“There has always been a scarcity of a good story in the Bollywood industry,” says Naseeruddin Shah. “The only reason these films are seen is because of Indian dhabas [and similar communal viewing spaces] all over the world, otherwise I feel that the Bollywood industry has done nothing of note thus far.”
Shah has always been no-holds-barred about his opinions, and does not shy away from using his sharp tongue to flay those he feels deserve it most. “It is the easiest thing in the world to fool the audience, and this is a feat that our film directors are pulling off splendidly,” he says.
He has much to say on the achievements, or lack thereof, of the Bollywood industry. “Out of all the Indian actors, there is merely a handful that I consider to be superlative at their craft. Dilip Kumar has done some exceptional work in a few films, and if one attempts to search for them, one or two good films can be found among Amitabh Bachchan’s body of work. Otherwise, I do not feel that the Indian film industry has accomplished anything that is worth talking about. There is very little done so far that can justifiably inspire pride in those involved in the industry.”
Shah believes that fame is a fickle friend, and the only thing an actor can count on is their talent, and their body of work. “There was a time when Rajesh Khanna was the most beloved man in India – an era when he was one of the biggest stars in the Bollywood industry. There were women who used to write him letters inked in their own blood, and when he decided to get married, there were rumours that many of his ardent fans had taken their own lives out of grief. But no one remembers him now.”
“It’s because beauty and fame are fickle and fleeting, they are never with you for the long haul. The only thing that stands the test of time is an actor’s work, and his work was never at a level that people would hold it in high esteem now. That is why he is forgotten now.”
It is clear that Shah is one of those few remaining actors who want their work to speak for itself, and is not caught up in the race to collect as many awards possible, especially in an industry that has become commercialised. “People use the number of awards an actor has received to measure their success and stature, when the truth of the matter is that every manjan (tooth powder) and pan (betel leaf) seller has opened their own award academy. I don’t believe in awards or accolades, which is why I don’t believe in their credibility and never go to collect them.”
Despite the lack of importance that he gives to awards, he has accumulated many over the years for both his film and theatre work. He is one of the most celebrated actors of his time, and he speaks to The Express Tribune about what he considers to be important as he moves forward. “I am now at a point where I no longer see any dreams for myself, and do not want to work day and night to achieve something purely for myself. The only wish I have now is to reach those places where I am needed so I can support aspiring actors and upcoming talent however I can.”
It might come as a surprise to hear that Shah did not always nurse a dream to be an actor. “I wanted be a cricketer, but I realised early on as a youngster that out of such a large Indian population only 11 people are selected and only they get to play, so I forced myself to stop thinking of cricket as a career path. If I had another life to live, I would become a cricketer.”
Shah is celebrated for his body of work both as a film and a theatre actor, and does not find too large a divide between the two when it comes to acting, but highlights a fundamental difference between the two mediums that greatly affects the level of patronage both enjoy. “Film has a larger reach than theatre because one film can be played simultaneously all over the world, but theatre can only be performed in one location at one point in time to one audience,” he says.
As a result, there will always be those who will find film to be a more worthwhile financial investment, but it is theatre that Shah feels is a more intellectual experience for the audience. “One needs to have a single minded focus when watching theatre and constant attention has to be paid to the stage.” This is quite a departure from the experience of watching most Bollywood movies, which requires one to check their brain and disbelief at the door.
He declared the Napa Theatre festival a positive development for theatre in Pakistan, saying, “The step forward that has been taken today with the festival is something that should have happened a long time ago.” Shah’s opinion stems from the fact that he found the experience of performing in Karachi one that is unparalleled thus far in his career.
“I have performed Ismat Apa Ke Naam all over the world, from Mumbai and Lucknow to Lahore, but I have never encountered an audience like Karachi’s before. People here understand every line that is spoken, every shair (line of a poem) and appreciate a performer’s talent in a manner that I have not encountered before.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2014.