The debate regarding Rajesh Khanna’s histrionic abilities has been as dramatic as a 70s potboiler. Twinkle Khanna responding in true Bharatiya Beti style, Naseeruddin Shah not giving a flying fuck, tons of comments on social media about the nature of the debate.
But as an actor, one can sympathise with Naseeruddin Shah’s frustration. Whether you admit it or not, most Bollywood films do not seem to follow any semblance of logic. Proof of this lies in the recent film Sultan where the hero undergoes a month of training and wins the Olympic Gold. Most of our films are more concerned with glorifying our stars than stay true to the reason a film is made – to tell a story.
But here one begs to ask the question – is the story really the motive? Most blockbusters seem to have made their very purpose the glorification of superstars, so one can’t really tell. Since Cinema is an art form, any opinion on it is subjective. It is not scientific research that can be held up to universally accepted standards. One can only have opinions, but I must admit I share Naseeruddin Shah’s opinion.
Bollywood has a knack of squeezing out success from its fraternity. If something works, you’ll do the same thing for decades at stretch. Rajesh Khanna broke through the scene as a charming man with a slightly awkward dancing style. And he did it till he looked seven months pregnant. Shah Rukh Khan played the sweet chocolate boy when he was in his early 30s, and was caught in his avatars of Rahul, Raj and Regina till a few years ago. Amitabh Bachchan played the Angry Young Man right up to the time he was an Angry Old Man.
And these are the biggest guys around. Look beyond them, and you’re left with cardboard caricatures. Shatrughan Sinha played an array of loud, embarrassing roles for much of his career, Sunil Dutt played Daaku Cringe Singh for more than 20 films. Many a talented actor have been sacrificed at this altar of Lakhsmi – Satish Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Navin Nischol and Asrani are a few that come to mind. The only mainstream hero who avoided being typecast in my opinion was Sanjeev Kumar. The man played a wide vista of diverse roles throughout his career, and yet is caricatured as Thakur.
So Naseeruddin Shah is not really off the mark. His autobiography And Then One Day is a brilliant, crackling account of his life and opinions of the industry. In an industry that is perennially bending over backwards to suck each other off, his opinions are refreshing, honest and unforgiving.
Like the time the whole nation was orgasming over Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a completely mediocre piece of work. Shah, the eternal Thug Life, made a rather unflattering statement about how growing one’s hair and getting a sculpted body doesn’t make you an actor. Or the time he took Aamir Khan’s case for spreading fear psychosis among Muslims of the country. Or how he keeps needling Anupam Kher for his statements. Or when he called Sholay out as the greatest con job, for having directly lifted scenes and shots from Spaghetti Westerns (which is actually 100% true. Ramesh Sippy was a youngster who was exposed to Western cinema, and the characters, scenes, and shots of the film are basically a rip-off of Sergio Leone’s pathbreaking work. Sadly, we in India had no such knowledge and Sholay, which reads, looks and plays like a Spaghetti Western has become the most iconic film – it’s hilariously unfortunate). Or the time when Shah was asked what sort of a legacy he’d like to leave behind, and his answer quite simply was – I don’t give a shit.
Naseeruddin Shah is one actor who doesn’t suck up to the industry, or its so-called superstars. His opinions have been honest, cynical, and hilarious. In fact, if I could choose a personality that best speaks the language of my blog, I’d be choose Naseeruddin Shah. And Jackie Shroff. Because Jackie.
But this is where things get a little queasy. For you see, Naseeruddin Shah hasn’t exactly been the epitome of versatility in his career spanning thirty years. I chanced upon this while talking to a roommate of mine, who happens to be a Masters in Theatre Arts. It was he who pointed out the fact that Naseeruddin Shah rarely steps out of his comfort zone. And it’s true!
Naseeruddin Shah’s career can be clearly demarcated into three distinct phases. The first phase was in the 70s and early 80s, the truly golden era of Hindi cinema. While India was discovering its first batch of superstars in Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, a motley crew of filmmakers was challenging notions of caste, religion, prejudice and conventions. Shyam Benegal, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Basu Chatterjee, Govind Nihalani, Gulzar – directors who wrote and shot stories that sought not to merely entertain the audience, but to provoke, agitate, soothe, and calm. These filmmakers were supported by stellar performers like Shah himself, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Kulbhushan Kharbandha and Shabana Azmi. The fact that this second crop of films ran parallel to the Deewars and Sholays of the time prove that it was a diverse time, a good time to be alive (also, rock music, hippies, and LSD in general).
Such was the impact of this era that even mainstream actors like Hema Malini and Rekha worked with these filmmakers. Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna acted in movies by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Probably because it was an era where every film wasn’t compared on collections, opening day earnings, total earnings, NRI box office and other statistical vagaries. The films of the time continue to be my second favourite decade of cinema (after the 90s, for purely biased, nostalgic reasons).
The second phase in Naseeruddin Shah’s career was when he dabbled in commercial cinema, from the late 80s to mid-90s. Naseeruddin Shah stepped down from his leading man status and played second, third and sometimes fourth fiddle to brawny stars with no brains. Films like Zulm Ko Jala Doonga, Vishwatma, Mohra, and Tridev are examples of this phase. The films were trashy, the plots always the same – a bunch of good guys gang up to uproot an evil dictator/drug lord.
These films followed the basic rules of 90s action hits. Like the rule that says,
‘The number of heroes must equal the number of heroines in the film, even if one of them has the screen time of a stray cow on a busy street’.
Or the other rule that states –
If there are more than two heroes in the film, they must sacrifice their lives in the final climax, or die valiantly in the end, as it is impossible to feature more than two pairs in the final ‘The End’ snapshot.
These films are trash-gold if you like watching trashy movies (May I kindly direct you to the wonderful Facebook page – I love trashy Hindi films), but if you aren’t, they are an eye, ear and soul sore.
Perhaps the experience of acting in these films hardened his soul so much, that with the 2000s, Naseeruddin Shah stepped into the third phase, the Don’t Giva Fuck phase.
For the last 15 years, Naseeruddin Shah don’t giva fuck. He has essentially been playing himself in every film.
He is always the old, wisened, wise-crack cracking smart alec. He employs a limited array of expressions, uses his gravelled voice to effect – not too much effort, just a miniscule amount that would make the Salman-crazy crowd to wet their pants.
I can’t remember a single film in the last fifteen years where Naseeruddin Shah didn’t play himself. Here’s a look at his roles in the last fifteen years.
The comedy show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge threw up a number of interesting comedians. Their impersonations of popular stars have become a trope, and one finds that the same mannerisms, actions, voices are still being used today to mimic that star.
The winner (albeit completely undeserving) of the show was Sunil Pal, whose set on Veerappan kidnapping Madhuri Dixit acquired a cult viewership. One of the voices in his set was Naseeruddin Shah’s.
Sunil Pal perfectly nails the Shah voice. The voice of Shah in the 90s – when he stepped into the murky world of bad 90s cinema. Unfortunately, that voice remained in the minds of the people. For all his diversity, all the stellar choices he has made as an actor, and the immense repertoire of skills that he possesses, that voice today is the trope that associates itself to Naseeruddin Shah.
For in a country like India, you know you’ve been doing something for far too long when a mimicry artist picks up your nuances.
I watched Monsoon Wedding a few days back and was shocked by the Naseeruddin Shah in the film. He seemed to enjoy every single moment on screen. He was affectionate, and vulnerable, and clumsy, and when it mattered the most – strong as steel.
I remember going to sleep that night wondering what happened to that Naseeruddin Shah. And if that guy had been buried long ago.
Today, Naseeruddin Shah essentially plays himself. In that sense, he isn’t vastly different from Salman Khan who plays himself, or Rajesh Khanna who played himself for two straight decades.
And I’m still waiting to watch a film by Naseeruddin Shah in the theatres. Still waiting for him to blow my mind.