Geoffrey Brag was known among his friends to be an eccentric, obsessive man. I mean, whoever heard of a middle-class Englishman travel the length and breadth of India in Third-class train compartments, only to stage Shakespeare’s Plays? Brag had long discarded his family name and adopted the name of his native Village in Westmoreland – Kendal. Geoffrey Kendal is the name history remembers him by.
It was sometime in the early 1960s. Mr. Kendal was at St. Joseph’s College in Nainital, staging one of his plays with his troupe, Shakespeareana. A wide-eyed boy – in his early teens – watched Kendal’s every move. The way he stepped into the ‘skin’ of a character totally mesmerised this youngster. By the time the show ended, the boy was a life-long fan and admirer. Shakespeareana’s plays became an annual gig and the admiration only grew with time. Even today, half a century later, his eyes twinkle at the very mention of Geoffrey Kendal’s name.
The ‘boy’ was Naseeruddin Shah. Geoffrey Kendal continued staging plays across the country with his wife and daughter. His daughter, Jennifer, went on to be married to Shashi Kapoor.
Young Naseer was not too keen on studies, and post his dismal performance at St. Joseph’s his father took him away to a school named St. Alselms, Ajmer. Naseer who used to be a reclusive youngster at his earlier school, felt liberated at st. Alselm’s. Not only did his grades improve, he managed to vent out what had become a passion for him now: acting! He put together a group of friends and staged plays like “Merchant of Venice” and other dramas.
After school, Naseer graduated from Aligarh Muslim University and by 1971, landed up in that hallowed temple of theatre actors in India, National School of Drama. Here, under the tutelage of Ebrahim Alkazi, another maverick theatre maestro, Naseer honed and chiseled his craft. Then came FTII, the erstwhile Pune Film Institute.
Since early boyhood days, Naseer loved watching films. His father closely monitored the kind of films he and his siblings were exposed to, and so it was mostly Hollywood fare he saw at the time. Even back then, instead of the hero, Naseer was more taken in by the everyman, the underdog – the likes of Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Anthony Quinn, Charles Laughton. Whatever little he saw of Hindi cinema, he found ludicrous, though by his own admission, he liked Shammi Kapoor and Dara Singh’s movies.
In FTII, Naseer’s love for Cinema blossomed, and was nurtured by the presence of friends like Tom Alter, Benjamin Gilani and Om Puri, who had also been a classmate at NSD. But as they day of reckoning drew nearer, he became more and more restless. No matter what, he knew he didn’t ‘fit’ in the present scheme of things. He possessed neither matinee-idol looks nor muscles to flaunt. But one little film by a Faculty member at FTII totally changed his perception.
Shyam Benegal, or ‘Shyam-babu’ as his proteges like to call him, used to work in Advertising, like
the Great Satyajit Ray himself. One fine day in Kolkata he was hit by this meteor of a film called “Pather Panchali” (Benegal ended up seeing it a dozen times, sans subtitles), and he aspired to become a film maker. Many years and scores of documentaries later, Benegal got to make his first Feature Film, Ankur (1973). Ray’s humanism and his own unwavering allegiance to Nehruvian Socialism helped in shaping the theme of the film, a tale of economic and sexual exploitation. When Naseeruddin Shah saw the film, it opened a whole new world of possibilities before him. So, after all, it was possible to make films featuring the average man, the ‘Aam Aadmi’ – Shyam Babu was making them! So, the two geniuses collaborated and Nishant (1975) happened. Naseer played a brother from a dysfunctional feudal family that rapes a poor school-teacher’s wife.
Till then, he’d played minor, face-in-a-crowd roles in Rajendra Kumar’s Aman (1967) and Prakash Mehra’s Aan Baan (1972). But this time, Naseer’s role as the psychotic Vishwam in “Nishant” was noticed and acclaimed widely. The very next year, he appeared in another of Shyam Babu’s landmark films, a unique one in the history of cinema: Manthan (1976). A film that started with the words “500,000 farmers of Gujarat present..”, Manthan was actually financed by the dairy farmers of Gujarat, having contributed Rs. 2 each for making the film. Naseer played Bhola, an angry, disillusioned farmer. His live-wire performance proved the Nishant wasn’t just a fluke. Naseeruddin Shah, the actor, had arrived.
Naseer then followed this up with some dazzling performances in Bhoomika (1977), and Junoon (1979).
In the 70s-80s, the exuberance and dreamy-eyed ambition of a newly independent India had somewhat receded, and cynicism set in. Disillusionment was widespread – rampant unemployment, poverty and corruption didn’t help matters much. Masala Hindi cinema responded with the Angry Young Man, also known as Amitabh Bachchan. ‘Parallel cinema’ (the moniker given to the kind of films that steered clear of the popular song-and-dance extravaganza of Indian films) had its own angry man too, that manifested in two iconic films in the early 1980s: Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980) and Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983). In Ardh Satya, Om Puri was the Angry Man, a desi Dirty Harry reincarnate, and Naseer played second fiddle. In Albert Pinto, released 3 years prior, the roles were reversed.
In the film, Albert Pinto was a belligerent youth with some serious anger management issues. Unlike his Masala counterpart, Pinto’s anger wasn’t always justifiable – he was essentially flawed. From his sexist, obsessive demeanour towards his girl (Shabana Azmi) to his outright dismissal of his father’s leftist ideologies and class struggle, here was a man whose worldview was questionable. Over the years, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai gained a cult following, becoming synonymous to Naseer’s persona in many ways.
Within months of Albert Pinto’s release came another film that demonstrated Naseer’s range as an actor: Sai Paranjpe’s “Sparsh” (1980) had him portray a visually impaired man who runs a Blind School. The way he replicated the sheer physicality of a ‘blind’ man was totally uncanny and goosebump-inducing. Arguably one of the best on-screen portrayals of a differently abled person, Sparsh won Naseer his first National Award. In three years, Sai and Naseer were to collaborate again on another landmark film called Katha (1983), that allowed Naseer to showcase his craft.
In the 80s, Naseeruddin Shah went on a rampage: Bhavni Bhavai, Aakrosh (1980), Umrao Jaan, Chakra” (1981), Bazaar, Aadharshila (1982), Woh 7 Din, Mandi (1983) – he loomed large on the Parallel Cinema scene of the time.
With an awe-inspiring body of work playing sombre roles, Naseer kept getting offers that typecast him in serious parts. This bugged him no end – his has been a life-long struggle to break the mould and achieve something new with every film. In 1983, he were to participate in one of the funniest films ever made, a comedy that invokes crazy laughter even today, thirty years after its release. How Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro got made and how it became a Cult Film is the stuff of Bollywood folklore.
A recent ‘digitally masterd’ re-release in a Mumbai Multiplex ran to packed houses! It related the story of two hapless photographers, Vinod Chopra (Naseer) and Sudhir Mishra (Ravi Baswani) and their hilarious run-ins with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. The two leads were named with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Production controller and Assistant Director of the film, respectively. Needless to say, (Vidhu) Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra went on to become acclaimed directors in their own right.
Naseer featured in two of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s earliest films: Sazaye Maut (1981), a psychological thriller, and a whodunit with an ensemble cast called Khamosh (1985).
In 1984, Naseeruddin Shah earned his second National Award with Goutam Ghose’s “Paar”. His turn as the ill-fated labourer Naurangiya wasn’t so much a performance as a raw, visceral cry straight from the gut. Paar also won him the Volpi Cup at the Venice International Film Festival.
Naseer also tried his hands at Regional Cinema. Back in 1977, he starred in the great Girish Karnad’s Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, a Kannada classic. Next up was Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai, based on Gujarati folklore, in 1980. And in 1983, he featured in the Bengali film Protidan directed by Prabhat Roy.
Right since 1979, Naseer had been dabbling with popular cinema. It all began with Hiren Nag’s Sunayna, released that year. The next year came Beqasoor, a murder mystery. Around the same time, another young actor – just about a month older to Naseer, was making his way to stardom. Mithun Chakraborty and Naseeruddin Shah co-starred in Khwab and Hum Paanch, back to back. Naseer was a long-time admirer of Dev Anand, who recruited him to play a killer for hire in 1982’s Swami Dada. Thirty years later, Naseer returned the favour by working in the ill-fated Chargesheet (2011). The early 80s, he also did Bezubaan with Reena Roy, Akbar Khan’s Haadsa.
By late 1980s, Naseeruddin Shah’s love affair with ‘serious’ cinema was wearing off. Something inside of him snapped. A ‘movement’ that began on the premise of realism had started to look fake to him. A lot of parallel film makers had started roping in big stars for their productions. The whole appeal of ‘independent’ cinema was gone for him. Naseeruddin Shah decided to go the whole hog and plunge headlong into Bollywood’s Masala bandwagon.
And then, Tridev happened. Naseer was made to hop about in an outlandish manner and mouth even more outlandish lyrics. But as Bollywood Karma would have it, the song became a national sensation. The film itself, with stylish action set pieces, was an instant hit.
A gym in suburban Mumbai. As Naseeruddin Shah steps in on one of his occasional visits, a huge, muscular hulk of a man walks up to Naseer, touches his feet and says he was the reason why the guy took up body-building. Naseer is amused, understandably. His diminutive frame doesn’t really invoke Greek God imagery. Then the man says, “I saw Jalwa when I was 10 and I started bodybuilding because I thought if you can do it, I can too!” and it all started making sense.
More than twenty years before the Ghajini hullabaloo, Naseer beefed up to play the super-cop Kapil on Pankaj Parashar’s Jalwa (1987). To go with the stylized action and foot-tapping music, it contained elaborate sequences of Naseer pumping iron and doing crunches. Admittedly, he found the process insufferable and quit working out the day the shoot ended!
Whenever there is a talk of the best music composed by R.D. Burman, two movie titles inadvertently crop up: Masoom (1983) and Ijaazat (1987). Masoom was Shekhar Kapur’s debut, but the film had a level of maturity unheard of in maiden ventures. As usual, Naseer was utterly convincing as the affable DK (Yes, that’s what he was called in the film – just DK) who strays momentarily from a very happy marriage, but is unaware of a child borne out of the rendezvous.
Ijaazat, on the other hand, was a different animal altogether. Adapted from a Bengali short-story by Subodh Ghosh, – Naseer’s Mahender never really gets over an earlier relationship even after marriage. The shadow of his prior affair looms large on the present, till his marriage crumbles bit by bit around him. Naseer plays Mahender at two different phases of his life, and he looks distinctly older in the second phase, without a single streak of gray hair.
In the meanwhile, a new medium was making waves. It was the Golden Age of Television, as they say. The best of actors worked on one or the other TV Show. Naseer was no exception. He starred in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj as Chhatrapati Shivaji. But there was another show which Naseer considers his best work till date- Gulzar’s “Mirza Ghalib”. Naseer possesses considerable admiration for Ghalib and his work. His portrayal of the bard displayed an intensity exceptional in Naseer’s oeuvre. As Gulzar saab once said, he had to be summoned out of his Ghalib persona. By his own admission, it was the grandest experience of Naseer’s life.
We saw a lot of him in the next few years: Vishwatma, Tehelka, Chamatkar, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Sir, China Gate, Takkar, Himmat, Chaahat, Daava, Lahoo ke Do Rang, so on. In ’94 he played a blind man again in Mohra, perhaps the only such instance where the same actor played both the ‘serious’ and ‘masala’ versions of the same persona. But contrary to popular perception, he never stopped working on the good stuff: Drohkaal, Bombay Boys, Sarfarosh, Hey Ram, Maqbool, Parzania, Iqbal, Being Cyrus, Ishqiyan, That Girl in Yellow Boots, The Blueberry Hunt, Firaaq…
Come 2003, Naseer was part of an international behemoth of a film project called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It was based on an eponymous comic-book series by Alan Moore, which combined several popular fictional characters from 19th century English literature. Co-starring Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain (the hero of King Solomon’s Mines), Naseer stepped into the shoes of Captain Nemo, the eccentric genius-villain from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Nemo here was portrayed as an Indian prince who doubled as a pirate, on his super-submarine Nautilus. Though Naseer did his best to stay true to character, the film was little more than an assemblage of huge action sequences. Naseeruddin bid adieu to big budget Hollywood.
The one film that made Naseeruddin Shah an international phenomenon wasn’t a Sean Connery- starrer, but a film rooted in Indian sensibilities. Monsoon Wedding was Mira Nair’s ode to big fat North Indian Weddings. Naseer is Lalit Verma, a father who’s planning this huge, pompous wedding for his little girl. Relatives & friends congregate from all parts of the world, and skeletons fall out of the closet. Somehow, audiences in remotest parts of the globe identified with his role and when Naseer visits faraway nations, random people he meets keep mentioning Monsoon Wedding.
With the advent of the Multiplex in the 2000s, ‘parallel’ cinema was ceremoniously rechristened
‘multiplex’ films. Smaller, independent cinema had a better chance at reaching out to its target audience than its counterpart back in the ’70s and ’80s. And Naseeruddin Shah was having a whale of a time. All over again.
2008’s “A Wednesday” had him in peak form, playing the ‘common man’ who stood up against the system. It was as if he was playing out this collective fantasy of hitting back at forces that made them live in constant fear.
The Dirty Picture allowed Naseer to do something he always wanted to do: poke fun at Commercial Cinema. Every cliché that characterized the popular hero of the 80s was there for him to play with: aging actor playing college-goer, ‘First Class First”, the legendary casting couch. And 20 years after Tridev, he was back to shaking a leg with the heroine.
Along the way, Naseer realized another long-held dream, that of donning the Director’s cap. Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota: What If?, though critically acclaimed, wasn’t a satisfactory experience for him.
Often, while explaining the role of an actor, Naseer mentions esteemed colleague Dr. Shriram Lagoo’s autobiography: “Lamaan”, which in Marathi means a peddler or messenger – signifying that the humble role of an actor is to deliver the writer’s message to the audiences. In a world where actors are all about the glitz, that is the essence of what Naseeruddin Shah stands for.
[The piece was written for a film magazine, around January 2013]