Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But if one were to dare play around with this meaningful figure of speech, speaking from the lens of the Hindi film industry, perhaps the following iteration may not entirely seem inappropriate- “All the world’s a stage, and to one’s good fortune, Naseeruddin Shah is still standing on it!”
At 71, an age where most of his compatriots neither get the right scripts, nor have sufficient energy to do justice to a film’s part, Naseeruddin Shah- a cerebral actor, not a dramatic one, an astute observer of the human mind, not an outlandish one, a man among boys, an individual who looks at movies with childlike enthusiasm- is still waging a lone war to make space for an actor amid a cesspool of ‘stars.’
In an age where while there’s no love lost for theatre, and yet, many would never venture toward a tree that bears little fruits, for the mouthful of appetite seems to lay in Bollywood or commercial potboilers as they say, Naseeruddin Shah still gets up on stage – whether it is for “Waiting For Godot,” “Ismat Apa Ke Naam,” “A Walk In The Woods,” “Mahatma vs Gandhi,” to quote just a few.
We are actually in an era where actors are becoming less of performers and mere doers of whatever part is attributed in return for a fat paycheque, regardless of whether a role is gimmicky, hollow and often, contrived of reality. Think Sanjay Dutt’s laggard part in Sadak 2, Shah Rukh Khan’s in Chennai Express or Tiger Shroff in Baaghi. This, after all is an age where those responsible for carrying cinema on their shoulders are seen busy adding an extra syllable in their names, hoping against any modicum of logic, that it would garner them success.
Against that narrative, the legend of Naseeruddin Shah– a man who’s as distant from shenanigans as is Moldova from Manipur- continues to blossom akin to a lotus that prosperous in a contaminated pond.
He’s perhaps one of the last remaining pillars of acting that sufficiently distinguishes what it means to be a part of the Hindi film industry vis-a-vis what it is to be whilst ‘functioning in Bollywood.’
A man who’s as original as they come, a man, fundamentally speaking, is the real doyen amongst the ‘great actors;’ those whose worth is measured by box office numbers, not so much by the depth of their on-screen portrayal.
Actually, the concept of addressing Naseeruddin Shah as a versatile actor is about as obvious and moribund in its construct as saying something widely-known that coffee is world’s most consumed beverage and Paris, the eternal city of love.
This torchbearer of acting, who many in today’s Netflix-obsessed, TikTok-using, Iced Machhiato-drinking generation, may not recall played one of the most startlingly interesting characters in ‘Pastonjee,’ perhaps the most remarkable portrayal of a Parsi character (Pirojshah), one madly in love with a woman, from whom he walks away, only to come back to her to discover a secret. The silent glances, the shots that capture his character’s uncertainty, the stillness in his gaze and the gloomy eyes, Naseeruddin Shah, long before he became a mentor to Iqbal (2005), was a Parsi commoner, so utterly relatable to any gent you may run into today in the Colaba causeway.
Never before and perhaps never again will we see another “Anirudh Parmar,” the blind teacher in ‘Sparsh,’ a role that brought to life a man who dedicates himself to a school he himself runs for the visually-challenged whilst dangling with his own travails of love.
The scene in the Chinese restaurant where Shabana Azmi and Mr. Shah are enjoying spring rolls whilst getting to know one other, moments after which he loses his cool since the bill is presented to his romantic interest and not him, conveyed a change in acting gears so smooth and utterly undulating that one was left besotted by his acting, the raw emotions, hardly bothered to remember that the main lead is someone who cannot see in real life!
Perhaps it makes perfect sense that in 1993, long before Naseeruddin Shah, a man who’s still very much reluctant to call himself a great actor, played the part of “Sir,” in a movie titled by that name, for it attributed respect to an actor who’s always remained ahead of the curve, never stooping to the lower standards Bollywood touches in its attempt to ‘entertain’ audiences, instead of building skyscrapers built on strong foundations.
Where actors attempt to travel the long mile to greatness, this thespian who longs for purity of purpose, not how meaty is his part in a film, has traversed a great voyage, walking on which he’s beautified an often barren-looking canvass of cinema with gems that beckon a rewatch, time and again.
From being the great antagonist in “Mirch Masala”, the man finally brought to justice by a group of women for whom he became a tyrant, to the great fast bowling mentor of Shreyas Talpade’s “Iqbal”, who abandoned the love for the bottle to rekindle his love affair with bowling, albeit reluctantly, to having been Rajaram Joshi in “Katha”, the simpleton minus the road-side cleverness (portrayed invincibly by the late Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah has journeyed into divergent ambits and made each his own, lending every diverse character a part so eternal that one simply cannot imagine it being played by another.
Just like one cannot possibly imagine an Anand without Rajesh Khanna!
And yet, despite his long journey, punctuated by nuanced performances, measured oratory, a gin-soaked voice, and an avuncular presence that attracts both – the guitar holding bass guitarist girl as also an accomplished novelist, the Barabanki-born remains as firmly devoted to his cast now as he was back then in the Junoon-days.
Probably, somewhere finding Naseeruddin Shah winning another award means so utterly routine an exercise as probably seeing another dancer imitating the Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk.
It’s routine, happens all the time.
That he starred in Tridev, a movie perhaps he himself may not approve of today, given the over the top fight scenes and mindless carnage (that followed nearly ever song), so utterly watchful could well be down to the fact that it the movie had him in a key character.
Imagine the eighties’ outlandish entertainer minus the roughian with a golden heart- Jay Singh and you see Jackie Shroff and Sunny Deol starring in a flimsy comedy-meets-action caper where women reveal cleavage stylishly and bullets fly in nearly ever other scene.
And maybe that’s where the Naseeruddin Shah enigma lies. There could be a reason after all, that the turban-wearing stick-wielding toughie was described as the man wearing a “Tirchi Topi” (hat worn in a slant manner or curve), because donning it was a man who wears multiple hats in real life. So much so that one uniform part cannot ever describe him.
A director who got us the unassumingly charming “Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota,” (only a Naseeruddin Shah would’ve got an Irrfan to romance Suhasini Mulay), a man who brought to life the bravado and charisma of Shivaji, and above all, an actor one doesn’t think twice before tipping one’s hat to.
For it’s not everyday where you encounter a man so willing to be a person, instead of hiding behind the cult of personality, and it’s all too rare to find amid us a human being unwilling to discard his frank opinions in an age where it’s an art to be diplomatic.
He’s been the suave stylist who doesn’t need to adorn himself in some form of grandiose nor does he need to step out of a Rolls Royce, not that he can’t buy one, because his greatest contribution is that his efforts connect with everyone- whether an upcoming filmmaker or a chaiwala in a Mumbai where stars there are many, but purists only a handful.
And perhaps Naseeruddin Shah’s greatest achievement is that he never really made us look at him as a ‘Muslim actor,’ or someone belonging to a specific religion, for all that matters when Naseeruddin Shah steps onto the stage is the part he’s about to play, the oozing of magic to which we all crave to belong.
Wish you a very happy and healthy birthday and life, sir!