Naseeruddin Shah is in news for his comments on the ongoing insider versus outsider debate that came into prominence after the death of young actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14. We caught up with Shah to talk about the present debate, a few comments made against him, and his upcoming film Mee Raqsam, which has been produced by Shabana Azmi.Excerpts:
Your performance in Bandish Bandits is getting love from all quarters...
Really? Thank you so much (smiles).
In that show, you play an opinionated, self-righteous Ustad who has a lot of layers to uncover. While in Mee Raqsam, you play a rigid religious leader who warns a father against sending his daughter to Bharatnatyam classes because their religion apparently doesn't permit that. Do your own ideas and values ever interfere with the process of approaching such characters?
It's not necessary that my own beliefs should coincide with the beliefs of the character I'm playing. But it's necessary for my beliefs to coincide with what the film is saying. So, it is very easy to distance yourself and it is quite easy to put yourself into the shoes of a person like the community leader. I have seen people like that in my childhood in my village. I have met several teachers who have been like that. So, you grow up on your memories of these people. You bring as much conviction to the things that you are supposed to because you are supposed to not pass judgment on that character but play him. No one thinks of themselves as a negative person. It's very boring to play the good guy. I just don't relish playing the good guy, the helpful person, or Jesus Christ. I relish the negative side and I enjoy confronting that side of myself (laughs).
You have said that Mee Raqsam is one of the most important films that you have done. Would you like to elaborate on that?
It is always difficult for a child, even if s/he belongs to the most educated family, to not want to tread the family path. And in a small town like the one portrayed in Mee Raqsam, it becomes even more difficult for that child to assert himself or herself. I experienced that when I wanted to be an actor. Not that there were religious objections to it but there were social objections to it. My father didn't consider acting to be a respectable profession. He didn't think that acting was something to be taken seriously. He wanted me to become a doctor. And, I had some bitter quarrels with him on this.
I often thought that had I wanted to be a sculptor, painter, or a poet, my struggle would have been much worse. Secondly, I wouldn't have known where to go and who to ask for guidance. I frankly imagined this situation in my own family that if I had a sister who wanted to learn Bharatanatyam how my father would probably have reacted and how the people around him would have reacted. So, I can identify very closely with this. It's a problem that needs to be addressed. These biases and prejudices that the communities have against each other need to be addressed. That's why I consider Mee Raqsam such an important film because it tackles these issues head-on. And, it's a true picture of life in that kind of town. I have always felt that movies that represent the reality of their times are the really only significant movies.
You’ve definitely been in the vanguard of people interested in serious films, films that made statements. Where do you think your taste came from, and how did it develop?
It wasn't my doing frankly. When I was a student at the film institute, I was concerned about whether or not I'd get any employment in Bombay, and if I did what kind of employment it would be. I knew that I was not qualified to be a Bollywood dancing star. So, I didn't concentrate on that aspect of myself which perhaps was a mistake. I think I should have done that because I had to do some of the heroic stuff later on in my career and I did very badly in it.
Coming back to your question, as it happened, by the time I passed out Shyam Benegal's Ankur had already been made and been successful and he was looking for an actor for his new film. And as luck would have it, he chose me. It was not my doing. I didn't have a choice at that time. I would have acted in any film that was offered to me, no matter how lousy it may have been. So, it was just my good fortune that Nishant fell into my lap and Shyam and I hit it off together and then I got very moved by the kind of efforts that people like he would make in small budgets and there were several of my contemporaries from FTII like Kundan (Shah), Ketan (Mehta) and several others who were attempting to make non-formula movies and they all gravitated toward me and that's how it happened. I hadn't planned it this way. I had wanted to be a popular actor but somewhere I knew that it wouldn't work. But I'm very happy the way everything turned out.
Do you feel like your relationship with the film industry has changed over time?
It hasn't changed with the world of popular filmmakers. I'm still an outsider. They take me for their films to be respectable. I don't delude myself that I'm a saleable star. I never was. It hasn't bothered me too much. In fact, it's been a relief because I don't have to lose my sleep over how much money my next film is going to make (laughs). I'd say that my relationship has matured over time. I'm more tolerant of many things that I wasn't so tolerant of when I was younger.
A couple of years back, you'd said that you were not very keen on working in films so you only opted to do tiny parts in the films being made by your friends. Did you learn anything from taking that break? How often does that happen to you as an actor?
It happens off and on. In fact, I have been doing tiny parts throughout my career. I have never had an aversion to playing a one-scene role or walk on a part for somebody who wanted me to. I absolutely have no problem with that. I have always felt the film itself is more important than my role. This is something I have learned along the way that my character is secondary to the totality of the film. That's something Shyam kept drilling into my head...
And, I think I have finally understood what it meant after a long time. That is how now I gauge an offer that comes to me-- whether I would want to do it or how much I'd be able to contribute to it even if it's a small part. Sometimes small parts are critical and good actors don't often accept small parts. They get insulted which is not fair because sometimes a small part may be a very difficult one and it may need a good actor. So, I don't feel resentful to people who offer these small parts to me. I did several of those and enjoyed them a lot. I hadn't planned that I'd do Bandish Bandits a few years later. It just happened.
So, you think that things have changed for the better in the film industry with OTT coming in...
OTT is a blessing for an actor. It just may be the future where film viewing no longer remains a communal experience. That is possible which means the nature of films that we make will have to change.
The film industry has never been so much in the news as it is now...
The film industry is used to making news about everything and the film industry likes making news about everything. So what's happening right now is that a completely nonsensical debate is raging over the unfortunate death of a young man who we should be lamenting. But everybody is cooking their 'papads' over his funeral pyre. It's not surprising. The film industry has always been like that and the press too that has fed off the film industry through sensationalism. This whole debate is completely meaningless in my opinion.
Kangana Ranaut has reacted to your "half-educated starlet" remark, saying that if you would have said her the same thing had she been Anil Kapoor or Prakash Padukone's daughter. Would you like to comment?
I don't need to react to what anybody is saying about me.