April 28--Naseeruddin Shah, one of Asia's finest actors, talks about the vicissitudes of life, theatre, Bollywood and much more in an exclusive chat with Khaleej Times
He is considered to be one of the most talented actors in the Indian film industry, but Naseeruddin Shah, 62, has no airs about himself. He is uncharacteristically frank and doesn't come with any baggage. Known to be compassionate towards his co-stars, Shah's is a very rare tribe. His seemingly effortless ability to slip under any character's skin has left his critics impressed and audiences floored in equal measure. A threatre person at heart, Naseeruddin has a reputation of being a maverick of sorts in Bollywood. An original, he started the Motley Theatre Group (MTG) with Benjamin Gilani in 1979 and went on to perform a series of acclaimed plays such as William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot and Herman Wouk's The Caine. For countless film aficionados, Shah continues to be the enduring screen hero, whose gift lies in making even peripheral parts memorable.
The veteran's deep love for cinema and the craft of acting is palpable in the way he passionately talks about films. Scathing in his criticism of Bollywood for the fair to middling movies that one of the world's largest centres of film production churns out, Shah says: "The Bombay film industry can recover and multiply ten times their investment by making a load of trash. Tell me, why should they attempt anything new?
"We are trying to be a clone of the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s. Even in those times they had educated and intelligent producers, who, despite their appetite for money, loved films. I have myself seen in studios like Universal entire colonies of writers, housed in cottages, writing. So at any time any studio in Hollywood has a bank of some 500 odd scripts and they draw the best bits from here and there. That is how they come up with relatively good films," the thespian noted.
Making amply clear that he is not endorsing Hollywood over Bollywood, Shah clarified that a lot of silly films get made in the west too but the big difference remains that India clearly lacks a tradition of great film writing.
Pointing out the inadequacy of Bollywood to make original films, Naseeruddin revealed that theatre and cinema have been unable to unhinge in India.
"All cinema in India came out of theatre which was not the case in the west. Although cinema found its own form rather quickly but we haven't still outgrown the Parsi theatre, the 'nautanki' and 'dastaan goyi', which used to be the entertainment for the common man. In the olden times the aristocrats had their dancers but the masses would flock to places like the bazaar where the chai was being sold with the 'dastaan go' amusing them for hours, sometimes all night. There would be tales of flying horses, bridges of smoke and rivers of blood, of people disappearing and battles between good and evil and every now and then the story would just halt in its tracks and there would be a beautiful poem or a musical piece, which had no connection with the story whatsoever. The story would then resume. It is 2013 and Bollywood is essentially making movies with that form. We have not evolved," Naseeruddin bemoaned.
However for a consummate artist like Shah, whose ability to infuse complexity and layers to characters has won him legions of fans, the interest in movies has not gone away. "I have not lost interest in movies but I may have lost the interest to act in movies. Only if it promises to be a project that I will really have fun with, do I take up a film now. Frankly it is a soulless job acting in films and thankfully I don't have to do the mainstream Bollywood movies anymore. The ones I did in the past were all films I took on willingly. Nobody forced me to do it and I had a vague glimmer of hope that this might turn out to be a good movie. I made plenty of mistakes in my life but there is nothing I did that I didn't want to do. A movie, in my opinion, should succeed in its intention if not anything else. You cannot accuse some of the modern film-makers of insensitivity because that is not their intention," the thespian remarked.
Shah has no high hopes of cinema bringing about a huge transformation in society. "I don't believe in cinema as art and I have my doubts about films being a medium of change in India. I don't think people take movies as seriously as we filmmakers would like to imagine that they do. Sometimes we tend to over estimate the importance of our own contribution. I don't think films can bring out any huge change. While I agree that films and TV do change the fashion of thought but that dramatic and real change that we are talking about is not going to happen. The transition may happen gradually, over a period of time, which puts the onus on filmmakers to make movies which reflect the truth of the times we live in," he maintains.
Currently in Dubai to stage his English play A Walk In The Woods -- a story of two top negotiators who meet during an unofficial walk in the woods of Switzerland, away from their official Geneva sessions -- Shah received a standing ovation from a jam-packed audience at the IMAX threatre at Meydan last night. The play written by Lee Blessing, has been given a South Asian twist with Shah and actor Rajit Kapur following the direction of Ratna Pathak Shah. Highlighting the futility of souring relations between India and Pakistan and the need to stay clear of jingoism on either side of the border, Naseeruddin Shah proves yet again that apart from being a highly skilled performer, very few actors in the subcontinent can bring such tremendous conviction to their work. The legend of Naseer lives on.
(c)2013 the Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
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