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Naseeruddin Shah: Still surprises us

Naseeruddin Shah never ceases to surprise you. Twenty years ago, when I met him in Mumbai, he had fascinated me with his ability to change his mask with effortless ease in a matter of just hours. There he was playing dacoit rolling on a haystack trying to dodge bullets. A day later, he was a lawyer in black, sombre
and sedate.

Naseer learnt the craft of the chameleon very early in his life. "I was barely 12 or 13 when I realised that I did not quite have the face of a hero, and I began rehearsing to use my face and expressions in a zillion ways", he told me recently in Chennai.

As luck would have had it, there were directors who saw in
 Naseer this great talent and made use of it. The time was also right: there was a yearning for different kind of films at the start of the 1970s, and men like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani Ketan Mehta and Saeed Mirza saw this as an opportunity to give a new meaning to Indian cinema. Naseer -- along with Om Puri,Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil -- fitted their image of players who strove to be actors rather than stars.

True to this, Naseer stepped in to play, often brilliantly, an awesome variety of parts. Can one ever forget him as the swearing motor mechanic in "Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai", as an abductor in "Nishant", a wily Brahmin in "Godhuli" or as a mad king in "Bhavni Bhavai" ?

We have also seen him as a famished and oppressed Harijan in "Paar", as a sensitive husband, father and lover in "Masoom" and as a cruel subedar in "Mirch Masala".

There really is no end to Naseer's spectrum. His more recent roles in "Sarfarosh", in "Monsoon Wedding" and in "Maqbhool" have been as bewilderingly assorted and bewitching as they were in the early days of his celluloid life. Naseer, in just three words, is artistic pleasure personified.

What could be the secret of this ? Sheer discipline, I would think, and the resolve to be the best. And Naseer achieved his excellence by using hesitant speech (quite different from the way Marlon Brando mumble-jumbled to create magic) and casual gestures to weave a psychological complexity.

However, thirty-odd years later, Naseer is moving away from the moving medium. One can notice a sense of disappointment, even anguish, when he says that "I no longer enjoy acting in films. I find this pretty tiresome now. I am concentrating these days on theatre. This is the way to my heart, cinema is my bank balance". He laughs.

"Katha Collage" is his latest adventure on stage. For some time, Naseer has been doing Hindustani stories not as plays, but as story tellings. With one actor on the stage most of the time narrating the tale to the audience, he finds it a very stimulating and challenging experience.

What is even more significant is that great Indian literature is being introduced to especially young people. They are beginning to understand that such extraordinary writing exists in our own languages.

But, why is it that Indian movies do not borrow from such classic work ? "Our Bombay cinema is contend to steal ideas from Hollywood. It is just as well that it leaves this fascinating fiction alone and not murder it."

He quotes Alfred Hitchcock to lend credence to his line of thinking. "Hitchcock in his very long career filmed only one great written work, and that was 'Rebecca'. After making it he said that he would never film another great novel".

The experience that a reader derives from reading a piece of prose can never be recreated on screen. The reader will be invariably dissatisfied. A good example of this is Hollywood's efforts at trying to film literature. Most often, it has succeeded in murdering such works.

The reason is simple: in a book, a lot is left to the imagination of a reader. The visual medium cannot do this. For instance, the way a great writer can describe a person opening a door and walking into a room can be tremendously invigorating even if it covers two paragraphs. But in a movie, you just cannot dwell on that kind of thing.

"Even Satyajit Ray, with all due respect to him, failed" when he tried translating words into visuals. In "Shatranj Ke Khilari". Many would agree that if there was one work of the great master that was disappointing, it was "Shatranj Ke Khilari".

But for a few exceptions, Naseer feels that "Bollywood films are like a monster which feeds on Mammon.Making a good movie is the last thing on anybody's mind. Multiplying investments is what producers are bothered about. "I really condemn such cinema", Naseer is ruthless in displaying his displeasure.

"I do not want to have any part in this. I did stay a part of the commercial Mumbai industry for a while hoping against hope that things would change. But my dream is now shattered. I do not nurse it any longer.", Naseer sounds deeply disappointed on a vision he nurtured so fondly.

What follows from Naseer explains a little more about his disillusionment. "Even Benegal and Nihalani and Mehta have begun to make compromises largely because the budgets of their films have grown bigger and bigger".

Yet, not all is lost. Naseer is willing to admit to this. He refers to works such "Monsoon Wedding", "Maqbhool", "Sarfarosh" and "Lagaan" as splendid examples of what movies ought to be. "A lot of backbreaking effort went into making these. A great deal  was put into the writing and creation of these works".

Unfortunately, these are exceptions. Generally, in Mumbai, filmmaking is a huge unending picnic where everybody has a great  time, and the most exciting part is between the shots ! Bollywood  lacks courage and commitment.

Often, there is nothing called a script. What eventually goes to make one is an apology for a script. Interesting ideas tumble and fall on the floors because a good script is not in place. Magnificent stories appear insipid because the scripts to convert them into outstanding images are absent.

One would add her that this is an apathy that extends beyond Mumbai. The picture is as bleak elsewhere, where cinema is looked upon as a mere tool to earn big bucks. Most of the 900 to 1000 films that pop out of Indian celluloid cans every year are half-hearted efforts to create cinema. And, most of them sink without a song.

Not surprising, then, that Naseer is turning to the stage to find a fulfillment which eluded him on the screen.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated August 27 2004)

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