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I Don't Accept the Reality of Commercial Films, Nor Do I Have Affection for Them: Naseeruddin Shah

File photo of Naseeruddin Shah.

File photo of Naseeruddin Shah.

Having maintained a unique position in the Indian film industry, Naseeruddin Shah reflects on his illustrious acting career that boasts of several path-breaking films including Nishant, Aakrosh, Mirch Masala, Junoon, Mandi and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

Naseeruddin Shah has covered a lot of ground in his nearly 45 years on screen. He was among the most valuable actors for the major filmmakers of the 70s and the 80s. For much of the 90s and the 2000s, he regularly appeared in effective extended cameos and supporting roles that helped him move beyond his legacy of an unparalleled actor of the parallel cinema.

Now, having maintained a uniquely rarefied position in the Indian film industry, Shah reflects on his illustrious acting career that boasts of several path-breaking films including Nishant, Aakrosh, Mirch Masala, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai, Junoon, Mandi, Ardh Satya and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

At the Indian Film Project, the actor spoke about his way of measuring the success of a film, how he was “shaken” after he didn’t get a single offer following his critically acclaimed performance in Nishant and what kept him away from the commercial cinema.

No work post Nishant

People spoke about my performance in 'Nishant' but they didn’t offer me any work. I didn’t get a single offer. It was very hurtful because I knew I’d done well. I still consider it one of my better performances in cinema because it meant a lot to me. I knew if I messed that up I was finished so I did my best and it was a wonderful part. Every actor in 'Nishant' got work after that. Shabana (Azmi) was already a star. Nishant heightened her star status. Smita (Patil) became the most desirable thing on the Hindi screen. Girish Karnard started singing in Hindi films which he denied but he did. Everybody got work except me. I got nothing. But I consoled myself with a thought— ‘Those who are not giving me work now are going to regret it some day.’ And then 'Manthan' happened that brought some recognition and a little bit of money. And then after Shyam Benegal’s 'Junoon', popular filmmakers saw my work and started casting me as the hysterical angry rebel.

What makes a movie a success?

If you succeed in doing what you set out to do. I consider a film successful if it succeeds in doing what it set out to do. I don’t expect social commentary from a David Dhawan film.

On staying away from commercial cinema

I don’t think I have ever been good in a commercial movie not that I didn’t try. Sometimes I tried too hard and other times I didn’t try at all. Frankly speaking, you've got to accept the reality of those movies and you have to have affection for them. Unfortunately, I do neither. And thus, I really don’t think the parts I played succeeded in any of those movies except 'Tridev'.

However, it did bother me that in the better commercial movies I was not considered. But it didn’t kill me because there were several other interesting things that I was doing either in the alternate cinema or the theatre. I have to admit that I did want to be a popular hero. Anybody who becomes an actor wants to be popular. Any actor who denies that is lying. So, I did try and I failed. But I hadn’t set everything in stone to buy my success in commercial Hindi cinema. I didn’t ever imagine I’d become a huge star I just imagined that I’d be able to earn my living and luckily I’ve been able to do a little more than that.

Intuitive acting vs Method acting

I don’t approve of actors who won’t rehearse and say, 'We’d perform spontaneously.' Intuitive acting is only for intuitive reaction which are used only in the preparation stage. Method acting is generally misunderstood. It’s importance has been exaggerated by the Americans who claim that they literally become characters which is absolute nonsense. I don’t subscribe to this becoming a character. I don’t think an actor can become a character and actors should not become characters.

On satisfaction

As a thinking actor, satisfaction is something that you’re destined to never have. One always looks back and thinks of things one did several years ago. I do that. There are several roles which I receive praise for which I think I could have done better had I known as much as I do now.

Definition of a good performance

I kind of knew which is the kind of acting I liked and which I didn’t. But I didn’t know why. For the same reason as I didn’t know why I loved a film like 'The Wizard of Oz' but hated a film called 'Udan Khatola' which I saw at the same time or why I loved a film called 'Scaramouche' and didn’t like an Hindi equivalent of it. Hence, my somewhat snobbish aversion to most of Hindi cinema. I mean they’re still remaking Hollywood movies made 80 years ago. But I realised that the quality of fineness and excellence that these movies had, our films didn’t have for a very long time. We’re moving closer to it without a doubt. Now, I have come to a conclusion that a good performance is one which communicates the content well. It has nothing to do with how many voices you can change or how many expressions you can put on or how beautifully you move on stage. It has to do with how well you can get across for which you need a set of skills.

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