting they had been seeing on the big screen before that.

Actors of today are photographed from the moment they are born almost. The camera is no longer an object of terror for them, the way it used to be for us. When I was a kid, getting photographed was an event. "Next month on the 25th we are going to Meerut to get photographed," some one in the family would say, and we got all dressed up and went and there was this huge scary tripod.

Today's actors aren't as self-conscious about the camera. On the whole, they are better actors than our generation was.


You've often expressed your view that many of the old "parallel" films are mediocre and overrated. What do you feel is wrong with them? Is it the technical clunkiness or something at the level of the script?

What one saw was a lack of insight into how people behave, and to me – speaking as an actor – that was the first reason for disillusionment. It amazed me that some of those directors couldn't see that a certain type of behaviour was false. It's not a question of "underacting" or "overacting" – I don't believe in those terms – it's just a question of behaving truthfully, in a situation where you're unlocking your door for example, or parking your bicycle. Many of these directors could not see what a performance would look like on the screen, 32 times magnified. They wanted the impact right there.

There were instances, while making Junoon or Manthan, for instance, where I would do a take and everyone sitting there would applaud. Now that's a terrible, terrible thing to do to an actor, particularly a young, inexperienced, vain actor – because he then starts performing to the people present rather than communicating with the camera. Then the performance would get further magnified when you saw it on the screen, and that's why it looked like shit.

None of these filmmakers ever did a study on the dynamics/mechanics of acting. The truth is, they always looked down on actors or resented them. Perhaps with good reason, because among the Film Institute graduates, it was always the actors who got the acclaim and were the first to buy an imported car, a house etc. The directors would make a movie, slog their butts off and the actors would get the attention, being the most visible component.

Their first movies were very good in many cases, or at least competent, but after that it was downhill. I used to feel, why don't these people make movies about the things that affect them? Why are they sitting on Malabar Hill and making films about the starving peasants of Bihar? A lot of them would talk about their next film and make it sound very exciting but then they'd say "You know, I need a bigger budget. I'll probably have to cast somebody famous." And their justification was, "We need to get across to a bigger audience." And I'd say: WHY? When you started your career you decided to take the path less travelled, you didn't have much of an audience when you made your first film, you didn't even care for the audience then. Now, suddenly, why do you need to get across to a bigger audience?

Anyway, they all made the fatal mistake of getting saleable actors. And the moment you take on a saleable actor the whole bloody odour of a project changes. To my mind, this was the biggest mistake: casting actors who have made their lives and careers and reputations by being synthetic. These guys have practised it, they've turned it into a fine art – being "convincingly synthetic". And you are casting such actors and expecting them to play real people? They just can't do it! Even the most gifted of them, Mr Bachchan, can't do it any more. He has become a synthetic person. I would tell them this and they would say you are just envious.

Cast a popular star in a small movie and before you know it you're making sure you're keeping the star happy, without him even asking for it. This is where the rot set in with these arty filmmakers. Study any of their graphs and you'll see the same story.

Did you ever worry that you would fall into the same trap, being a superstar of the "parallel star system" that was developing at the time?

No, because we weren't getting anything like the rewards that those guys got! So we didn't feel like stars, I was getting no money for any of these movies, it would amuse me no end that I was being called the Amitabh Bachchan of parallel cinema (laughs).

But yes, parallel cinema definitely had a star hierarchy of its own, and the same people would get cast over and over again. Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Smita Patil, Farooque Shaikh and Supriya Pathak. The last film in which Shyam Benegal cast a whole ensemble of newcomers was Nishant in 1975!

When I started getting deluged with awards, I became the darling of these filmmakers. And because I had a kind of malleable personality – and I had worked on it – I got cast as the Christian, the Gujarati, the goonda, everything. I believed in myself as all those people. But the bitter truth also is that I was the only idiot available who would work free and deliver the goods, which was a major reason for my getting these roles. There were many others who were just as capable as I was, but they wouldn't have been available on the same terms.

Your willingness to be openly critical of people in the industry – to name names - is something that's rare in Bollywood, where tact is the ultimate virtue. Has the bluntness alienated you from a lot of people or otherwise had repercussions on your professional life?

I've been very lucky never to be in a position where I've had to worry about pleasing people or saying the right things to them. Yes, I have lost friends and that's something I've regretted at times. But as far as needing to say the right things or the diplomatic things, that's never been an issue. After all, I made it on my own steam – even the people who gave me my early breaks did it because I had what they needed, I didn't take any favours from them. So I don't really feel like I owe them anything.

One thing that's interesting: when I say these blunt things about Bollywood movies or synthetic actors or Institute directors, no one ever responds by saying "He's wrong. That isn't true." Instead they respond by saying "Yeh sab kyun keh raha hai?" ("Why is he saying all this?") It's almost like there's this understanding that once you're part of the industry, you're simply not supposed to say certain things – that you're supposed to be tactful and look the other way.

Your rants about FTII directors are legion. Kundan Shah told me you were stomping around the Jaane bhi do Yaaro sets in a cold fury in 1982, yelling that Institute directors were all idiots.

I strongly believe that the direction course at the FTII should be scrapped. There should only be areas of specialisation, so students can acquire expertise in a particular branch of filmmaking. Too many of these Institute directors have their heads filled with nonsense about a film being "their film". But only Charles bloody Chaplin had the right to make such a claim, and even he was dependent on so many other people. Look at someone like Satyajit Ray, who was a true all-rounder: even he never wrote "A film by Satyajit Ray" in the credits of his movies. The auteur theory is rubbish. In Indian cinema it all started with Benegal etc, but it's a load of rubbish.

Some of these directors are so full of themselves that they have no sense of human behaviour: they treat actors as props, to be shifted around. They only come to actors for suggestions when they don't have an idea in their heads – otherwise it's always "No, it's my film and this is the way I want this done."

As it is, the way films are made in Bollywood, everything is completely centered around a star's image rather than on the way a character would really behave. "Amitabh ji hain toh aisi kursi mein baithenge." "Naseeruddin Shah ko anger wallah scene do." "Paresh Rawal hai toh comedy wallah scene do."

Which of the films you did are you reasonably happy with?

I was proud of Masoom, Sparsh, maybe Ardh Satya to an extent. A Wednesday, among the newer films. But in general I've lost the hope of seeing a truly great film being made in this country, at least in my lifetime. Time and time and time again, people fuck up the opportunities they have.

But isn't the overall quality of today's offbeat films better than their equivalents from the 70s and 80s?

Definitely, in every way. Scriptwise, craftwise, understanding-wise, and most importantly these are films about issues that directly affect these young writer-directors. Neeraj Pandey has suffered firsthand through what the common man in A Wednesday talks about. He's a very down-to-earth person and I look forward to his future work. Rajat Kapoor's first film Private Detective was a very bad combination of James Hadley Chase and Mani Kaul, and they go together like rum and whiskey (laughs). I was in that film, and no one has ever seen it. But the movies he's making now, Bheja Fry or Mithya, they are about the things he's concerned with, and there's a basic honesty to them. Even a Farah Khan makes great movies, because they are based on her completely unabashed love for commercial movies and she makes no bones about them. Anurag Kashyap is the most exciting filmmaker in the country by a long stretch, and there are guys like Hirani and Dibakar Banerjee.

I think today's filmmakers have better honed their craft. See the skill with which Nandita Das's Firaaq was made. She was heartbroken when the film was sunk by the distributors. That was a real pity.

It's too early to celebrate but there's hope. And let's not start talking about a New Movement and all that.

You made your own debut as a movie director with Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota. Any more plans in that direction?

No. That film didn't work and it hurts me to think I made a film that was incompetent. Some people tell me they liked it, but frankly I think that was because they wanted to like it. I pay more heed to those who didn't like it. It had a lot of flaws. I'd like to set that right in the future, but I don't know if I have the ability. Film direction is a very difficult job.

What were you thinking when you did something like Krrish?

(Makes wry face, flicks fingers in "rokda" gesture) I hope I can continue to do one big commercial film every year so I can line my bank account. That would be the perfect existence.


With your dastangoi stint and with the new productions by your group Motley, you've been getting back to a no-frills, minimalist form of theatre. What attraction does this hold for you?

First of all, just to clear a misconception – my first love isn't theatre, it's cinema. I first dreamt of becoming a film actor when I first started dreaming at 14. I wanted to be rich and famous, I wanted to be Gary Cooper, I didn't want to be an arty-farty type of guy trudging up hills and through streams and so on... (laughter) I wanted to live in palaces and be recognised everywhere and wear dark glasses and white suits.

Nobody becomes an actor to serve Art. You become an actor because you want to be famous, you want to meet girls, you want people to react to you. It was just chance that I discovered theatre along the way and became hooked to it, developed a great love for it which stayed with me. Then I went to FTII and started working in both forms simultaneously.

I don't think I'm a hugely committed theatre-person – I don't do street theatre or political theatre, which I perhaps would do if I were a theatre person above all else. To me, theatre is a stimulating experience that has taught me a great deal. But I love movies with a passion I can't explain, and it hurts me to see people wasting the opportunities they have to make good films. It also hurts to see the neglect of film prints. The original prints of Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Bhavni Bhavai are in ruins, and these were government-made films; there's no excuse at all.
Alam Ara, such a historically significant movie - the first sound film made in India - no longer exists, it exists only in stills.

But to get back to your question about returning to minimalist theatre... the more I've done theatre, the more convinced I've become about the thesis of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who wrote the book Towards a Poor Theatre. His argument was that European theatre is travelling in the wrong direction – more and more, people are trying to create the illusion of cinema through magical set changes, thunderstorms, floods, earthquakes, the stage going crooked etc. And he said, this is ridiculous – no matter what you do, cinema will always be better at doing these things.

Ergo, has theatre lost its function? Is what theatre did being done better by cinema today? And the answer is no. So, what is the identity of theatre in that case?

Grotowski was cash-strapped, in this communist regime with limited resources, and he developed the concept of poor theatre – he said our poverty of resources should be our strength. He defined ideal theatre as one actor, one audience. When I speak, you listen; when you speak, I listen. We respond to each other. And I thought, fuck man, this makes complete sense to me.

He went further: he said if I want to show a storm on stage, I don't want to show water falling on the actor. I depend on the actor's imagination, an actor whose body is capable and whose imagination is alive. Put the actor in minimal clothing and he expresses everything with his body and his voice. This was the sort of theatre he wanted to do.

He would go as far as to choose his audience. Girish Karnad is the only person I know who's actually seen a performance of Grotowski's group, and he told me it was like being submerged in water – he could only gasp for breath when he came out.

Grotowski said there is no point trying to create the illusion of being elsewhere – all an audience member has to do is look upwards and he can see the lights above the actors. You have to try and transport their minds. I've begun to gravitate towards this type of theatre. Dispense with all the props – if your imagination is good enough you can make the audience see the teapot and the teacup in a scene where the actor is making tea.

That reminds me of Spencer Tracy playing a shipwrecked sailor on stage once and saying he didn't want a stubble. The director asked him incredulously, "You mean you're going to act unshaven?" And that's pretty much what Tracy did.

Was that in Captains Courageous? No no, that was a film.

Back in the 70s, under Mr Elkazi, I felt theatre was all about the grandeur. But the magic of theatre really is the stimulation you give the watcher's mind. For that you don't need anything except the actor. If I were to do Shaw's Saint Joan, which I badly want to, I would do it in this minimalist way. That play is full of such beautiful words, and that's all you really need.

As far as Motley is concerned, I'm trying to spend as little time as possible on stage – because otherwise the play will become about Naseeruddin Shah, and I want the theatre group to outlive me.

(Later, Naseer showed me an article he'd been reading about J D Salinger. "There was such purity of purpose in this man," he said, "in the way he let his work do the talking and kept himself in the background. Not that I consider myself anywhere near the same league, but there are times when I'm preparing for a play and I want to continue with the rehearsals without ever putting on the actual performance.")

Sent from James' iPhone

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