Naseeruddin Shah is among the finest actors that the Indian film industry has produced. There are millions who admire his work – be it his films, plays or book.
The National School Drama alumnus was first noticed for his work in Bhumika, and today has done about 300 films, which includes an interesting mix of commercial and parallel Indian cinema, and also international (Hollywood) projects.
However, when it comes to Bollywood, the actor seems to be unimpressed with all the hype that surrounds the Mumbai film industry.
Here are excerpts from his various interviews.
Question: You still think ‘Bollywood makes trash’?
Naseeruddin Shah: We are better looking trash. You compare our special effects with something like Iron man and Spiderman. You compare our storytelling with the kind of movies made in Iran, Poland and Brazil, we stand nowhere. Compare our musicals to the kind of stuff they make in the West, we are nowhere. We are stars who pander to their own egos all the time. People like Brad Pitt and the big stars out there in Hollywood; they use their star clout to change things unlike us. Hindi movies will continue to be popular throughout the globe only if we get our act together and start making reasonable films, and that seems highly unlikely.
Question: It seems that you always have something against Hindi cinema. Didn’t Hindi cinema made you what you are?
Naseeruddin Shah: Sorry to disagree with you, but Hindi cinema has not made me what I am today. It is the other kind of cinema which made me what I am… Some of it was in Gujarati, some in Bengali, some in Kannada and some of it was in English. The films I did in the 70s. So Hindi commercial cinema never knew what to do with me. They could not slot me anywhere. I am grateful to Hindi cinema for giving me the opportunities it gave me. It has given me a good life, it has exposed me to a wider audience. It’s not my fault if I don’t like most of the movies which are called popular Hindi cinema. Just like other people don’t like movies I do. I am saying we should make better movies. Just because we have better photography and better editing it doesn’t make our movies better. The best movies were made in 50s…
And, colour did the most damage. Suddenly, you could keep your hero and heroine in purple clothes and shoot in Kashmir and the movie was made! You notice the quality of the story, lyrics, music, acting… everything nosedived from the 70s onwards. The wholesale stealing from Hollywood began which is still continuing. Now we can’t steal so we remake movies, the movies which should not have been made in the first place. What’s the point of remaking Katha or Masoom or Agneepath for that matter? We are just admitting that we have run out of ideas so we call it remake. I am waiting for remakes of Gunga Jamuna, Mother India… So that’s the reason I don’t like Hindi cinema. It is hard to come by a film which I find truly entertaining.
Question: Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan. Who’s better?
Naseeruddin Shah: Dilip Kumar’s contribution is immense. He was fortunate to work with great filmmakers, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, K Asif. When he became bigger than the film, that’s when his decline began, post-the magnificent Ganga Jamuna.
Amitabh continued Dilip Kumar’s tradition and bettered that school of acting. I consider him a better actor to Dilip Kumar because he sustained it longer. He’s proved himself capable of playing all sorts of parts. I just wish he’d backed more than popcorn movies. He was in a position to change the industry. Obviously, he didn’t want to. But there’s no denying his greatness as an actor.
Yet, Dilip Kumar’s contribution is more because he ensured a nationwide audience for the Bimal Roys.
Question: Are Unconventional actors getting more offers now?
Naseeruddin Shah: The audience has always appreciated good acting. And now with unconventional people getting offers I think the credit should go to Amitabh Bachchan. Initially people used to say that he looks like a grasshopper and all. And now the same people think he’s a sexy man. So he has a hand in making the unconventional face acceptable. Filmmakers who give in to casting only good looking stars do that only to reach a wider audience. A star is a person who has spent 40-50 years perfecting the art of being synthetic. Amitabh has perfected that art, and he’s expected to be all real in his films now. He can’t be real in his real life ya.
“When a small film succeeds, in the next film they want Amitabh Bachchan in it. So it’s a dismal scenario.”
Question: How is it working with younger actors and directors?
Naseeruddin Shah: Deepika, Arjun, Vidya Arshad…they all are better than what we were at there age. They are better informed, they have more exposure, they are very smart. I really like them and really love working with them. It is great fun.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irfaan Khan are their own kind of actor. Am so happy to see the progress they have made. They have seen very long struggle and it did not embitter them. They both emerged shining. I wouldn’t categorise them at all. I hope the film industry knows what to do with them.
There are some good directors now and I would love to work with them. There is Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj Pandey, Dibakar Bannerjee…I think they will survive if they don’t succumb to the lure of casting stars and I fear they will (laughs).
Distinction between stars and actors
Stars act in certain kind of films and actors work in certain kind of films and the two don’t mix. If you see a film called Sunaina you will understand what I am talking about (chuckles).
Question: Recent box-office results of big-budget commercial films with Superstars
Naseeruddin Shah: The box office disaster of plot-less films like Dilwale and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo means they will die down, slowly and painfully. Consider the fact that in 2016 hardly any major film has entered the sacred 100 crore club which is the definition of success in Bollywood.
When Shah Rukh Khan added the name of his female lead before his own name in a film’s credits, Naseeruddin Shah said it was pointless, especially when the inequality in remuneration in Bollywood is sky-high and women don’t make one-fifth of what their male co-stars make. With superstars doubling as producers (Salman, Shah Rukh, Aamir), no one will even address the problem as a serious issue. Kareena Kapoor remains the sole exception as she spoke about it years ago.
Question: Did you see happy New Year (starring your son Vivaan)?
Naseeruddin Shah: Yes I have and I think it is absolutely paisa vasool movie. I love Farah’s (Khan) movies. I liked all her films. So yes I am a bit biased towards her. And of course there is Vivaan.
Question: You recently said that you are not a saleable actor, why do you think so?
Naseeruddin Shah: Despite working in commercially successful films like Main Hoon Na, Krrish, Ishqiya and Monsoon Wedding, I am still not a saleable actor and I have no clue why. But I don’t break my head too much because I am earning as much as I need and that’s how it’s always been with me. Out of 250 films, at least 50 films I must have done free of charge. And out of those 50 perhaps at least 5 will be remembered I hope.
Question: Stepping into Feroz Khan shoes in Welcome Back…
Naseeruddin Shah: I loved Feroz Khan. He was real cool gentleman. I really liked him. So it was flattering to get a role which Feroz bhai would have done. He once called me for a film which he was making for Fardeen, his first film… to play a father. He was a very charming man. And we chatted about this and that, Afghanistan and Iran and all that. And then he said he wanted me to play Fardeen’s father. I said, ‘look I have been watching your career’, and I wasn’t bullshitting it. I was following his career since his first movie which was called Reporter Raju. He was the winner of the film contest along with Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar and Dheeraj Kumar and after that year Rajesh Khanna won. So I told Feroz bhai that I have seen your rise from supporting actor to a superstar so would you accept the role of father if I offered this role to you. So he got up and hugged and said ‘Oh brother, I like that. I know what you are talking about.. But then he asked if I had really seen those films and I told him, yes I had. I have even seen a film called Samsun where Dara Singh was the lead with Feroz Khan in the supporting role. So I think it feels good to replace Feroz Khan.
Question: You made a movie in Malyalam with Mammootty once. Would you work in another regional movie if given a chance?
Naseeruddin Shah: No, because it is impossible to act in a language which you don’t know. Mammootty and Mohan Lal failed in Hindi. Even Kamal Haasan who is extremely skillful actor, failed in Hindi. It is same problem we have speaking South Indian language. Many Hindi speaking people have made it as villains in South Indian films but it’s because it doesn’t matter there who the villain is or somebody dubs for them. But no North Indian man has been accepted as leading man in South and vice versa. South Indian women have always been great actresses we had and North Indian girls have made it big in South but no men made it big. I guess we like South Indian women and they like North Indian women, and we don’t like South Indian men and they don’t like North Indian men. That’s it.
Question: Do you think theatre in India has made progress?
Naseeruddin Shah: Theatre is same it was. It hasn’t expanded. The world has expanded so there are more theatres and there are more people doing plays but nothing has changes in the theatre world. You still cant make a living from it. Except in Marathi commercial theatre. But it will survive forever because there will be few crazy people who will work for it, to whom it matters.
Question: ‘A Wednesday’ did not win any awards (best reviewed film for the year and a great box office success.)
Naseeruddin Shah: Bollywood awards are a joke and anyone who takes them seriously needs to have his head examined. Which in turn means that a lot of our film industry needs to get their heads examined.
But for some reason, people feel happy when they win them. I suppose it is the appreciation that they receive. Also, they like to get together and pat each other’s back, praise each other, give each other awards. They make sure that everybody is pleased, everybody is satisfied. In ten years’ time, there will be another award called Best Actor in the role of a Cruel Aunty and there will be another award called Best Actor in the role of a Crooked Cop and so on – there are going to be like 200 awards. Because everybody has to be pleased you see.
Question: Indian actors getting an opportunity to work in American productions.
Naseeruddin Shah: It’s not a big deal. The money is a little bigger and that’s about it. Otherwise it’s the same old story. In fact for those who have tasted stardom here it’s even sadder that such people should try and now grab roles in the West because what they are going to get is not what they are going to like, I can promise you.
Question: Is that why you didn’t pursue any more opportunities there?
Naseeruddin Shah: Yes, you are confined to one tiny little cabin of Indian actor – the maharaja, the cook, the terrorist, the baira (waiter) and so on. That’s all you will get. Anything which requires wearing a turban.
Question: You almost got the role of Gandhi ji in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
Naseeruddin Shah: No. See first of all, I realised quite quickly that I was never in the running for it seriously. Ben Kingsley had been cast. I didn’t speak to a soul about it. The rumour had it that I had got the part, it was on the front page of the newspaper. This is when I was going to London. I read it and I thought this means that I have got it. I got to London and he didn’t even screen test me properly. It was a farce. I drove around in a Rolls Royce for three days and I stayed in this hotel on Oxford Street. It was the first time I had been to London and I had a blast. He gave me money to spend, then took me to Shepherd Studios where I met Ben Kingsley and the moment I saw Ben Kingsley, I said “Oye, forget it!” So far I had been very cocky because I had been thinking – “where is he going to find an actor who looks like Gandhi ji. And there he was – Ben Kingsley. And some perfunctory kind of test was conducted and I was given a ticket back home. But I knew Ben Kingsley looks more like Gandhi ji. And I met him, talked to him for a while, watched his audition and I saw he was very good.
Question: Could you have been better?
Naseeruddin Shah: I don’t think so. Not at that time. I couldn’t have delivered at that age. I was too young.