A secular anchor of a secular television news channel asked actor Naseeruddin Shah in the course of an interview before a studio audience if he, as a Muslim, ever felt discriminated against in India. The anchor helpfully drew his attention to fellow actor Shabana Azmi’s reported remark that she had had trouble finding a house in Mumbai since her religious affiliation came in the way. The anchor’s question was a clear and brazen attempt at mischief, because the conversation was about the actor (in my view, the best the country has had so far) and his work, and not about his religious identity. Indeed, it was insulting that an artiste, who belongs to the country and the world by virtue of his work, should be asked to stoop to the parochial mindset of the questioner.
There is no doubt that the anchor had hoped to extract a ‘controversial’ remark from Shah, which would then have been flashed all through the next 24 hours on the channel. But the anchor’s hopes were to be dashed. Shah not only vehemently denied having personally encountered any bias on grounds of religion, but also added that his brother, as an army officer, too never faced such discrimination. The disappointment on the anchor’s face was palpable when the actor went on to emphasise that he did not subscribe to such “alarmist” positions. The line of thought that the anchor had no lovingly begun to explore, exploded in the face.
This recent episode tells us as much about the shallowness of so-called secular journalists as it does about Shah’s maturity and the deep sense of inclusivity he nurtures with the Indian milieu. It can be said with certainty that even if he had come across religious slight, he would not have made a mountain out of a mole-hill, but would have dealt with the matter with the dignity or contempt it deserved. The actor was not being politically correct when he slammed the “alarmist” tendency. Those who have read his recently-released autobiography, And Then One day, will safely assume that socio-political correctness is not among his virtues. The television anchor, used to drawing out the worst in politicians who are not the favourites – and the best out of those who are the anchor’s favourites – failed to realise that Shah is as much of an anti-politician as he is an anti-actor in the sense that the Hindi film industry views ‘acting’ to be.
The actor’s retort on his Muslim identity and supposed victimisation was in keeping with his transparent, often rebellious, but always honest, approach to life and career. Few film personalities can get away from the sledgehammer’s blow of hypocrisy if they make hay in the sun they condemn as harshly bright. But Shah manages it with aplomb – and makes it sound reasonable, even intelligent. He describes away in his book the horror of doing “pure cat-vomit” films like Khwaab and Shaayad, as commercially necessary. “Both these films sank with barely a gurgle, but facilitated the purchase of first car, so I suppose they too were worth it,” Shah dismisses the disasters with a flick of his finger. Money was also a consideration that made him do silly commercial advertisements such as for an incense-stick brand and a well-known biscuits name. He writes, “The earnings from these at least guaranteed two meals in a day for a while because I had by now spent whatever remained of my Nishant earnings on a pretty humiliating haemorrhoid surgery…”
Thus, even his “humiliating” physical condition becomes good enough to make a point which should sear the industry: That even after his internationally-acclaimed performance in Nishant, Shah remained without work for long, having to survive on money he earned through biscuit and agarbatti advertisements. He does not hesitate to rub it in, though it is not clear who his specific target is, when he adds, “Every actor in the film, except yours truly, emerged with reputation enhanced and further employment gained.” He cites the examples of Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri and Girish Karnad as among those who benefitted from the success of Nishant.
The least that Shah does, therefore, is to call a spade a spade. But coming from the Naseeruddin Shah, even this ‘least’ falls like a tonne of bricks on the high and mighty of filmdom and on what we have, wrongly or rightly (wrongly, Mr Shah will insist) considered to be iconic. He makes no effort to hide his disdain for the cinematic value of Sholay, though he does acknowledge the film’s unprecedented success and Gabbar Singh’s “Kitney aadmi thei” resonance decades after the film’s release. He commends Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Pran for bringing a sense of élan to the hammed-up roles they have played, but he cannot get himself to offer unconditional praise. He is more generous in his admiration for Shyam Bengal, Gulzar, Sai Paranjpye and Om Puri, besides a few others.
Shah is equally critical of his own work. He says of the successful Manthan and Junoon, “Both these performances, despite generating more work for me and bringing me continued acclaim, are not among my personal favourites.” He blames himself for that. “In both Manthan and Junoon, despite Shyam’s (director Shyam Benegal) injunction not to play the role ‘as you see it in your head but as it is written’, I did precisely what I should not have done…” But he learned along the way, and his performance in Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh, a few years after Manthan, is arguably one of the best performances seen in Indian films.
If figures are added and substracted and a balance-sheet prepared, Shah will probably discover that he has gained more than he has lost – both personally (barring that of the loss of his parents, perhaps) and professionally. He is one of the very few Indian actors that are recalled with respect in international cinema, and he has minimal competition at home. He remains a lone ranger in the midst of the ‘Rs 100-crore-club’ men and women who are constantly jostling for space – and which space gets snatched as one Friday gives way to another. It’s a blood-thirsty world he lives in, a world that does not favour the