BY ALI PETER JOHN
When I first met him on a forlorn over-bridge outside Churchgate station I never had even a faint idea that the young man walking all by himself and lost in his own world of thoughts would be recognised as one of the greatest actors not only in India but in Pakistan and almost the whole world and that he would be honoured by the Government of India first with a Padmashri and then with a Padmabhushan besides the countless other awards including one at the Venice Film Festival.
I never could imagine that he would be the leader of a movement to bring in better cinema, parallel cinema or new wave cinema and would then be disillusioned with it and join what is called mainstream or looked down upon as masala films. I never knew that he would do a rare film shot in Pakistan. I never knew that he would direct a film and be unhappy about the results and deciding that he would not direct a film again and then regretting his decision and keeping his options open, I never knew that he would write his autobiography and I could never imagine that at sixty-five he would still be passionate about theatre and act and direct some of the most meaningful plays of our time…
That evening he was like any other newcomer for me who I had seen only in his first film, “Nishant” and was impressed by his performance. I always remember that scene more than thirty-eight years ago. I had requested him to walk with me to my office and introduced him to my editor who did not know the difference between “Jaanwar” and “John War” and who called “Door Ki Awaaz” Door (meaning the door of a house) Ki Awaaz, not that I am trying to make fun of him after so many years and especially because he was responsible for my getting the first job of my career which I kept for forty years, even thirty-eight years after he left this world…
I introduced the new actor to him and he asked me if I had seen his work and when I told him I had and how good he was, my editor asked me to write about him which I did and which the actor called Naseeruddin Shah and me still remember after so much has changed in the world…
When Naseer came to Bombay after passing out of the National School Of Drama, there were a number of other young actors who came out of the FTII. It was with these enthusiastic actors that some filmmakers made films which were out of the rut and their brand of cinema was known as new wave or parallel cinema which talking practically meant that they did not need the big stars, the big budgets, the big sets and above all the running round the trees. It was Naseeruddin Shah who in a way led this movement while he kept doing one experimental film after another, films like “Nishant”, “Aakrosh”, “Sparsh”, “Mirch Masala”, “Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai”, “Trikal, Bhavni Bhavai”, “Junoon”, “Mandi”, “Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho”!, “Ardh Satya”, “Katha” and “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro”…
It was after years of hard work and total dedication to his calling as an actor that Naseer realized that he was only doing all the good work without gaining results in the materialistic way like the stars of the time were. He and other colleagues of his lived a hand to mouth existence living as PGs in out of the world places and at times were not sure from where their next meal would come.
It was this extreme disparity between the stars and even star-sons that awakened Naseer and he found out how the men behind the movements to make better films were making the best of life at the cost of the work put in by actors like him that he who still lived as a PG in New Light Society opposite the Sacred Heart Church and school at Santacruz decided to revolt…
He shocked the movement when he signed a film like “Tridev” in which he wore a “tirchi topi” and sang “Oye Oye” with a nymphet called Sonam. He was criticized by his admirers but he had an answer for them when he said, “only appreciation, only awards and only more and more work to keep the movement to make better films is not the only thing. Money also matters and what wrong have actors like me done to sweat it out and be paid peanuts while the stars who do less than half the work we do live in palaces and drive around in the most push cars. I think I have had enough of it and I am not going to let myself and my family live in misery to let art prosper”.
His call for a revolt was heeded by other actors in the same league as him and this gradually led to the fading out of the new wave and parallel cinema movement. Was Naseer responsible for the waning and walking in the wilderness for all those who felt and believed that the movement they had started would go on and on? History will try to find an answer to this question
Naseer however decided to do what his heart dictated and showed how strong his resolve was when he played the villain in “Mohraa” and then there was no stopping him as he kept doing what was called commercial cinema with films like “Hum Paanch”, “Karma”, “Ijaazat”, “Jalwa”, “Hero Hiralal” and continued doing such films till the very
recently released films like “Dirty Politics” and “Tera Suroor”..
Naseer however kept his balance as an actor and did outstanding roles in Hollywood films like “The Perfect Murder”, “Monsoon Wedding”, ” The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and others. He also showed the courage of his convictions when he did not one but two films made in Pakistan, “Khuda Ke Liye” and “Zinda Bhaag” for which he won recognition on both sides of the border, being the first actor in both countries to receive that recognition and honour.
Among some of the better commercial films he has been associated with are “Encounter”, “A Wednesday” and “The Dirty Picture”. He has now reached a stage when he can be choosy but can also do films like “Dirty Politics” only because of the need for money to live a “reasonably decent life for me and my family”.
Naseer who has directed some of the best plays in theatre like “Waiting for Godot”, his one man shows and his recent controversial plays based on the lives of rebel writers like Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto besides the plays he does in English with his wife Ratna Pathak Shah, daughter Hiba and the actor Kenneth Desai.
His ambition drove him to direct his first feature film, “Yun Hota To Kya Hota” but it was not a very good experience and he reacted by saying that he would never direct a film again, but now years later he believes that he should not have made that statement in a hurry which means that admirers of Naseer can still hope to see him behind the camera.
Naseer has a liking for playing characters the world knows and he proved it when he played the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib in a TV serial of the same name which made the poet much more popular than he already was.
He had always had the dream of playing Mahatma Gandhi, so much that he even auditioned for the role of Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenborough’s film and failed for Ben Kingley to find the prestigious part. He however got his own opportunity to play Gandhi in Kamal Haasan’s film “Hey Ram” and later in a play called “Gandhi v/s Harilal” based on the relationship between Gandhi and his elder son.
After putting in years of work which was the work of an actor and a gentleman in his own league Naseer decided to write his autobiography, “And Then One Day” which in many ways is like a book everyone associated with the arts, especially theatre, films and televisions must read as a must read book.
Naseer is a happy family man with his entire family deep into films, theatre and other art forms. His wife Ratna Pathak Shah is a versatile actress who acts best when she teams up with him but is good in every challenge she is offered. His daughter Heeba (from his first wife) is a formidable talent as an actor and director in theatre. His elder son, Imaduddin Shah is a musician who can also act well and his youngest son Vivaan is an actor last seen in films like “Saat Khoon Maaf” and “Happy New Year” and is also a director.
The number of awards he has won are too many to be mentioned but it must be said to his credit that he has never let any kind of success affect him or let it affect anyone in his family.
He is one man who has erased two words from his life, no and never which are the only strong points which can never make him grow weaker as an actor or in whatever he aims to do.
At sixty-five he is still raring to go and his happiest moments are when he is performing on stage with his wife Ratna, daughter Heeba and Kenneth Desai in different parts of the world and even at private shows held by different organizations and is thrilled to perform free before an audience of students who are interested in theatre to whom he says “acting on stage is like living a part of life, you can act anywhere, you don’t have to have big sets and all the other paraphernalia, only remember that you have to be perfect with your lines which can only come with reading, reading and more reading and not banging into any part of the furniture if there is any”.
They call him “Naseer sir” now, he would have been “Sir Naseer” if he was in some other land where they have greater respect for talent, but whatever anyone call him there can never be another Naseer.
NEVER ANOTHER LIKE NASEER SIR
I have had many encounters with this unusual man with the most unusual talent, and I have tried my best to see if there were any chinks in his armour, to see if all the name and fame had changed him as a man, but if there has been any time I have lost, it is all because of this one man who is not only a one man show but a man who it is an experience and a indescribable pleasure to know…
I have had the great pleasure of knowing him from the time he lived as a paying guest in the New Life Society outside the Sacred Heart’s Church at Santacruz and then moving on to what was once known as the “Queen of the suburbs”, Bandra. He was now a star of his own kind and could afford to buy a two- bed room flat on Cartor Road in a building called Sand Pebbles as a neighbor of the renowned film song writer Anand Bakshi who lived in the next building on Carter Road. He was now living with his two sons Imaad and Vivaan who was then joined by Hiba. Naseer’s daughter from his first wife who was also a very good theatre actress and life was as simple as it could be with no trappings of anything like stardom, except for having a manager like Jairaj who has been working with him ever since he had work enough to pay Jairaj and his other staff their salaries…
I always saw two Naseers in one Naseer, the one who was shooting for a feature film and the other, a totally dedicated theatre man who could give everything he had to have better theatre and better conditions to have better theatre and I have never known which Naseer to admire more….
We have never forgotten those days when he was a new actor in Bombay and I was a cub reporter who had the uncanny knack of recognizing talent which my then editor, Mr. S. S Pillai knew and gave me all the opportunities to make huge of this talent and one of my opportunities was this entirely un-actor like actor with an unusual name for an actor like Naseeruddin Shah.
I was among the first who saw him revolt against what was called the parallel cinema or the New Wave film movement when he decided to do Rajiv Rai’s “Mohra” and sang and danced with Sonam, a new actress to the song “Oye Oye” which made his gurus of the parallel cinema turn red in their faces, but it was Naseer who gave them a fitting answer when he said, “how long can I slog for a mere twenty-five thousand rupees for a film?” His revolt led many other actors and actresses to leave all the movements and join mainstream cinema where there was “bread, butter and jam”.
I lost no opportunity to see a film of Naseer however bad because I knew he would be good under all circumstances. I became a theatre addict because of his talent on stage…
There was a gap in our association and I could not meet him for a number of years. I was releasing my new book, “Witnessing Wonders”’. I just took a chance and called him on his cell and told him about my book release. He said he was in Cochin and would return on April 15. I told him my function was on April 16. He said he would be there. And he was there before the seventeen or eighteen other major guests I had invited.
I was associated with a college and invited him to address the students and he said he would like to and he gave the students something they would cherish or their lives. On the way, he said he would like to perform a play for the students of the college. And he kept his word and it was not only him but his wife Ratna Pathak Shah, daughter Heeba and colleague Kenny who performed not one but three little plays for the students without making them even think of small things like money.
Only recently as I keep telling everyone now, I had a ghastly accident. I did not on my own try to let anyone know or ask anyone for help, but it was Shah Rukh Khan who ruled my heart and mind when his Trust on the very second day told the hospital that all the payment during my stay in hospital would be borne by the Trust and what was promised was done.
There were many others who came up with help, but what Naseer did is something I have still not been able to comprehend. I had preserved his cheque till two hours ago, but it was some bank regulations that made me reluctantly deposit the cheque.
But what made me cry with joy was what Naseer did at the function hosted by the Heritage Foundation Trust to release the book by the renowned Archivist, Mr. P.K Nair. Naseer was to read excerpts from the book which he did in his own way. The function was almost over when he noticed me sitting with my walking stick. I could not believe what I was seeing and nor did many others who were seeing him. He literally jumped six rows of chairs and reached where I was and asked me everything about my foot and other associated things and asked me if I needed any help. What more could I ask from Naseer bhai who was a bhai in the true sense of the word.
For the rest of the evening my thoughts were all with Naseer and when I couldn’t believe or control my feelings for what he had done, I sent him a message saying, ‘you made me cry in joy, Naseer’ and he wrote back saying, ‘you are a good man, Charlie Brown’. I consider that one line to be more than the Nobel Prize. What more can I ask from this selfish world where people who I believed were my friends came to the hospital and kept saying “so sad, so sad’” and went off to sleep near my bed and other friends who promised to come and see me sometime whose sometime has still to come because they have to use their time and their money for fulfilling their lofty ambitions and foolish dreams, both of which are going to take them nowhere.
God is sometimes very funny. Why does he create one Naseer and a thousand black sheep who are not fit to be called human beings?