Crisp, curious and creative. This man has the mettle to disappear and then reappear. He does it every time he sets out to play a role that is not Naseeruddin Shah. We have been all witnesses to his versatility and brilliance at some point in time or the other. He’s won the hearts of fans of all ages with his moving performances in movies like ‘Masoom’, ‘Iqbal’ and ‘A Wednesday’, to name a few.
TSA had the opportunity to catch up with the actor during his recent visit to our campus, to learn his take on life, art and theatre. Here are a few excerpts from the interview. We hope you enjoy reading this just as much as we did taking it!
TSA: Rather than Naseeruddin Shah the film actor, we’d like to talk to the philosopher , the artist, Naseeruddin Shah. According to you, Sir, should life influence art or art influence life?
NS: Life is where any artist draws from. There are no two ways about that, whether you’re a painter, a poet or an actor. How you then present that perception of yours is what makes you a great artist.
All of us experience the same thing. Each one of us has had as many experiences as we choose to have. It is the articulation that counts. Or “Andaz-e-Bayan” as it is called.
TSA: As an actor, director and a theatre person – we have an inkling you are a writer as well, you clearly have a unique mode of expression. When you gather your thoughts, to create a new story, what are your motivations?
NS: (Laughs) A writer – sometimes.
It is always life that motivates me. I can claim this because I have written only essays not stories, so the real creative work that I’ve done, which is not as analytical, is my acting work. For that, I draw upon life and it’s an unending source of inspiration. I say this because many actors believe that it’s enough to do two weeks of homework, which isn’t enough.
TSA: We have already discussed how art can influence life. So, a social responsibility falls upon an actor or a director, more so on a person who is creating a piece of art. How can they send across the right message to people? Do you think that the responsibility is realised?
NS: First of all you are taking it as a given that art influences life. I never said that. Art draws upon life. It’s a big question in my mind whether art influences life or not.
Wouldn’t the bigots who saw to it that Hussain never came back to India, have learnt a bit from studying his paintings? His paintings are not going to inflame. They are tributes. He is a person who talks peace. How much credence do we give to that?
Even Gandhi – we are all happy enough to make him the token of protest.
I met a guy who said to me, “Every good quality in me is because of Hindi films!” . I said, “Eh? What?”
Is it because every Hindi film talks about the right values? It’s true! Which Hindi film says you can be a criminal, you can get away with smuggling, you can disrespect your country, or parents? Hindi films preach good values so much; we should be living in Utopia in our country! I don’t believe films have that effect. Documentaries could perhaps, affect a few thinking people. It is always, more or less, preaching to the converted.
TSA: But documentaries and other such works are just lost in translation and don’t seem to get through to people. Is it the medium through which they are depicted which is going wrong?
NS: It is definitely the means which is wrong. The Pakistani film Bol, is a wonderful exception because it used the language of the popular cinema to make a serious message; which is very rare. It didn’t work because the distributors killed it. Sure, there is a responsibility! But, rather than patting yourself on the back and saying – we’re going to change society; we need to be truthful to the times! That’s the responsibility of a film maker.
TSA: Going back to the same old social conscience question – we’ve seen a lot of controversial theatre. You’ve made “Mahatma versus Gandhi”. These trends of social, political motivation behind theatre are dying over the past few decades. People are influenced by the western conventions of contemporary theatre. What do you think is the reason?
NS: This is because of the lack of playwrights. We don’t have them. Therefore, one has been drawing upon Hindi and Urdu literature. The stories of Premchand , Rajinder Singh Bedi or Ismat Chughtai are completely relevant even though they were written 60 -70 years ago.
Like when Ismat talks about her marital situation in a small, middle class town in Uttar Pradesh, it applies perfectly to any modern married couple. There is a shortage of plays but we cannot go on lamenting about it. We need to find a solution and this is what we’ve come up with; to present literature on stage!
TSA: There is such a fine line between pure entertainment and having a social impact. How would you suggest one can integrate the two?
NS: By firstly, genuinely studying the Indian industry and then coming up with something that you truly believe in – like Rajkumar Hirani does. I admire his work because he uses the popular form and he puts across a statement in each of his films.
TSA: Do you want to shift to theatre or directing more? What sort of style would you pick on?
NS: I am not planning to make any more movies. I made one and I realised I wasn’t good at it. In theatre, I want to somehow ensure that my company outlives me, and secondly, I am getting more and more comfortable with the “spoken word” in theatre. The kind of theatre I do, over the years, has become more and more sparse. Now we use nothing on the stage. It is the minimum – just one actor talking to the audience.
TSA: To make it more impactful?
NS: Yes, as the message is direct. I don’t believe in creating illusion on stage because the audience has to look only from here to there and they can see the lights or the curtain flapping. What I did today, was like a play for me. I had to handle the audience; I had to guide them and manipulate them to an extent. That’s what you do when you are doing a play. The theatre to me has to be a medium of entertainment. If you are saying something serious, you can’t have people bored while they are listening to you. You have got to keep them entertained and give them the truth in small doses. So, that’s what we try to do, and we keep the writer’s word recorded centre stage.
TSA: What are some of your all time favourite movies?
NS: Which I have seen or acted in?
TSA: Which you wouldn’t mind watching over and over again. Masoom is one of our all time favourites!
NS: (Smiles) That movie has introduced me to three generations of children. And I feel very lucky to have done a film like that. It’s wonderful. It stands the test of time. Masoom is definitely one of my favourites. Mirza Ghalib is also one of them. Monsoon Wedding too. Nishant was my first film.
TSA: And the movies that motivated you to watch cinema and get into acting?
NS: Spencer Tracy’s The Old man and the Sea, was one of the films that acted as a great inspiration to me. For the first time, I saw an actor who looked like he was real and not a phoney. Otherwise we used to see Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, who were all impossibly handsome. And suddenly I saw a man who was sweating in his arm-pits and had stubble and he looked like a fisherman. I think his performance in that film has influenced me although it isn’t a great film.
TSA: Thank you so much for your time, Sir.