From ‘Nishant’ to ‘Waiting’, from ‘Waiting for Godot’ to ‘A Walk in The Woods’, Naseeruddin Shah has enthralled generations with the power of cinema and theatre. It is only when you meet him in person that it dawns on you what an “Extraordinary League” does he belong to. The aura of the actor, his baritone and the respect his sheer presence commands can actually stun you. Yet the man is grounded and humble, a rare combination for an actor of his stature in Hindi film industry. My City Links caught up with the “Shah of acting” about his journey and the play, ‘Einstein’ which brought him to the city of temples, Bhubaneswar.
Excerpts from an interview
How do you approach an emotion?
A lot of actors worry too much about what they should feel. But, what they should be worrying about is what they should be doing. The word ‘act’ means to do. It doesn’t mean to pretend or become another character. So, that is what I try to find out and not worry about any emotion. Whatever emotions are felt is, in fact, a result of what the characters are doing.
How important is it for an actor to find a good character to prove his potential?
Particularly for a woman, it is difficult because there are no right roles for a woman. That’s a bad thing! There is no gender equality in the Bombay film industry. If they say otherwise, they are lying. Everyone asks, “Hero kaun hai?” Nobody asks “Heroine kaun hai?” Very few films have been made centered around a woman protagonist. Vidya Balan is lucky enough and I think she is wonderful.
How is it that you manage to stand out in every film of yours?
I am lucky that people haven’t seen my bad films. Out of some around 200 movies roughly, you might have watched only 20 good ones. I have done many rubbish movies in my life, not that I expected them to turn out rubbish. But I consider myself extremely lucky that I began my career in 1975 at a time when actors like me were needed. People had started making realistic movies. Filmmakers like Shyam Benegal were making movies which required people who can actually act.
But have you always been choosy about your films? When you started your career some 40 years back, had you made up your mind that you will only commit yourself to meaningful cinema?
I did a film called Sunaina which was my third film. I did not want to do only realistic characters, I wanted to be a popular actor, like every other actor. Any actor who says he doesn’t want to be popular is lying. But after doing a couple of movies like Sunaina, Khwab and Shayad, I realized how much I dislike these kind of films but that is where I was making my bread because films like Akhrosh, Albert Pinto and Paar did not bring me a penny.
It is often noticed that theatre background actors like you get typecast as ‘character actors’. They are the breed of ‘critically acclaimed actors.’ Even awards do that division – Best Actor (Popular) and Best Actor (Critic). Why is that?
My personal belief is that these awards are absolutely rubbish. I have no hesitation to say that. These functions kill me with boredom. They give the award to the most newsworthy person, not the most deserving person. Last year, there were performances like Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manjhi and Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani. And, where does the award go? Enough said. As far as getting typecast is considered, that has been happening always. That’s how the film industry operates. Even in the past, people like Balraj Sahni and Motilal and Yakub were always cast as supporting actors and boring elder brother roles. That’s probably because when the in central character, the hero is a weak link, you need a strong support system to balance the film (laughs).
When it comes to theatre actors, most of them have this natural flair for acting. Do you feel theatre hones your acting skills a little better?
Theatre produces actors. It doesn’t produce stars. That’s the difference. Let us see if Nawazuddin proves me wrong. The film industry should know what to do with an actor like him.
You are considered a genius as an actor, a legend. Do you see a similar spark in any of the recent batch of actors?
I think Nawazuddin Siddiqui is clearly the best. Also, I think Irrfan Khan, Manoj Bajpai, Arshad Warsi and Kay Kay Menon are all good. I think Kay Kay is yet to get his due in Bollywood but it is just a matter of time. Among the female actors, I think Kalki is exceptional. Vidya is also great. We are, in fact, coming together again in Srijit Mukherjee’s ‘Begum Jaan’.
Theatre or films, which one do you enjoy more and why?
This is like asking if you like your son or daughter more. I love to act whether it is films or theatre. I do not love all the work that I do but I love the job I am in.
How is your preparation for a film different from that of theatre?
There’s no difference in the preparation. Yes, in a film like “Welcome Back”, you do not need to do any kind of preparation (laughs). But in a movie like “Waiting”, the preparation is same as compared to any other play. You have to read the script over and over again, till you digest it completely and you know it from backwards. You have to know everything you will say and everything you have to do. You have to be so perfect with your script that if someone wakes you up at 2 am in the night, you will be able to speak your lines correctly.
But don’t you think theatre is much more challenging?
Both films and theatre I believe are difficult in their own ways. It’s like a difference between a sprint and a marathon. Both have their own set of challenges. Acting in films is not easy at all and it is equally difficult to become a good stage actor.
You are in the city to play ‘Einstein’. Enlighten us a bit about the play.
The play is directed by Gabriel Emanuel. The play only features Einstein on the stage talking to the audience. It’s not a representation of his life. He is interacting with the audience and explaining things like the theory of relativity in a simplified manner. He explained theories of gravitational waves which have been proved recently. It’s an engaging film where I have portrayed a very brief sketch of Einstein. I want people to feel like they have just spent an evening, chatting with Einstein.
(The interview was taken a day before the play was staged at Rabindra Mandap on June 10th)