Today is Naseeruddin Shah's birthday. Or not. The actor had himself confessed in his memoir, 'And Then One Day' that no one knows for sure which year or month he was born because, back in the days, parents weren't that hyperactive about documenting the birth dates of their children.
The actor said he was either born in 'July of the year 1949 or maybe it was August of the year 1950'. Either way, any day is a good day to celebrate the rare genius of Naseeruddin Shah, the patron saint of Parallel Cinema, who didn’t shy away from dipping his foot into the muddy waters of commercial Bollywood pool, and making it holy with his touch.
As a kid though, Shah had little encouragement to showcase his acting skills in his school at Nainital, where his older brothers often took the best actor awards, while he barely got the opportunity to stand on the stage. Things only changed after he switched school and put up a production of Merchant of Venice, in which he acted as Shylock and won the school over.
It was also the beginning of his life long love for the stage, which still continues, as his theatre group Motley has been showcasing many wonderfully produced plays, for the last 41 years. Some of Shah’s epic performances are in fact on stage, and not in Bollywood films, and anyone who has ever seen his morph into Einstein, or watched him in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, would know what I’m talking about.
Waiting for Godot, a rather unusual choice for the Indian audiences also happens to be the first play Motley ever performed. But then again, Naseeruddin Shah’s choices have hardly ever been ‘usual’, be it on stage, or in his movie career, or in real life.
Shah has a strange filmography, and the best ones on his IMDB list he claims were not well thought out decisions, but mere flukes. His godlike status among generations of film viewers, as well as actors, come from his early induction in parallel cinema, into which he forayed without much thought or meditation. Shah claims that Parallel Cinema chose him, and it wasn’t the other way round. In fact, when Shyam Benegal approached him with Nishant (1975), he would have been happy playing the third dead body in any IS Johar film. Before Nishant, Shah had in fact played two roles – the first one was uncredited, where he was the boy behind the dead doctor in Aman (1967) and the second one was that of a funeral mourner in Aan Baan (1972).
However, Shah quickly moved from being an extra to an essential in Bollywood films. Be it Sai Paranjype’s Sparsh (1979), or Benegal’s thought-provoking, and iconoclastic films like Manthan (1976), and Bhumika (1977), Shah displayed refined performances and soon became the poster boy of New Wave films. His litmus test, however, was the box office, which was then reigned by actor Rajesh Khanna.
Shah began his career as an outsider, when Bobby (1973) had established Rishi Kapoor as the next chocolate boy of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan was the angry young man, and Rajesh Khanna the epitome of romance, but that didn’t stall him from carving out a path of his own, in the industry.
In fact, Shah didn't think much of Rajesh Khanna’s acting skills as was evident from his scathing interview, in which he had called Khanna a ‘poor’ actor whose movies were mediocre, but in the 70s Khanna was an undisputed screen god, whom women worshipped, and Bollywood biggies wanted, and despite Shah thinking that Sholay (1975) wasn’t all that, Bachchan’s star was on the rise.
Shah had to wait till Masoom (1980), an adaptation of Erich Segal’s Man, Woman and Child, directed by Shekhar Kapur, to finally become a household name and get his share of fame. However, Shah never truly became mainstream, nor could he be the part of ‘synthetic drama’ that Bollywood churned out back in the day, which Amitabh Bachchan, and Dilip Kumar, effortlessly took to, as fish takes to water.
Shah, on the other hand focussed not only on imbuing each of his characters with life by his nuanced performances, but also on never falling prey to the vanity of being a Bollywood lead actor.
Most aging Bollywood heroes have the inevitable struggle to shift gears when the approach the second innings of their careers. It took a flop like Sooryavansham for Amitabh Bachchan to take up character roles, and Rishi Kapoor, and Shammi Kapoor dragged on their lead actor days, for a while, before finally giving up.
Shah, however, took no time morphing into older characters and wearing them as his second skin. Some of Shah’s incredible performances in films like Iqbal (2005), A Wednesday (2008), Ishqiya (2010), and Dirty Picture (2011) came in his later years.
Also, he was never too hooked on to the morality of his characters, and had no qualms playing negative roles as he did in Sarfarosh (1999), and Omkara (2006), in which too, he struck the perfect chord.
A big reason for his inability to be ‘mainstream’ is also that he didn’t ever play to the galleries, or cater to the lowest common denominator, like most popular heroes of Bollywood do. He had, and as time has proven, still holds himself up against very stringent acting standards, and even in his worst films like Chamatkar (1992), and Krrish (2006), his performance is a class apart from the rest of the cast.
Shah also could never play the apolitical card, or be the silent bystander, and his candor, and willingness to call a spade a spade is perhaps one of the sincerest traits of the actor, that his fans love. The ‘Bhai’ that everyone cowers to, Shah was quick to take down during a discussion at MAMI where he claimed that it would be awful if people only remembered Bollywood in posterity for Salman Khan’s films.
However, if he had been critical of others, he seldom spared himself. In his book, he not only talks about being a pothead, an absentee father to his daughter, but he also owns up to many of his other shortcomings, which is refreshingly honest for any Bollywood actor.