Happy Birthday Naseeruddin Shah – Incomparable actor, unparalleled disruptor?

70 cheers for one of Bollywood’s most respected actors, who however, never fails to take ‘panga’ with everything connected with the mainstream fare

Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @filmfare)
Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @filmfare)

Monojit Lahiri

Naseeruddin Shah – way before Queen Kangy Ranaut was a gleam in our eyes – had the reputation of being Bollywood’s Angry Old Man! Mr Iconoclast, forever taking everyone’s case with a spectacular mix of cheek, impertinence, mockery and ridicule, irrespective of the star’s status, uttering statements considered blasphemous by most. By the way, he hasn’t spared himself either – in the self-deprecating way he described – “More MAD magazines Alfred E Newman or Anthony Quale than Shammi Kapoor or Dev Anand” – himself!

Although the records show his debut date as 1975 with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant, he points towards his two momentous un-credited appearances before that. One, the guy behind the dead doctor in the 1967 released Aman and later, as a mourner in a funeral in the 1972, Aan Baan! He believes that with time, he, literally, woke from the dead to earn a Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and innumerable National and Filmfare awards as a champion actor, crossing the 100 film mark, even directing a film, Yun Hota to Kaisa Hota.

Cut first to the actor. Hitting the screen with no looks or physique to speak of at a time when the Big B was getting bigger with every release and the studs and chocolate boys were zonking the collective imagination of the aam junta, a lesser actor would freeze but not Shah. Why? Because he was very clear, from day one what he could/couldn’t do and what he wanted/didn’t want. His funda was clear. His NSD & FTII training didn’t allow him to flip for the hi-pitched antics of the stars without incurring suspicion of bribery or temporary brain damage! He was single-mindedly wedded to the idea of HDF – High Definition Performances – which focussed on the ability to communicate the essence of one’s talent to an audience with economy, grace and power with no apparent effort and absolute hard-edged clarity. Starting with Benegal, Shah leveraged this trait and soon became – with Shabana, Om Puri & Smita Patil – the Poster Boy of India’s new and exciting Parallel [Manthan, Akrosh, Bhumika, Chakra, Mandi, Mirch Masala. Albert Pinto ..., Jaane Bhi Do Yaro, Sparsh, Masoom, Katha, Khandar] Cinema.

His power-house performances, showcasing insolent originality at which every informed critic’s soul quickened, served notice of a time bomb with the mouth open ... waiting to explode and fire popular imagination of all who recognised the magic of a performance as opposed to posturing. It wasn’t the cheap, sadak-chaap, crowd-catching melodrama but the elusive gift of making the stiffest lines bend to his passion and vowels cry out in pain. Although he detested being over-touted and initially resisted/rejected projects tied to the tin-can of down-market commercialism, he did succumb. However, despite the content and intent of the director – Mohra, Tridev, Sir, Takkar, Sarfarosh, Najayaz, Karma, Main Hoon Na, Chamatkar, The Dirty Picture – his performances were always on target. He never fails to mention – with trademark ironical laughter that “it wasn’t my soul-strip roles in art house films but that Oye Oye yell that finally got me connected to the mass audiences!”

However, over time, despite universal respect from the who’s who in Bollywood, Shah has continued to be dismissive about Bollywood’s content and stars. Be it Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Anupam Kher, Sholay, he’s never had a kind word about them, reserving his praises for the likes of (the late) Irrfan Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Nawazuddin and gang. Why? Is it envy at not getting his dues while lesser talents rock the charts? Frustration? Anger at the state of Bollywood’s present and future? Sorrow at a dumbed-down, star-struck audience forever being taken for a ride by pretentious, loud-mouthed, self-congratulatory bozos catering to the lowest common denominator? What?

Hitting the gas-pedal first is Mumbai’s well-known Adman and Theatre Screen artiste, Bharat Dabolkar. He cuts to the chase in a flash. “Boss, it is clearly anger, frustration but above all envy that drives him to forever be so rude and so outrageous in his remarks against Bollywood-something that hardly dignifies his status as a universally admired & respected actor. There are other talented actors too who haven’t got their due in box office terms or in the popularity charts, but do they scream such negative statements about stars and films? Also, this grudge against the industry is mis-directed. The Industry doesn’t make or break stairs; the audiences do. So, if the Khans, Akki, Ajay, Hrithik and gang – along with the new entrants like Ayushman, Raj Kumar Rao & Vicky Kaushal – hit it off with the audiences, how is it the industry’s or their fault? He has always commanded an elite and evolved following comprising an educated & informed fan-base, but never ever been a knockout like the names mentioned, right? To each his own.” Dabolkar believes that graciousness and goodwill is expected from an iconic veteran like him, not broadsides, wisecracks or criticism aimed at de-valuing everything that Bollywood stands for. Sad. No wonder he is no longer taken seriously in the industry or by fans of the stars.

Up next is respected film critic Saibal Chatterjee. He hits a different track. “Naseer has always been extremely cynical about Bollywood and that is largely due to his personal experiences in both the Art House & Commercial mainstream platforms. He started off by giving his blood, sweat and tears to the Parallel Cinema but got hugely disillusioned along the way. Forget payments, the moment some of those films got global acclaim and funds, stars replaced the actors! Also, these genre were getting pretentious & pseudo and the heart went out of the hurrahs!” Chatterjee says, Shah moved to masala mainstream for the moolah, but soon tired of the impossible storylines, roles and narratives helmed by the loud-mouthed, arrogant, cinema-illiterate tycoons. Spasmodic working of unbalanced minds!

Actually, a keen, serious student of cinema, he believed – like the best of them – that cinema is too powerful a medium to waste only on mindless entertainment. Frank and fearless, he has no hesitation in speaking his mind and even though he often crosses the line, it comes from his heart. It is not to insult or look down on the Bollywood scene in an envious, malicious or vindictive manner, but an honest over-view, assessment and opinion about a cinema he just can’t take seriously. Diplomacy or being politically correct was never his scene. What he feels, he lays on the line and reverence, sanctity, respect for established names, even icons, be damned!”

So, while wishing the thespian a great B-day, can we request Saeed Mirza to do a sequel to his earlier Albert Pinto: Naseer Shah ko gussa kyoon aata hai??

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