Naseeruddin Shah Curated
Indian actor and director
CURATED BY :
Do you think your wife Ratna Pathak is having better luck than you now?
How is your friendship with Om Puri and with other competitive actors of yours?
Did you enjoy working with younger film makers?
Is it true that you mentioned that you cannot have a conversation with anyone regarding acting in the film industry?
Is it true that you mentioned that you cannot have conversation with anyone from film industry?
As you completed 50 years in acting, what still motivates you to do acting in films as well as theaters?
What are your views on your character listing in your first film 'Amal'?
How was your experience working with your own family?
Was there any moment where you saw an actor in a movie and thought 'I could do this'?
Why did you choose acting?
How did passion fueled through your journey?
40 years and more to count years you have been in film industry, what more can we expect from you?
As an actor who has stardom and family, where do you stand on the nepotism today?
Do you feel strange now acting as a father in films?
Can you tell something about your play 'The Father'?
As you are an active actor, do you prefer yourself in movies or theaters?
What are your views on theaters in India?
As you have mentioned you have struggled as an actor, do you think it's better and changed now?
As you are a big fan of Shammi Kapoor, did you take an autograph or interacted with him in your early years of film industry?
How was your experience in the film industry in the early phase?
As you used to bunk classes to watch movies across various cities, which movie have you watched in Prabhath?
As you used to bunk classes to watch movies across various cities, which movie have you watched in Capital?
What do you think of yourself, a star or an actor?
The few songs that use Urdu words today seem to do so without knowing its proper usage.
Yes, the fact is, Hindi films have done much harm to the language, especially for the past few decades. Where do we find words like baad-e-saba, zulf, ghata in today’s lyrics? They seem to have no connection with Urdu. Earlier, the censor board certificates used to have Urdu and Hindi both—now it is vanishing, Film titles, as shown in film posters and screens, used to be in Urdu too.
What is lacking in our Urdu plays?
There are barely any Urdu plays happening. Our Urdu knowing playwrights now should write new plays in Urdu-Hindi mixed or Hindustani, instead of digging old graves.
There appears to be a sudden attention towards Urdu in recent days, with emerging festivals reinforcing the beauty of the language, increasingly frequent evenings of ghazals, and the revival of the dastangoi. What do you think is the reason for this?
Fascination for Urdu is not a bad idea. But one must be very clear about this thing—especially those who say that Urdu language is dead; it is alive and will always be— but it is not the property of Muslims. No one has a right over the language. A language is not associated with religion, but with the region. Urdu will remain forever because it has that delicacy, that humility and that warmth, which enriches a language without anyone having to support it. It is a self-sustainable language. It doesn’t need sympathy.
You have done some brilliant comedy films like Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. Do you miss working in such films?
Yes, of course. In fact, I can never forgive these filmmakers for not making such films anymore. Ask these filmmakers why such films are not being made and they say a set-up like that does not exist; actors of that calibre are not available. They will say we did not get an audience. My question is, did they expect to get an audience in the first place? If no, then why did it disappoint them? The audience still exists. They just jumped. There's no excuse. The rats just deserted the sinking ship. That's what they all did.
When you entered the industry some 25 years back, there were a lot of low-budget, experimental, realistic films being made. You later rejected a lot of them as being trash and unnecessarily dark. Do you think it is time our filmmakers went back to making sensible films?
There are a number of filmmakers who are doing exactly the same now. And the good sign is that a lot of these films have been successful. Films like Jhankaar Beats, Mr and Mrs Iyer and some others. That will happen every few years. The mistake we made in the seventies was imagining the movement would sweep the country and change the course of filmmaking. The filmmakers had the pretension. Frankly, we all did. So when the movement collapsed on its face in five years or so, we were all shocked. Now, if this movement -- if we may call it that -- lasts even five years, I'd say it is a good thing. When it collapses, which I am sure it will, we should not be shocked and start lamenting that good cinema is dead. Because when the need for good cinema arises, we will make good cinema. It is as simple as that.
You seem to enjoy theatre much more than cinema.
Yes, I think so too. After 25 years of doing both, I have come to the conclusion that I enjoy doing theatre more.
How was it working with a Hollywood cast and crew for the first time?
It was like working in an organised Bollywood set-up. The script was like it is here, very much Bollywood. But the planning and the execution were absolutely meticulous. That was what made it different. I was very curious to know how big films get made in Hollywood. I was also interested in knowing about the special effects department, which we never get to know about here. In that sense, my curiosity has been satisfied.
Your best and worst film performances?
The worst. There are many. There are too many. I try to be objective about it. “Nishant” and “Masoom” are the two best films as films. “A Wednesday” also is one of the best films as a film. In all these three, I also like my own performance.
Any plans of returning to directing?
No, not film directing. I am directing on the stage and I am happy doing that. I think I am more suited for that kind of thing. Not film.
Is this a better time for you to be an actor or was it better in the past?
It’s just getting better and better. And I am getting roles like I got in “A Wednesday” or “Ishqiya” or “The Dirty Picture”, all three of which I like and I enjoyed doing all those three roles. And the small movies at the same time.
Do you think India is now making the kind of films that you’ve wanted to act in?
Yeah. I am acting in them as far as I can. I’ve done many which haven’t got released. Young filmmakers still approach [me] for their kind of films. In fact, I am committed to do a new film in December, which is by a first-time filmmaker from London, an Indian girl which is a wonderful script and it’s just my kind of a film. At the moment, I am acting in a film called “Welcome Back” which is by Anees Bazmee, a thoroughly commercial film. I’ve always been able to balance the two, art house and commercial films. Commercial cinema has somehow continued to need me every now and then and that’s fine by me because it is because of commercial cinema I am lucky to live a good life.
An actor you’ve perhaps tried to emulate?
There are plenty I liked even in the past, but I did not try to emulate any of them because I thought it’s beyond me to try to emulate Shammi Kapoor or Dilip Kumar so let me find what I can bring to the table. I remember thinking, why should I be the second so and so. Let me be the first whoever I am. But there are many actors that I loved. I think Mahmood saheb was one of the most skillful actors I’ve ever seen. I would even consider him close to Charlie Chaplin in terms of his skill as an actor. He was probably the most skillful actor that Hindi cinema has ever had.
Do you think the directors, producers and the audiences in India don’t have the appetite for dark, real world films?
Yeah, they don’t. But the truth also is that the dark depressing films we try to make only end up being boring. Those films are also not made with perception and with skill. You can’t expect an audience which has come there to have a good time and eat ice cream and popcorn to enjoy a depressing film. It’s as simple as that. So if you want to make films of that kind they will always have a niche audience, a certain section will see them and not everybody. So you mustn’t expect the kind of success that Dirty Picture had if you decide to make dark, depressing films.
As an actor, do you sometimes get a script that looks marvellous on paper but becomes a hugely disappointing film?
Oh yeah. Many times, many times. And the reverse, too, has happened where you don’t have too much hope for the film. “Masoom” being one of the first such cases and there have been many others where I have felt the script could be better but then the film transcended the script, at times.
You didn’t want to be in song-and-dance sequences, but you still took up those roles?
I had to do it. I never did it well. But I tried to do it because there is no harm in being popular. I was very happy in the kind of films I was doing. But since I was offered these as well, I thought that I would give it a try. Didn’t work out.
Tell us something about the ‘Merchant of Venice’ play that you performed in school.
It was a life-changing event. If I’ve had any life-changing event, it was that. Because having succeeded in that gave me my first taste of acceptance and self worth. And I had done it all by myself, so I was all the more proud of it. And suddenly people who would walk past me, would approach me to talk to me and so on. It just changed everything. It just changed the way I looked at the world and it changed the way the world looked at me. That’s how I can describe it at best.
Did you, at any time, think of an alternative career path?
No. I think that is why I had to succeed in this. I never left myself any alternative. I did want to be a cricketer. When my brother came home from NDA (National Defence Academy) I felt “wow, I should like to wear that uniform”. But I didn’t want to join the army. I never thought of anything else.
The legendary actor Dilip Kumar told you movies are not for “boys from good families”. Would you offer the same advice to an aspiring actor?
No, I wouldn’t. I would say think about it deeply and complete your education first. Don’t opt for acting as an escape from education.
Your brothers were very supportive. Did they believe you’d become the actor that you are?
They didn’t know what to think, but they encouraged me. Neither of them told me “no, don’t do this”. They were sceptical naturally but they continuously encouraged me and I owe them a lot.
Why did you choose to call your memoir “And Then One Day”?
It’s just a “kahani kehne ka jo andaaz hota hai na, ek tha raja ek thi raani” (“It’s just a way of telling a story, there once was a king and a queen”) kind of thing — “once upon a time”. It’s that kind of a phrase which I thought is quite suitable in my case. Because it’s an intriguing title also. Because it might give you the feeling that one day everything suddenly changed “jab ki aisa kuch hua nahi tha kuch meri zindagi mein” (“while nothing like that happened in my life”). So I quoted that verse from that song which I love which is about a person who has wasted a lot of his life. At one stage, I felt that I have done that or at least I got very delayed in starting off my education.
When you were doing the play, The Father, you had said that it’s a complex one, but you never underestimate the intelligence of the audience.
Absolutely, and the response has been very encouraging. At the same time, there are always walkouts in every show. I don’t mind. Maybe those people found the play confusing, which is actually the playwright’s purpose, to put you into the mind of the character. So if you’re confused at the end, it’s intended, provided the experience has given you something of seeing this man. But the majority of audience stay on and that has been really good to see.
Do you think the success of the play,The Father, will encourage other theatre companies to follow suit with the format?
I always felt that it’s possible to do it, but the problem is most theatre companies don’t have the resources. One has to book a theatre for a month which means a fat amount of money. And now these theatres cost a lot. Then the actors have to be available for a month. So, I don’t expect that everybody will start doing it. I did it because I could afford to do it. The actors I chose have all given their commitments and it’s been great fun.
Have you been offered any projects on the digital platforms?
I’ve been offered a few things but I didn’t find them interesting. I’ve been doing some short films with young people and that’s been great fun.
The boundaries between commercial and art cinema have been blurring now...
It’s a good thing. Films don’t get stamped as art films and the audience doesn’t need any help in deciding. They smell it out, as Dubeyji (Satyadev Dubey) used to say. ‘Audience soongh leti hai kaunsi film kaisi hai’. It’s true. Even among the ones being made now, I know which ones I want to see and that has been the case since school. ‘Six months from now, Shammi Kapoor ki jo film aa rahi hai woh dekhni hai!’’
You may not be acting in films but are you watching a lot of movies?
I’m happy with some of the movies I have seen in recent times like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Nude, Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Kaun Kitne Paani Mein. Several other films like Anarkali of Arrah, Ankhon Dekhi, Death In A Gunjand Newton were also good. But all these filmmakers get snapped up so fast by the Bollywood machine. It chews them up and spits them out. They made these movies out of conviction, but the moment one of these movies succeeds, they get snapped up by the movie-making factories and then they have to conform.
As an actor, you must have seen many highs and lows in your career and life as well. How did you manage to cling on to hope even when the tides were against you?
Because of the fact that I knew that nobody could prevent me from doing the work I love, which is – acting. I may not become a big star or I may not earn lots of money, I may not be the most famous guy in the country but at least, I will be able to do what I love and continued to do, what my passion is, and that is to act. And, that's what I continued and that is why my association with the theatre continued and today it is too highly beneficial to me and to several others.
With things becoming so complex in our daily lives or different phases that we go through to, people tend to lose hope, how does one still stay hopeful?
By continuing to practise what you believe in. When photography came in, painters thought that this is the end of the road for us, because what we can do so well – a photograph can do even better, and those were the realistic painters, who made these still lives and so on – and absolutely incredibly beautiful painting. But then, when photography came in, it could do the same thing better. So, the painters resorted to cubism, to expressionism, impressionism, abstraction etc. Even writers resorted to the same things. So, you've got to set the challenges for yourself, otherwise, there's somebody just waiting in line to take your place.
Do you believe in destiny? Which one do you think is true- man creates his own destiny or we get what destiny has in store for us, and why?
It is impossible to give a definitive answer to that kind of a question, one doesn't know. It's like asking, 'Does God Exist?' There'll never be a definitive answer to that. But, I believe one's destiny is in one's own hands to a large extent.
Have you any final reflections on where you are in cinema today and where you are headed?
I am in a very good place, because the few parts I’m getting at my age are really challenging. There’s one I’m really looking forward to, which is that of a transsexual. It may or may not happen. The script is still being written. But I’m getting to do so much of the work that I love, which is theatre and helping students work.
You’ve also appeared in a number of Pakistani movies and performed on stage in Pakistan. How was your experience in that country?
Pakistani hospitality is so famous that I don’t need to mention it. The audience there is very receptive. They were delighted that we were doing serious plays like A Walk in the Woods. They lapped it up and loved us for it. I intend to go back there and perform every time I am invited.
What are your thoughts on Hindi cinema today?
It will continue to promote mediocrity. And it will continue to make money. What we can hope for is that guys who’ve made movies like Anaarkali of Aarah and Lipstick Under My Burkha won’t succumb to the lure of big money, like the 1970s offbeat filmmakers did, and will continue to make small movies that are important, that will be remembered and that will act as some kind of antidote to the Bollywood poison.
You’ve also acted in some small Western movies. What has been your experience acting in Western cinema?
The smaller ones are very exploitative, just like our 1970s offbeat movies: making a movie because no one is giving you money to make a blockbuster, getting actors slyly on the cheap, getting nonunion actors and paying them chickenshit. Acting in League… helped me find out what the big-budget Hollywood monster is all about. It’s no different from the Bollywood monster. The stars are treated with velvet gloves, and those who are inconsequential are treated like shit. And the gulf in payment between the star and the guy who’s doing all the work is as vast as in a Bombay movie. This poor guy who is climbing and sitting in the rafters holding a light gets paid nothing while this idiot who can’t act and learn his lines and is being prompted in the shot is being paid tens of millions of rupees. This kind of thing has never ceased to offend me. Doing League… made me understand it’s no different in Hollywood. I got paid a lot of money, and so that didn’t hurt. But I didn’t enjoy that movie.
What do you feel are your best performances?
Nishant  and Paar are two of my favourites. Both are based on my real-life experiences. My maternal grandfather was a landlord. I’ve seen people in my life like in Nishant and Paar. Among my maternal uncles, I’ve seen the interaction of relationships like in Nishant. They were four wonderful specimens of men. The eldest was quite fearsome. The youngest was also quite a cat on his own, but in front of the big brother was submissive. I myself was the youngest of three brothers [like in Nishant], and we were not great friends when we were kids. I was the butt of ridicule all the time, like a lot of younger brothers are. And, so, I could empathise with this character very well. I realised you could not play stupid by being goggle-eyed. What I was supposed to do was: this is a stupid guy but he does not show his stupidity. Rather, he’ll try very hard to understand. It paid off with the performance.
Looking back on your association with 1970s and 80s parallel cinema directors such as Benegal and Govind Nihalani, was it worth it to make those movies?
Shyam and Govind pointed out the direction to filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap, youngsters who are brilliant like Vikramaditya Motwane or the young people who have made films such as Anaarkali of Aarah  or Lipstick Under My Burkha  – had Shyam and Govind not been there, these films today would not have been made.
Could we talk about your association with Shyam Benegal, the doyen of Hindi offbeat cinema, and the break that he gave you?
When I saw Ankur , Shyam’s first movie, I had a great helium high because I felt, hey, this is the kind of movie I’ve been waiting for. When I went to FTII, the Film and Television Institute of India, I saw Japanese movies, Italian movies, Swedish movies, German movies, and actors like Mifune in Japan and Per Oscarsson from Sweden, and Belmondo – and Klaus Kinski and Max von Sydow. I said, “Wow! How do they do this?” Ankur came around, and I realised, this is the kind of filmmaker I want to work with. As luck would have it, I got cast in Shyam’s second film, Nishant. Then he made Manthan, in which he gave me a drastically different part. Shyam had enough perception to know that I have this anger within me. I had to do the best I could and it was a success. I don’t consider it one of my best performances but it was certainly one of my most energetic, and energy always grabs the audience.
What got you interested in acting and cinema?
My dad occupied a government position, deputy collector, in a city called Nainital, so we had access to the cinemas at any time. I saw my first movies when I was very young. Several of those films have stuck in my mind, such as Scaramouche, The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Rob Roy, Robin Hood, Peter Pan and the Tarzan movies. Somehow, Hindi movies never took me in the same way Hollywood films did. Even at the age of five or six, I could see the difference in the quality of execution. We watched movies regularly in my boarding school. From Mickey Mouse to Citizen Kane, I saw them all. What drew me into being an actor was that I never got cast in the school plays – and it used to kill me. My dad pulled me out of that school and put me in one where he thought he could keep an eye on me and it was there that I had an opportunity to act in a play. Since that day, I haven’t looked back. I started reading Shakespeare, I began to gain confidence that this was my love, and I was hit with a terrible dilemma: how do I break it to the old man, who was waiting for me to pass with flying colours and become a doctor? Luckily, I had this role model, Geoffrey Kendal (the inspiration for the 1965 Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah), who I saw in school performing in a play. I’m an actor because I wanted to emulate Mr Kendal. The Kendals spent their entire lives performing for students, never once appearing in a commercial production, never having a home of their own – itinerant players all their lives. It was a shining example of a person who truly loved theatre.
You were very keen on playing Gandhi but the role for the movie went to Ben Kingsley. Did you feel, after seeing his performance, that you could have done it better?
No, I thought he was wonderful. In fact, the moment I saw him I knew I had lost the role. I had been pretty confident till then that there was no way they were going to find an angrez that looked like Gandhi ji — but they found one. It was the only part in my life that I tried to get and didn’t. I must admit that I was thoroughly disappointed, but I realise now that I wasn’t ready for it then. Ben was better qualified at that time to do the part and I don’t think I could have done it as well as he did. I subsequently did play Gandhi on the stage so that fulfilled my desire.
Which play have you personally enjoyed the most?
It’s a Marathi play called ‘Ghashi Ram Kotwal.’ It’s the greatest theatre experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve seen theatre practically all over the world. What distinguishes this play from others is that it has great strength of content, using the form of traditional Marathi theatre, called the ‘tamasha.’ It is a very vibrant, down-to-earth musical form, with lots of song and dance in which the actors ad lib. The playwright has used the folk form of Maharashtra to make an extremely strong statement about public life and about the corruption that seeps into every aspect of it. There are only humans on the stage — no sets. The actors become thunder, lightning, river and so on. It’s totally amazing and beyond anything I’ve seen on Broadway.
As an actor, do you consciously strive to make every character you portray appear different or do you feel there is enough variety in the work that something different comes forth each time?
A lot of actors labour under the delusion that it is necessary for an actor to be different each time. It is not. Every actor cannot play every part. When I was younger, I thought I could. I realised later that I can’t and that there are several limitations. I realised that the prime job of an actor is not to be different from his last role but as truthful as possible to his current one. To communicate the text is the sacred duty of the actor.
How do you approach theatre — do you have a cause and use theatre as your medium?
When I started working in theatre, I did not know why I was doing it. I did it only because I wanted to become an actor and that’s all I wanted to be after my graduation. Back then, it was merely fun. As the years went by, I realised what theatre had become for me — a medium of communication and getting across to people. So I decided to hone my skills as a theatre worker in that area — to learn the craft of how to retain audience interest, how to get across what I want to. I don’t think the impelling force is a commitment to a cause — you discover the cause as you go along — and the cause could even be mindless entertainment, which it is not in our case. In our case, at the moment, it is theatre geared towards communicating the text — that is the essence of our work.
How challenging is it to be directing your wife and daughter on stage? Do you pull them up if they perform below expectations?
I crack the whip! They know who’s boss! Actually, the reason I cast them in this production is not because they are both available but because I needed two actors who would apply themselves and master the language. Urdu is not Ratna’s mother tongue and Heeba has had a very varied childhood spent partly in England, partly in Iran and partly in India and Pakistan. So she is familiar with a lot of languages, but not particularly so with Urdu. I needed two actors whose commitment I could not doubt and whom I could call upon at any time. That is why I cast them and the results are there for all to see.
For the most part in your career, you have either acted or directed. Seldom have you done both in a project. Is it because you don’t like to wear two hats simultaneously?
Frankly, I don’t. I have directed and acted simultaneously on stage on a number of occasions and I think I have fallen short when I did that. This play was somewhat easier because of its nature — it’s three separate stories — so I was able to be objective. Ratna and Heeba both helped me with my work and I could be a guide for them. But I prefer not to do both.
The language you hear on television and in films these days is really a hodge-podge of Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Arabic. What is your opinion?
What can be better than that? An artificial distinction was created after Partition between Hindi and Urdu. Not a word of the news we used to get then from All India Radio and Radio Pakistan could be understood. What’s more, if film scripts were written in pure Urdu 20-25 years ago, it was because writers used to write in Urdu. Many playwrights entered the film industry and, because they wrote in Urdu, Urdu theatre was transplanted onto the screen. Not only the language but also the talent — of acting, dancing and poetry — was theatre-inspired.
How did you agree to act in Shoaib Mansoor’s film, ‘Khuda Kay Liyay’?
When Shoaib first asked me, I said no instantly at the mere mention of a “Pakistani film” — they aren’t the best films in the world — but Shoaib asked me to at least listen to what he had to say. I agreed and he sent me the one scene he wanted me to enact, which is the last scene of the film, where I have to play the character of a maulana who is brought to testify against a girl accused of unIslamic behaviour. When I read the script, it sent a shiver down my spine. I did not have a second thought after that. I didn’t read the rest of the script — I just read this scene and felt these are things that need to be said. This is a film that has to be made and deserves all the support it can get because I think it is a very brave film and what it is saying is of tremendous importance. I am not at all aware of Shoaib Mansoor’s abilities as a film-maker — I have only seen one of his music videos called Anarkali, which I thought was very nice — but I did not feel the need to be [aware]. I am not here to judge filmmakers, I am here to participate in a project that needed my help and which needed to be seen. The film has recently been completed and, hopefully, it should be released later in the year.
Is commercial theatre proliferating in India?
Oh yes, in many languages — in Bombay alone there are Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English plays running simultaneously. Every night you have a choice of 25 different plays — that most of them are not worth watching is a different story. The fact is that they are flourishing. There is a small pocket of people who are attempting the experimental kind of theatre, and that is the theatre we are trying to promote — a theatre that is shorn of all superfluities. The essential thing in theatre is the human being on stage, and it is the contact that they can make with the listeners that is of importance. That’s the true magic of theatre: arousing the audience’s imagination. Even in a bad play, there are moments in which you feel a complete connection with the performer and vice versa. In a wonderful play you feel that more often and in a truly great work you feel it constantly, but that’s very rare. I feel too many props, costumes and sets intrude and distract from the text. The encouraging sign is that young playwrights are also beginning to convert in India. I am not aware if this is happening in Pakistan — if not, then this is what needs to be done. It’s not an easy job — it may take a whole generation to nurture playwrights.
Art movies are a dying concept in India. Is it because of lack of financing or are people just not interested any more?
I don’t think the big, bad Bollywood extravaganzas replaced art cinema to begin with. They were always there. Art cinema appeared in the seventies and petered out soon after and, although there may be many reasons for that, I think the best answer lies in discovering what kind of art cinema those art film directors of the seventies are now making. Also, people lament the demise of art films but no one is really interested in watching them.
Local languages, whether Urdu or Hindi, are becoming increasingly unfashionable among the elite circles in our respective countries, who show a marked preference for English. Why have you chosen Urdu as your medium for theatre performances?
We formed our group in 1975 and initially only performed English plays, although they were not originally written in English. Most of them were translations of French, German and Italian plays. After a few years of performing these plays, we realised our limitations and began to wonder why we were trying to project a culture and people that were alien to us. That’s when it struck me that we should do plays in our own language, Hindustani — I don’t think there is any difference in our two languages but I prefer to call it that. IN THIS ISSUE June 19, 2006A New Proxy War? A new “Great Game” has begun in Afghanistan. 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But The Citizen’s Foundation made sure that Shabana Azmi’s act was followed by an equally powerful one. They flew in Naseeruddin Shah, Azmi’s colleague from her parallel cinema days, to help raise funds for the 1000 schools they plan to set up throughout Pakistan. Shah, who heads the theatre group Motley, was accompanied by his wife, Ratna Pathak, and his daughter, Heeba Shah. The family narrated three short stories by Ismat Chughtai. Although strapped for time, Naseeruddin Shah gave an interview — albeit with the condition that there be no questions about Hollywood or Bollywood — and remained good-humoured and gracious throughout. Q: It seems to be a natural progression for popular actors to enter politics. Do you harbour any such intentions? A:I am neither an activist nor a politically astute person. I’m just an actor and I feel that if one is dissatisfied with one’s own work then, rather than moving on to another field, one should try and discover the root of the dissatisfaction and remedy it. There is a great deal that can be done within one’s own field and that’s what I have set out to do. I have no intention of turning to politics. Our coming here is part of our own search for improvement in our work and we feel more than privileged that we can be of some use to someone. Q: Local languages, whether Urdu or Hindi, are becoming increasingly unfashionable among the elite circles in our respective countries, who show a marked preference for English. Why have you chosen Urdu as your medium for theatre performances? A: We formed our group in 1975 and initially only performed English plays, although they were not originally written in English. Most of them were translations of French, German and Italian plays. After a few years of performing these plays, we realised our limitations and began to wonder why we were trying to project a culture and people that were alien to us. That’s when it struck me that we should do plays in our own language, Hindustani — I don’t think there is any difference in our two languages but I prefer to call it that. However, I discovered that there are very few original plays in Hindustani — they stopped being written once the playwrights made their way to the newly introduced talkie films and ignored theatre. There was no tradition left of Urdu drama and there is no existing written work that we can perform. This was when I started reading Urdu literature, which I was not familiar with as my education had been entirely in English and I had only read English literature till then. By coincidence, Ismat apa was the first writer I read in an English translation. When I read the original, I realised how poor the translations were and that they just did not do justice to the original. She had written in her book that when she writes she feels she is conversing with the reader, and I found that her style of writing was very conversational, which gave me the idea of reading out her stories. Everyone was very skeptical that people would not be interested in such a play, but the amazing part is that in 27 years this has been our most popular play.
It seems to be a natural progression for popular actors to enter politics. Do you harbour any such intentions?
I am neither an activist nor a politically astute person. I’m just an actor and I feel that if one is dissatisfied with one’s own work then, rather than moving on to another field, one should try and discover the root of the dissatisfaction and remedy it. There is a great deal that can be done within one’s own field and that’s what I have set out to do. I have no intention of turning to politics. Our coming here is part of our own search for improvement in our work and we feel more than privileged that we can be of some use to someone.
Your daughter, Heeba, is working with Majid Majidi while son Vivaan is inclined towards commercial cinema. You discuss films with them?
Yeah, we talk cinema, theatre and literature, but they don’t ask and I don’t advise them on their choices. They may make some mistakes, but I’ve had my share too. Heeba got Mango Souffle, Poorna and even Majidi’s film on her own steam. I’m proud of it. Vivaan doesn’t have much of a choice, he does whatever comes to him. He’d be happy to do a serious film too but so far he’s only got the intended blockbusters like 7 Khoon Maaf and Happy New Year which didn’t quite bust the boxoffice. He’s happy working.
Today with the audience spoilt for choice, what will bring them to the theatres?
Well, any old film with 10 stars will no longer work. They never did but the industry persisted with them as they brought in big bucks. Now we have to strive towards “special occasion films” which are entertaining and made with conviction. Films like Masaan, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, Nil Battey Sannata and Lipstick Under My Burkha. These filmmakers are not sitting in an air-conditioned room and posing as bleeding heart liberals, they are making films on subjects that concern them and touch their lives. This ‘movement’ beats that of the ’70s, which had a lot of pretentious filmmakers who turned out to be hypocrites. The success of films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Lipstick... over the monstrous Mubarakans is a sign that content is working.
What makes you accept a film today? Is money the incentive?
If it states something I believe in, I’d happily be a part of it irrespective of the length of the role or the money. I accepted The Hungry not because it’s Shakespeare but because the script had the same kind of chilling effect on me as when I heard about the Chadda brothers shooting each other or Indrani Mukherjea strangling her daughter (Sheena Bora). I spent the first 30 years of my life in small towns like Aligarh, Meerut, Ajmer and Nainital. I’ve seen such landlords who live like kings and for whom there’s a different set of rules. This script evoked that world. What excites me about acting is that you can live so many imaginary lives. But I’m getting bored with movies now. Apart from The Hungry, I’ve done one-scene appearances in Neeraj Pandey’s Aiyaary and Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi film Nude. There’s also a Gujarati film, Dha (Idiot), in which I play a small part of a jaadugar.
What are your view on the filmmakers of the YouTube generation?
I see hope from those filmmakers because they are making movies without the pressure of a producer sitting on their heads without having to worry about the budget, without having to worry about box office returns. I hope these films help them grow into filmmakers who want to make movies out of conviction; not out of convenience and I just hope and pray that these filmmakers' convictions last.
Advice for aspiring actors.
Who was your inspiration ?
Do you think Indian movies have changed ?
Who was your favourite filmmaker ?
How did you get into acting ?