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“If I learnt what ‘theatre’ acting is from the NSD, and what ‘film’ acting is from the FTII”: Naseeruddin Shah

We reproduce this interview of NASEERUDDIN SHAH by JYOTHI VENKATESH which appeared first in the now defunct newspaper The Daily dt September 19, 1993,



Naseeruddin Shah

To mark NASEERUDDIN SHAH’s 71st birthday today, we reproduce this interview of NASEERUDDIN SHAH by JYOTHI VENKATESH which appeared first in the now defunct newspaper The Daily dt September 19, 1993, exactly 28 years ago, in which he confesses that he goes by his own gut instinct when he reads a script, tries to visualize the role offered and then takes a call whether to do a role or not.

Naseeruddin Shah is one actor who has literally been able to stand the test of time. Give him any role and he can essay it effortlessly with aplomb by getting into the skin of his character like a chameleon. I consider myself privileged having known the actor right from the time he had made his debut with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant 46 years ago. He does not like to give interviews in general but once he is able to gauge the intention of the journalist, he readily sheds his tough exterior and then there is no stopping the thespian when he starts talking. Naseeruddin Shah has completed 47 years as an actor in Hindi films.

Do you prefer to be called an actor or a star?

It is very difficult for me to answer this question because for one thing it is often said that the life of a star is very short. A star rises up when it is his time and falls down when he loses his market. However it is not the same case in Hollywood. The reason for this is that Hollywood stars like John Wayne,Garry Cooper, Spencer Tracy etc had something different to project in every film. Unfortunately if you want to be a star in Bollywood, you have got to do what the audiences want you to do. Still, I believe that it is very necessary for an actor to be hailed as a star because only then can he do what he wants to do. I would still love to be called an actor because in every role I am keen on doing something new.

Did you struggle to get a break in films?

Yes. I had to struggle not to get work but to be accepted, because I got the break while studying at the Poona Film Institute. I got my second film as well as the third film from Shyam Benegal- Nishant and Manthan. I had to face a lot of failure too. The fact is every actor has got to struggle in his or her life, whether in the beginning or at the end of the career.

Tell me something about your transition from the so called art film to hard core commercial cinema!

I am fed up with answering this question. This is not some kind of transition and it has also not happened overnight. It isn’t like I got up one fine morning and declared that I will not work in art films henceforth. The fourth film in my career-Sunaina was an out and out commercial film. My fifth and sixth films were also out and out commercial- Kanhaiya and Shayad. Though I have been doing commercial films right from the beginning of my career, I am more identified with art films. I am not doing art films at all for the simple reason that no one seems to make art films any more these days. (Guffaws)

You learnt acting at both the Poona Film Institute as well as the National School of Drama. What difference did you find between the two?

I studied at the NSD from 1970 to 1975. It is an institute for the theatre. But I realized that one can never make a living by working in Hindi theatre and hence learnt a lot about acting at the NSD, and decided to join the FTII at Poona. I was always keen on acting in films to earn my bread and butter. I benefitted from my stint in both the schools. If I learnt what ‘theatre’ acting is from the NSD, and what ‘film’ acting is from the FTII.

Are you an instinctive actor or a director’s actor?

I am not an instinctive actor. I am not a natural performer because I just cannot perform in real life, although there are many actors who are adept at all these. Anupam Kher and Raghuvir Yadav are what I call instinctive actors. I adore them as actors and respect both of them. I am a director’s actor. Without the help of a director, I do not think that any actor can act in front of the camera.

To what extent do you think that training an actor can mould a ‘dud’ into an actor?

Acting has to be learnt whether you go to any acting institute or not. If you have the inclination to learn acting you will end up learning acting on your own. Kamal Haasan, Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan did not go to any acting institute. Motilal or Kanhaiyalal or for that matter Yakubsaab did not join any acting institute and yet they were great actors. Did Balraj Sahani go to any acting institute to learn acting? All of them learnt acting on their own. The advantage of living and learning in the portals of an institute is that the atmosphere there is very conducive for learning. If you have the will and the inclination for acting, you can be taught what acting is.

How do you feel doing larger than life commercial characters after being a part and parcel of realistic art films?

It is a very interesting phase related to the growth of my acting caliber. When a boy is 18 or 19 and is passing out of his college, he has a certain larger than life quality and that kind of confidence was visible in my performances. I was acting in films made by Shyam Benegal because they were real life characters in which there was absolutely no trace of any kind of heroism. In commercial films I sing duets and also fight with hundreds of goondas singlehandedly. I am actually trying to act like I used to do when I was 20.

Tell us something about your approach to your role!

My approach towards the role, whether it is a film or a play, is very simple. I am of the opinion that in every human being there is potential to be anyone he fancies. Due to a slight change in circumstances, if I were in some other house, I would have been someone else’s son. If some accidents had taken place in my life, it would have taken an absolutely different turn. I could have been a bus conductor, a pickpocket, a terrorist, a maulvi or a beggar. Or I could have even been an industrialist. It is all the handiwork of circumstances.  If only every person makes an attempt to look into his own heart, he will know what he could have been – a beggar or the world’s richest person.

Do you tend to become complacent as an actor?

In India, my model actor used to be the late Yakubsaab. When I mention his name today to the new young wannabe journalists, it is sad but true that no one is able to recollect or recognize him. I feel sad because tomorrow, I too may be forgotten. Who knows, after 50 years no one will be able to remember an actor called Naseeruddin Shah. I can never become complacent as an actor because if people can forget Yakubsaab, they can jolly well forget Naseeruddin Shah too.

What do you think of Dilip Kumar?

Besides Yakubsaab, another actor I have always admired is Dilip Kumar. But frankly, I used to consider him to be a good actor only till Ganga Jamuna. I do not regard him as a good actor after that film. I have not been inspired by any other Indian actor. I have derived inspiration from an English actor called Jeffrey Kendall, who was Shashi Kapoor’s father in law. I do not think that any other actor has acted as much in Shakespeare plays as Jeffreysaab did. He has always been my ideal as well as idol. I would consider myself a lucky person if I am able to do even one hundredth of what he had done for the theatre.

What do you think of your wife Ratna Pathak Shah as an actress?

I had worked in both Mirch Masala and The Perfect Murder with Ratna. It is a sad thing that Ratna is getting offers to work in films only because I am working in them.  The tragedy is that Ratna isn’t being given the respect due to her as an actress on her own merit.

Why are you working in very few films these days?

I go by my own gut instinct when I read a script, try to visualize the role that I am offered and then take a call whether to do a role or not. The trouble with me is that I am very lazy. I like holidays, Ha Ha Ha!