There’s a legend in Lahore these days — veteran Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah on the sets of his latest movie, the Pakistani production Zinda Bhag.
I sit in an ordinary drawing room in an ordinary house in Lahore’s Gulberg area. Then actor extraordinaire Naseeruddin Shah walks in and the setting becomes, well, extraordinary.
Dressed in a dark shirt, casual trousers and black khussas, Shah looks fresh and graceful with his white hair and the black-brown moustaches he has presumably grown for the role that brought him to Lahore.
“Aap kho gaye thay?” (Did you get lost?), is the first thing he asks in a smooth voice which actually sounds richer in person than it does on screen.
He smiles and settles down into a comfy sofa as I struggle to shake off my star-struckness and reply without stammering. Luckily, the movie’s producer Mazhar Zaidi comes to my rescue. “His car broke down and he hired an auto rickshaw to get here,” explains Zaidi before I get the chance to respond.
Relieved that I didn’t have to admit that I actually ran out of fuel as I had forgot that it was a CNG holiday, I smile back and ask Shah how he is and what brought him to Lahore. As far as opening lines go, I’ve done better but at least I didn’t trip over my words. “I am here to work in Zinda Bhag, a Pakistani film on the subject of illegal immigration.
I came in February and worked on the script for a week. This time I completed my shooting which continued for around six days,” Shah calmly replies.
But given that an actor of his stature has literally hundreds of offers on his table, why choose this movie and this topic? And given that Bollywood constantly beckons him, why opt for a project by a pair of relatively unknown Pakistani filmmakers?
“Illegal immigration is a very big problem both in India and Pakistan. We have young, desperate and unemployed people using different and sometimes very dangerous illegal ways just to go abroad. One Pakistani boy even tried to go abroad while hiding in a plane’s landing gear.
While some of them do manage to reach their destination, the majority end up in a terrible position and even lose their lives.” As he continues, it seems clear that this is a topic that he feels deeply about.
“The notion that their lives will be somehow better if they manage to get to another country is just a mirage that many educated and unemployed young people are chasing,” says Shah. “All these aspects are discussed in the movie. But more than the topic of the film, it was the fact that the script is very interesting that convinced me to work in it.”
But surely there are good scripts in Bollywood as well? Certainly, the lure of Mumbai’s booming film industry inevitably draws Pakistani talent to it like moths to a flame. Why then would Naseeruddin Shah want to work in a Pakistani production? “I have become quite disillusioned with Indian films,” he replies. “Filmmakers in India have become so complacent that there aren’t any chances of making good films there.
Over there, filmmaking is a business and so long as a film makes money it’s a success. If it happens to be a good film as well, then that’s a bonus! I believe that films made today will be watched even a hundred years from now. People will watch them to get a sense of history and see what the art of filmmaking was like. The films being made in India today aren’t what one would want to watch a century later. Of course, there are some young filmmakers trying to opt for quality rather than just profits and I do support them as well.”
How different then is the picture west of the Wagah border?
“I feel there’s more creativity in Pakistan in terms of writing and ideas than there is in India,” says Shah. “The poetic and literary gatherings I have attended here are truly amazing! I also find that there’s much more awareness in the youth as well, and that’s why Zindaa Bhag is so relevant to Pakistani society and will resonate with a Pakistani audience. If all these creative people go abroad, who will live here and serve this country?” he asks.
In this movie Shah plays the role of an unscrupulous human trafficker who has his fingers in many illegal pies.
“My mother didn’t like me doing negative roles and asked me not to do them, and if she was alive today she wouldn’t have liked this role either. But I thoroughly enjoy getting into the skin of such shady characters and despite what people may think, I’m not Mirza Ghalib!” he says with a sly smile, referring to his iconic portrayal of the Urdu poet in the eponymous 1988 TV movie.
This time around however, Shah’s dialogues are all in Punjabi, and getting the delivery just right was a priority for the actor who is something of a perfectionist. This involved several sessions with the other actors so that he could get the “local texture of Punjabi” just right.
Coming back to Ghalib, it is an inescapable fact that a great many people, particularly in Pakistan, do associate him with that role, and by default, with the Urdu language itself. Ironically, while he may now have an intense affair with the Urdu language, it was not love at first sight. “My schooling and education was in English and I used to look down on Urdu literature until I got familiar with writers like Manto and Ismat Aapa, says Shah.
After that, there was no turning back. “Once I read them, I was so moved that I couldn’t help but make plays on their stories, because I do feel their stories are to be told rather than read. Surprisingly, the throbbing intensity that is a specialty of Manto’s stories isn’t there in his plays,” he says.
But Shah is less optimistic about whether meaningful theatre can really be successful in commercial terms.
“Audiences in commercial theatres want to be entertained, not lectured to,” he says. “If we’re doing experimental theatre, even an audience of 250-300 people is a big deal.” This apparent lack of interest is one of the reasons that Shah, who has a great taste for street-theatre, says he doesn’t do it anymore though he has great respect for those who still use this medium to highlight social issues. “If I do only street-theatre then people wouldn’t listen to what I say and the whole purpose would be defeated. That’s why I don’t do it,” he explains.
Of course, none of this explains how the two directors, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi (or Meenu Farjad as they prefer to be called) managed to bag Naseeruddin Shah for this film. “While writing the character of the human trafficking ‘agent’, we really started enjoying getting into the depths and motivations of the character, and very soon, Naseeruddin Shah’s name popped into our minds,” says Meenu who is herself of Indian origin and is a trained filmmaker.
“We approached him and thankfully he really liked the character and agreed to work in this film.” As simple as that. So without the whole world learning about it, Shah signed on and even visited Lahore to get a feel for the locale and his co-actors, almost all of whom are new to the field
“When he first arrived, he had a small stint with our actors, where they all workshopped together. He wanted to remain low-profile and he was very busy. But we didn’t really hide his presence or this project on purpose, it just happened that way,” replies Farjad when asked how they managed to conceal this whole project for so long from the media.
Farjad has made a name for himself working largely on documentaries and music videos, all of which have a distinctly ‘artsy’ flavour. Does Zinda Bhag then fall into the ‘art movie’ category?
“It’s difficult to categories this film as an art or commercial film. All we can say is, this is a film. We don’t even have any ‘heroes’ in it. There are four friends whose stories are integrated and who have equal weightage in it. Even Shah Sahab’s role isn’t the central role,” explain the directorial duo.
“We were surrounded by many stories and we just set out to make a film, and by default, we made a film on this subject. It is inspired by the stories of real boys and real girls.”
The music thus plays a very important role in weaving the separate threads of these stories into a complete tapestry. “The songs aren’t just there for the sake of having music and dance numbers, they are very much a part of the story and the film,” say Meenu and Farjad. Given the flavour and style of the film, the score has also been chosen with great care, and luminaries such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Arif Lohar and Amanat Ali have lent their voices to the effort while Sahir Ali Bagga has composed the songs.
As for when we will see this effort on the screen, producer Mazhar Zaidi says they are in talks with distributors in India and Pakistan to release the film in both the countries simultaneously in 2013. “Ideally we will want to release it in the UAE, UK and internationally as well, because the subject is very relevant and we hope things will go smoothly,” he says hopefully.
Given that this is Shah’s second foray into Pakistani film, what does he feel is the way forward for Indo-Pak celluloid cooperation? “It can only really happen on individual levels and on a person to person basis. If it happens on an organisational level, we’ll probably just get tied up in the red tape. Mein yahaan aa sakta hun aur kaam kar sakta hun, yehi bohat hai (It is enough that I can come and work here). I do hope things get better and the relationship between the two countries becomes cordial,” he concludes.
Shah says he’s very optimistic about the prospects of Pakistan’s young filmmakers, but he reserves his harshest criticism for those who call themselves critics. “The opinion of a rickshaw driver is just as important as the opinion of a critic, as they both are equally capable of watching a film and forming opinions. In Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” the two characters abuse each other constantly, throwing newer and better insults at each other until one of them calls the other a critic. Then they both go silent, suggesting that there is no greater insult!” he says with a laugh.
Like many others who have come to this city, Shah seems mesmerised by the spell cast by Lahore. Quoting Ismat Chugtai, he says, “Lahore ki hawa mein noor ghula hai,” (A sacred light is mixed in Lahore’s air). “Creativity is in the air in Lahore,” he continues. “It reminds me of the Delhi of 30-years ago. It reminds me of Delhi at its best,” he says in a tone marked with affection and reminiscence. “I loved and still love Sohan Halwa and Peshawri chappals. When I was a kid, our relatives used to bring these from Pakistan when they came to see us in India,” he adds. “I can still eat a full dabba of Sohan Halwa by myself.”
So, a word of advice to the next Pakistani filmmaker who wants to bag Naseeruddin Shah for his film: don’t skimp on the halwa!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 15th, 2012.