Sept 28, 2014
Naseeruddin Shah is not a star in box-office terms. But in the firmament of Indian actors he shines bright. Though the assurance of a memorable performance, that his reputation is built around, is no longer a guarantee, we know that that brilliance is still there, somewhere.
In 26 episodic reels, And Then One Day: A Memoir, gives us back a piece of the young man we first met in Nishant.
It’s the story of a boy born in Barabanki, to Farrukh Sultan and Aley Mohammed Shah — a below-average student who returns home from hostel for holidays, to a mother who loved him dearly and a father who disapproved of him strongly.
Flunking in Class 9, twice, didn’t help his relationship with his father, but it gave him a new lease of life. He was made to change schools.
With no reputation, a new set of friends, he finally got to do what he always wanted to — act. “I have since steadfastly believed that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage… no one in the cosmos is more desirous of loving you, for that moment, than an audience…”
There’s other kind of love, too. His first wife, Purveen, their daughter Heeba, who he didn’t see for 12 years, and the love of friends.
But there’s also rejection, running away from home, sex, drugs, joining National School of Drama, staging a protest at FTII, getting knifed in the back by his doppelganger, Jaspal, finding a life-long friend in Om Puri, and getting a break, thanks to Girish Karnad.
In between these milestones runs the story of a boy who worships Geoffrey Kendal, finds critical acclaim, goes to Poland to learn acting, but returns to suffer Bollywood. This story he tells with illuminating thoughts on acting, but also delicious bitching. He calls Bollywood awards “the annual orgy of mutual jerking-off”, is wickedly cruel even about people he likes, and is unsparing about himself — we see his narcissism, and moments of extreme selfishness.
At the end we get a film till interval, with a lead character who can only be defined in contradictory adjectives.
I met Naseeruddin Shah at Delhi’s Oberoi hotel. I had enough time to ask 64-year-old Shah why his memoir gets over at the age of 32. I didn’t. I was more interested in asking him, “How is sex on LSD?”
In an interview that was both invigorating and exhausting, he got emotional, joked, mimicked other actors, went off-the-record for some serious bitching, and made me wish, for once in my life, that a camera was rolling.
Congratulation on your book’s release.
Now that “author” has also been added to your long list of identities, what does it feel like?
(Laughs) It’s a real thrill, I have to say. I am very excited. I think I’m more excited about this than I was about the release of my first film… I never thought I’d write a book. Though I am fond of writing, I have scribbled a few articles for various publications in the past… I’ve written a couple of articles on Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand and people like that. But I never thought I’d write a book. And the warm reaction I’m getting is very gratifying. It makes me very happy indeed.
You’ve hardly ever promoted your films.
Hmm, never. The ones I have promoted, flopped. So now I have a very good excuse to not promote any films anymore. I never promoted Dirty Picture, it was a hit. I never promoted Ishqiya, it was a hit. I promoted a whole lot of others, which all bombed. I never promoted Fanny, it was a hit.
So now it’s confirmed. No more promotions.
Yet you are promoting the book.
Aah! You got me there.
Because it’s a thrill for me to talk about it and, if I may say, my talking about it is putting people off as well. There was a very angry exchange of emails by ex students of my school, seniors of mine, from St Joseph’s (Nainital), who lambasted me for saying I hated the bloody school.
I mean, I don’t know what business it is of theirs whether I hated it. They didn’t, so? I’m not contesting that… So why do you contest if I say I was miserable there and I got brutalised by those teachers. It was a fact…
Promotion can also work that way.
But anyway, I want to talk about the book, I want people to read it now that it’s out, and… and I think I have written about my life up to the age of 32 in a way that will be interesting to young actors, who are the ones I am really, really concerned with. I hope there are other readers, too. But I think it would probably be most revealing to young actors, the fact that I have talked about many things which in interviews I never touch upon… I never talk about my personal life in interviews.
But this book is not a tell all. I’m not revealing everything. By no means. But there are aspects of my life that I thought, perhaps, people who follow my work could be curious about, and so I wrote about that.
You begin the book with your childhood, and you write very warmly about your mother, your mamus, aunts. And even your father, who you hated at times, but when your write about him, there is a respectful distance that you’ve maintained in your writing. But for yourself, especially when you are describing yourself as a child, you’ve used the choicest… abuses almost. There’s one sentence which is a string of un, un, un, un
Yes, unattractive, unintelligent, unfriendly, unremarkable.
And later you call yourself stupid, duffer et cetera. Is that how you really see yourself as a child, even today?
I was that kind of child. I think I was afflicted with attention deficit. I’m sure if I was a child today I would be diagnosed with attention deficient disorder, because I just could not pay attention in class. I just could not care what we are being taught, apart from the poems and the drama that we were taught and the stories that we read, nothing else made any sense to me at all.
Neither what happened in class, not the kind of intelligent conversations I’d hear around me. I was completely baffled by what I heard. I had nothing to say, I had nothing to add, I had no opinions. I was, in fact, a person whose mind was not operating too well at that age. And I had a very short fuse to make matters worse. I always have had. So I think I was pretty unpopular. I mean, people left me alone in school.
At home, with dad, it was always a big gulf. I could never reach out to him. When I was an infant, apparently, he pampered me a great deal, but then he stopped. I guess fathers of that era felt it was not right to display affection and all that sort of thing. So there was always a distance. I could never talk to him, I never felt comfortable with him. And for him all I was, was a bad student. You know, it negated every other quality I may have had. It was all that was talked about between me and him. Why are you failing in this subject, why are you doing so badly in maths, I’m getting a tutor for you. Bloody, there was this bloody (presses his fingers into his eyes) line of tutors through my holidays, one after the other. One trying to teach me biology, one trying to teach me maths, one trying to teach me physics, and while they were talking I was thinking of the next Dara Singh film, you know.
And yet in cinema halls, and sitting at the foot of a stage, you would be… (before I can find the word)
Transfixed! Totally transfixed. And I knew that I had to be up there. Something told me I just had to be up there.
You’ve written about going to hostel in Nainital
You’ve written, “I suppose that’s what I was sent there for, to learn to live by myself”. Do you resent that you were sent to a hostel?
No. My brother does, strangely. My eldest brother does. Who was a very good student. Very dutiful, very obedient and so on. My father’s favourite. He was sent off at age five. I was sent at the age of six. He really resents it. And he can’t, till today, understand why dad did it — send him off at that age. He remembers being miserable. He remembers crying all the time. I don’t remember feeling like that.
I didn’t miss home particularly. When I was told you are going to boarding school, for a while I thought, oh shit, how am I gonna survive this. But when I got there, I realised it’s not so bad. It’s okay. The bed is quite comfortable. I have a cupboard to myself. I have to wake up at the crack of dawn, that’s a different matter. But I had to do that at home anyway… through the boarding school, the reason for my unhappiness was not that I was missing home. No. I wasn’t. I wasn’t terribly happy at home either. Mum was very quiet and didn’t speak much. I could vent on her, but Baba was there — the questioning, the interrogation I’m gonna have to face again was a nightmare. So.
But I was unhappy in the school for other reasons and, luckily, I found myself in this other school where I did this play with a few friends, Merchant of Venice, good imitation of Mr (Geoffrey) Kendal, and the whole school went gaga over it.
So from that age you had this incredible memory. You could memorise those long passages?
You played Shylock?
(with deliberate grandiloquence) That’s the only role in the play.
Yes, Portia is there but I couldn’t play Portia.
Ya. I’ve always been able to do that. I could memorise the whole of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Browning’s poem which was about 20 pages long, when I was in Class 7. I had memorised the whole of it. I still remember most of it.
I would recite only to myself. Never to anyone else.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci (John Keats), I still remember (starts reciting)
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
From the age of 13 or 14, I’ve memorised these poems and I know them — Ode To a Nightingale, The Road Less Travelled.
So which is the one soliloquy which you absolutely want to perform, and haven’t yet.
(pat comes the reply) It is the speech from Waiting for Godot by a character called Lucky. That speech which is, which is… it is complete gibberish of about two-and-a-half pages, one sentence. The entire speech is in one sentence. There’s no punctuation, there’s no commas, no full-stops nothing.
(pauses for a micro second, and launches into Lucky’s monologue):
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so
(He says it in one breath, without a pause. And I raise both my hands and bow, thrice. He smiles, keeps talking) You know, this kind of thing, complete subjective stream of consciousness stuff.
I’ve played every other role in that play except Lucky. Lucky is the slave. And… Godot made no sense whatsoever to me when I studied it first in drama school. Then Benjamin (Gilani) said let’s do this and I said, that yaar, this bloody play, I do not understand it. He said, let’s not try to understand it. Let us just enjoy it, like we enjoy singing a song. Let’s enjoy. And we approached it with that spirit and gradually, gradually, over a year it began to reveal itself. And Lucky’s speech, which I always thought was nothing but a word salad, as it’s often described, it is the most incredible piece of writing ever done I think, because it takes in every aspect of human existence — from pre-birth to birth to life to living to suffering to death and afterlife. This speech takes it all in, in a completely abstract manner — disconnected phrases joined together but, it is incredible, utterly incredible.
You’ve written that as a child you lived in an imaginary world — “enjoying my company most, though I considered myself pretty stupid, may have cost me my supposed childhood when one should be happy and joyous and reveling in friendships, and learning, but it was a path I took, and I have not regretted it for an instant”.
Some of these chapters — about being alone, disappointing your dad, and there’s that one, I have to say scene, where you keep on cycling away from the house
These chapters must have been very difficult to write. To reconnect with those moments.
See, I can look back on all those times without any pain now. I can think about them objectively now and I can even be amused about how stupid I was… but it was the terror of facing him, you know, I had failed for the second time in the same class (Class 9), I didn’t know what to expect. He was never violent with any of us. I didn’t think I’d get beaten up or anything, but I was terrified of what he would say. I didn’t know what to do. I think I must have cycled for 15 or 16 miles.
Do you think violence is only physical?
NO. There’s other kinds. Disapproval being one of the most strong of the other kinds of violence where you feel that your whole, your existence is disapproved of, you know, not just what you’ve done is disapproved of. YOU are disapproved of. I always felt like that with him.
You have this quality about not “sentimentalising” stuff no matter how sentimental it is. Even in your writing, even now when you are speaking, you are always veering away from it
Yaaa. It’s vulgar to show off your bleeding heart. I think it’s, you know, it’s vulgar.
I didn’t say the things there was no need to say.
(Speaks in a mock-weepy voice) I suffered greatly, or you know I was so… I felt… the world is not treating me right.
What’s the point of saying all these things? Those were adolescent thoughts which shouldn’t have happened. And, sentimental… I’m, I’m a very emotional person, but there’s a difference between being that and being sentimental. And even when I direct actors and so on, I detest sentimental acting. You know, when you act to background music (his eyes and his grin conspire to bitch).
But do you feel empathy for little Naseer?
Oh yes. I know him better than anybody else. I understand him now. I detested myself, I have to say, at that time. Yet, nobody would hang around me, so I had to learn to like myself (takes a deep breath).
What’s your relationship with your father today…
(before I can finish, he looks straight at me and says) I’m not at peace with it still… because it never healed, and I think we both lost out on a great deal. It… I’m not at peace… about it. And the only way I suppose I can come to terms with it is that if I really do not make any of the mistakes he made with my children. But there are things beyond your control, you know. I suppose I have made some of the same mistakes at times, though I’ve been very conscious not to, and I’ve tried very hard not to, but I think I have.
Do you — it’s a tough question to ask, but tougher to answer — do you hate your father still, at some level?
No. I don’t, because I heard, I never saw him on his deathbed, but I heard about it (his eyes go red, well up, and he stays in that moment for a few seconds), he didn’t deserve to suffer that way. Nature’s very unkind at times, you know. He didn’t deserve that kind of suffering. I think I (pauses). No, I don’t hate him anymore. There’s no reason to. And I understand him now though I still don’t agree (laughs) with what he was, and I wish he’d been different, but I understand him now.
So you forgive him?
Ya. And I hope my children can forgive me.
What’s your relationship with your daughter Heeba?
Again, you see, it’s like a… I think she is… Till the age of 14 she lived with her mother. Her mother and I parted on very acrimonious, in a very acrimonious way. It was very ugly and I behaved, again, like a 20 year old would behave. And I dare say she had heard a lot of things about me before she came to live with me. Yet she decided to come and live with me. So there was some pull I suppose, but I don’t know if all the stuff she heard has been forgotten or if she has come to terms with it, because though I know she cares deeply for me and she appreciates Ratna very much and has a very high regard for Ratna as well, but, there is a distance.
Do you talk, communicate?
No. No. It’s always… She doesn’t talk about those days and there’s always a sort of a (pauses) there’s always a gulf, you know.
Do you see today how you are your father’s son? His preference for all things English — isn’t that something you have inherited? Liking Western films foreign films much more
(Laughs) No, see. Liking western films, the reason is quite simple (hahaha) — they are better. Haan? Point made?
Okay. I’ll give you an example. I’ll tell you.
There were good films in those days.
Which ones? Name two?
(ignores my weak attempt) See, Dad was deputy collector, we were too small to go to school, so evenings were walk on the Mall and pop into Lakshmi Theatre and see whatever was running without ticket because our whole family could do that at any time. So I saw Bahut Din Hue, the first film I ever saw, I remember it — child hero, all about a magician and this and that, and I loved it. I think a few days later, or a few weeks later I saw Wizard of Oz and I remember even at that age thinking, “Wow! This is a film. That was good, but, it doesn’t compare.”
And if you see the two, if you get the print of Bahut Din Hue, AVM Production, from 1950 or something. So even at that age, when I would see the swashbuckling movies which we were allowed to see, the Hindi ones with Dilip Kumar, Uran Khatola and so on, and then I’d see Rob Roy or Scaramouche or something. Where was the comparison?
Dilip Saab ko aap aise bol rahe hain?
Nahin, Dilip saab bahut achcha kaam karte the. But woh direct toh nahin karte the films. He was not responsible for the quality of those films. And those were the better films made those days, the Dilip Kumar starrers, which were the only Hindi films Dad allowed us to see. Films like Insaniyat. So that was the reason.
Then my preference for Western literature was a little, not because of him, because he was not much into literature, but because of school. I discovered Hindustani literature years and years and years later. Almost when I was 45 years old, I discovered Ismat Chughtai.
After you acted with her?
Yaaa, I didn’t know who she was! Can you believe? You know, I have actually sat in the room…
That’s a bit self-obsessive.
Ya. Urdu! Bloody Urdu, shayari? What is bloody Urdu shayari? Gulab and shabab and nawab. What is this bloody nonsense, yaar? Poetry is Wordsworth, poetry is Keats. I used to think this, and I didn’t change my mind about Urdu poetry till I got cast as Ghalib. Then my education in Urdu began.
When I shot for Junoon, I knew Ismat Chughtai is a writer, writes Urdu stories. I thought she must be writing some bloody romantic nonsense. And I’ll tell you something — during the shooting of Junoon, one evening I was sitting in a room with Ismat Chughtai and Amritlal Nagar, a great Hindi writer, as great as Ismat apa is in Urdu, and I had no clue who these two people were. Their stature.
Nagarji was rolling some bhang (does thumb-on-palm grinding action) and Ismat apa said, “Main bhi aaj bhang khaongi, Naseer aa-jao”. So we sat and we ate bhang with Nagarji and, you know, to think that I was in the presence of these two giants and I had not read a word either of them had written. And neither of them ever bothered to ask me, have you read any of… they were sooooo reached.
Bhang ke baad
Bhang ke baad toh Ismat apa was flying. She was hallucinating and all. She was too funny for words. And I just treated her like a cuddly grandma.
Moving on to Bollywood, your favourite topic.
This is where your books goes from the house and gets cocky, bitchy, brilliant. And you don’t come across as one of the most lovable people in the world, either. So I what to know, what were you smoking when you were writing these bitchy bits?
hahahaha haha No, I was clear headed while I was writing this, because I didn’t want it to become a stoned ramble.
You didn’t smoke?
Writing it I didn’t. Thinking about it, I did.
While writing I wanted to be clear headed because I wanted to be… one tends to lose perspective when one is stoned. You tend to… you develop tunnel vision when you are in that stage. And you lose perspective. And I didn’t want to do do that.
While thinking, yes.
Oh, good Kerala grass.
(We both grin. I check my dictaphone to see if it’s still on record. It is.)
You’ve written that “Hindi movies and their actors have never held much fascination for you”, and the only role model you found was Mr Raaj Kumar. You go on to call his acting “dreadful” but admire the way “he safeguarded his interests, prolonged his career”, but especially how he sent all of “Follywood on a… (again, before I can finish)
flying f*** to the moon whenever he felt like”.
He did not give two hoots for the film industry. He was not at all interested in the film industry. I had the good fortune to work with him in one film so I got to talk to him. He was the only filmstar that I’ve met who I could talk to, who would listen to what I was saying, who did not himself conduct a monologue. And we could talk about things other than movies.
In fact, I tried to start the conversation by saying, “Sir, which are the movies you are very proud of”, and he said, “Aah (waves his hand to dismiss).”
So I said, “Why? I mean, you don’t like acting?”
He said, “I hate it.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
He said, “It’s a good way to make a living.”
But unki awaaz?
(mimicking Raaj Kumar, very badly, with a Punjabi accent) It’s aaa goood way to make a livingggg.
I was really impressed. I said, whoa, this is very candid and this is very honest. And I would sit and we would chat about golf and about cricket and about the weather, and about my school… I’ve worked with quite a few of these gents, I worked with Mr Dilip Kumar, Mr Dev Anand, I worked with Vinod Khanna and et cetera and et cetera and all of them, they, they don’t listen. They only pause in their monologue long enough to let you get a word in (hahaha) and the word should be, “Yes, of course.” (hearty laugh)
Raaj Kumar saab was the only one I could talk to.
But what about his dialogue delivery?
Aap bol ke dikhaiye, “Jaani yeh chaku hai…”
“yeh bachchon ke khelni ki cheeeez nahiiiin… (again, terrible, terrible mimicry. Laughs) No one else can… It’s not real. It’s not supposed to be real…
Exactly. That’s what I’m asking you. Tuchche-se-tuchcha, seeti-maro dialogue he delivered with such (before I can get the word out)
Panache. And the audience loved it. And the way he connected with the audience — his shoes would appear and the audience would go crazy. So even though he detested the job, he knew what’s required, and he didn’t have any delusions about himself being a great actor, either.
(again, mock Raaj Kumar guttural nonsense) He saaaid his lines likee he maast have seeeen in the theatre when he was a booooy (laughs). Yet he remained a colossal star, right up till the time he died.
You mention many actors you admire in Hollywood, but you mention a total of 11 Indian actors somewhat complimentary. Dara Singh, Shammi Kapoor, Kishore Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Dev Anand, Mehmood, Yakub, Amitabh Bachchan, Pran, all of them get backhanded compliments, except the 11th, Om Puri.
(Smiles) Because I owe Om too much. It’s not as if Om is without flaws. Om has in fact made a hash of his personal life, but that’s none of my business. And he’s also let himself go physically and that’s not a good thing. He’s not in good health and I worry about him. But I love him deeply. He’s been a friend for more than 40 years. I’m very concerned about him. And I wanted to put all this on record, the positive aspects of Om, what I gained from Om. So I didn’t want to, in any way, run him down.
What do you think of him as an actor?
As an actor I don’t really like all the stuff he’s done.
Is he a better actor than you?
In some ways, yes.
His… I think the solemnity which he brings, or at least did when we were students. I really admire that. He used to move me, even when he was playing tiny parts. The sense of integrity that he’s got. The…
You are talking about his personality.
I’m talking of his qualities as an actor. These things shine through in his work.
You’ve written “some of the so-called classics were pure brain damage”. So apart from Sholay, which you love dissing, what
else was brain damage?
I think Kaagaz Ke Phool is pure brain damage. Yeah. It’s the most over-rated film of all time.
And Guru Dutt?
I think he made a couple of wonderful movies and he got wonderful performances from Waheeda Rehman. I wish he hadn’t acted in his own movies though. I wish he’d got better a actor. But he had a knack for handling actors. He definitely had a cinematic sense and I think he was plucked away much before his time. I mean, he was 32 or something when he died. (He was 39.) No age to die. I think his body of work till the age of 32 was quite incredible
But. I do not like Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. At all.
Pray tell why.
I think Kaagaz ke Phool is a very shallow film. It presents the film industry in a very fake manner. I didn’t believe a second of it. I’ve been in the industry, so I know what the atmosphere of the film industry is like. That’s not how girls are discovered yaar. I mean, come on.
But she was discovered…
COME ON!!! She walked in front of the camera and the camera kept rolling? You expect me to believe that shit?
She was nobody on the set, a film is being shot, the camera is running, a scene is being taken, an unknown person walks into the frame and the camera keeps rolling! You expect us to believe this? No.
The romance of cinema…
Then don’t claim it’s a truthful movie. And it’s called a masterpiece on the basis of one song, the beautifully picturised song in the studio — Waqt ne kiya… hum rahe na hum, tum rahe na tum
Which is gorgeously picturised. Beautiful. But it’s Mr Murthy who’s responsible for that, the DOP.
Pyaasa I love. I think Pyaasa is his masterpiece. His earlier ones, Mr. & Mrs. 55. I love those. Baazi. I really liked that. There was one made with pirates and stuff. Baaz. Great fun. And Chaudhvin Ka Chand I love. I don’t know why he didn’t give his name as director.
(pause) I… I have to say that as a kid I didn’t see too many of his movies, then I saw Sangam, which I loved. I saw Sangam when I was in school. I really loved it. I saw it a number of times. I thought it was absolutely gorgeous. And his earlier ones, which I saw later, films like Awara, Barsaat, Aag, they are wonderful, really wonderful in every way.
His Chaplin phase?
I don’t really see the resemblance… He had his own manner, which was not quite as entertaining as Mr Chaplin’s.
As cinema, they are great movies. They are beautifully shot.
As social commentary?
Ya, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, I think is a wonderful movie. And Nargis (blows her a kiss), fantastic actor. Utterly fantastic actor. I liked Raj Kapoor’s acting very much in one film, that was Andaz, with Dilip Kumar. And again, the gorgeous Nargis. All three are fantastic. Then Bobby I thought was nice, but I found Mera Naam Joker unbearable.
Un-bear-able. As bad as Kaagaz Ke Phool. Worse than Kaagaz Ke Phool.
Un-bearable. I mean, that was sentimental, right?
(In a mock bechara tone) Look how much I have suffered, see how unhappy I am, what a good man I am, see how badly the world has treated me. Ohohoho aiaiaiai haihaihaihai
I mean, what has Raj Kapoor got to complain about, for god’s sake? And it just didn’t end. I think I walked out of it in the second part.
You like Balraj Sahni
With reservations, with reservations. I’m not smitten by Balraj Sahni. I think he was very good in certain films, but he became a pretty boring actor later. He was really good in Do Bigha Zameen and Kabuliwala, both Bimal Roy.
No. All those who call Garam Hawa Balraj Sahni’s best performance will have to forgive me. I do not agree. I do not like that performance. I wasn’t convinced by it. People get very sentimental when it’s mentioned because it was his last film, those who he worked with love him deeply, so I don’t want to offend their feelings. But the fact is, I felt he looked distracted in Garam Hawa, the emotion did not ring true.
That’s so strange. I have this strange relationship with Garam Hawa. There’s a scene when he goes to ask for money, and after he’s been refused, he’s coming down a stair. I can’t go beyond that scene. I just collapse. Completely.
It’s the content, you see. Don’t confuse that. I guess, you could call it a good performance because it serves the purpose of the script. From that point of view it is a good performance. If you look at in isolation, as a piece of acting… that was the kind of shot in which I don’t think he would have been feeling much emotion, it was the context in which it is put that moves you. And the content of that film was so strong, and the stories were so beautiful and so powerful that they affected you.
The one who I thought was really wonderful in that film was this girl Geeta (Siddharth), whose performance nobody seemed to recognise. I thought she was absolutely wonderful.
In fact, Garam Hawa and Ankur and Rajnigandha, all three were released simultaneously. Both Ankur and Rajnigandha made Shabana and Vidya Sinha stars. Garam Hawa did not make Geeta into a star. I don’t know why… judged as a piece of acting, I think she’s marvelous.
You’ve said in interviews that there should be a law preventing many of Bollywood’s grossly overpaid stars from acting. What is the one most frustrating thing about Bollywood? Is it the star system, is it the stories, is it the way these stories are told — cinema.
The fact that making a good film is the last thing on anyone’s list of priorities. Making lots of money is the first priority, always. Making big news is the second priority. Packing them in on the first weekend is the third priority.
Who is acting in it, is the top priority. Then when they’ve got that actor on board, then a script is thought of. Now these things that have been going on for donkey’s years, and Bollywood has stayed afloat despite that. In fact, Bollywood is going from strength to strength. Toh who am I to knock it.
(With grand flourish) The whole world is watching Bollywood now.
Given your high taste (before I can finish)
My high taste, okay. Since you’ve made that sarcastic crack, I’ll tell you — one of my favourite Hindi films of all time is Teesri Manzil.
Guide, Mughal-e-Azam and Teesri Manzil. I rate them all three together.
Ok. Given your high taste, and your fine understand of acting, and your pursuit of purity of acting — which you’ve written about, about its very interesting evolution — but given all this, it must have been a bitch to live in Bombay, and work in Bombay. You never thought of
Going abroad? No.
France, Germany, Japan?
No, never. I did think of England. I thought if studying drama in England before I went to the drama school here. But I didn’t have the resources to even go there to audition.
This was when?
Not later, when you were frustrated, acting with Raveena Tandon?
(chuckles) No, no, because I knew that what I’d get offered there would be far worse than what I’m getting here. The competition there is far stiffer. I mean, look at the guys dancing there.
But you are our best!
Yeah. Here. I would have been just one of the crowd over there.
You see the kind of dancers, for example, in a Broadway production dancing in the chorus line, they dance better than our stars… You see these street performers over there, they sing and perform better than lot of actors I know. So I didn’t delude myself that I could do this. And I knew it would happen when it had to happen.
I didn’t think that nature had put me in the wrong place. I could see what had become of actors like Saeed Jaffrey and others who had gone to England.
At the end of the book, you dismiss the argument about commercial cinema being opium for masses. And you say that they are being fed this shit, that’s why they are watching it.
Earlier in the book, in a different context, you mention climbing up a steep slope for a shoot, and once there you see this spot boy climbing up, carrying a stack of chairs on his back, and a kettle and cups in his hands. So I was wondering, what is the one film you would take him to watch, after that day of the shoot?
(Long pause) Probably something that’ll make him forget his life, I suppose. I won’t try to show him a film about his own life. It would mean nothing to him.
I’d probably, rather than take him to see a film, I’d try to read him a story or something. Ya, to encourage him to perhaps learn how to read… That sight disturbed me for days.
So agreed, lots of what Bollywood churns out is absolute rubbish. But there’s music. You don’t write about Hindi film music.
I hate it.
I can’t stand it.
Aaj ka, ya pehle ka?
Pehle ka, I like
Do you dance, do you like to dance?
No. I expend my energy playing tennis, swimming and exercising. I wish I had learnt dancing. Then I might have enjoyed it. I don’t enjoy it. Aaaaa. But what was your question?
My question was that aaaaaaa… I’ve forgotten, actually. Sorry.
(We both laugh at me. Then he remembers) Music.
Ya, the pre-Seventies. I’m old fashioned, I suppose. I love the old Kishore Kumar songs. I’m not so fond of the ones he later sang, in the Seventies.
I think, it was the Seventies when mediocrity began to rule the Hindi film industry. It was with the coming of colour. Late Sixties, actually.
The coming of colour destroyed whatever chance we had at being creative. Because suddenly, making films in colour made making a film very easy. All you had to do was go to Kashmir, put your heroine in a yellow dress and your hero in a red shirt and you got a movie.
A film like Waqt. It doesn’t mean anything to
I loved Waqt. I remember, I liked it very much. When I see it now, it looks pretty corny. But… Yash Chopra’s movies I do not like, except for Waqt. Waqt has one of the greatest ever Hindi film songs, Aage bhi jaane tu, peeche bhi
It had a great story, but now, you watch Waqt now, and that template has been used so often. That was one of the first attempts at three brothers being separated kind of formula. Now it has become a trope.
So maybe, Indians just have bad taste. This is what we like.
I’m afraid so. (laughs) I think that is the case.
And you are just
I’m a freak.
Maybe we just like Helen dancing
Oh, I love Helen’s dance. I have no problem with Helen dancing. I love it. I think she is one of the legends of Hindi cinema.
We like our four-five stories, some from Mahabharat and others and we are
You are happy with that.
Ya. Aur aap hum ko bol rahe ho, better films dekho.
(speaks in imitation of someone very irritated) “Please don’t try to improve commercial cinema,” is what Subhash Ghai once said to me. “Please don’t try to improve commercial cinema.” And it’s a deep-rooted belief in the man. Which is why he makes the kind of films he makes.
In the book you also bitch about FTII, you also bitch about…
Everybody. I’m a great bitch, ya.
You also bitch about Saeed Mirza, parallel cinema. But you don’t bitch about theatre at all.
hahahaha I bitch about (Ebrahim) Alkazi. I bitch about (Polish theatre director) Grotowski.
That’s not bitching. That was complete insanity. It was like being at Osho ashram without sex.
Ya, completely. Insanity. And it was very scary and I got the hell out of there. Because I felt I was losing my bloody marbles.
Theatre, you see, I owe too much to theatre. I haven’t… I’ve bitched about Alyque Padamsee and his Tughlaq.
But that’s not about theatre. You have such reverence for theatre
I guess I do, ya, I guess I do. To me it is, it’s an activity that means perhaps a little more to me, it’s closer to my heart. I owe it more.I found myself due to theatre. I can also not tolerate a bad play.
And there are many
So I seldom go to see them, and if I don’t like it, I have no compunctions about walking out. Absolutely none. Which is why when somebody walks out of a performance of mine, I do not take it personally.
But you have obviously seen a lot of theatre, in India as well. And you talk of Dr Shreeram Lagoo and Nilu Phule as being two great theatre actors, and Mr Geoffrey Kendal of course.
The Bengalis will be offended I haven’t mentioned Sombhu Mitra. But I knew nothing about the man. I saw him once on stage, playing Oedipus Rex. I don’t know if I would like it if I saw it now. I liked it then.
He was very impressive, I remember. He was very impressive, but he didn’t, I didn’t get to see his soul, the way I did Dr Lagoo’s when I saw him for the first time.
Because I live in Delhi, my theatre reference is different from yours in Mumbai, Pune. You’ve played Mirza Ghalib, and I’ve seen Tom Alter play Mirza Ghalib. Have you seen him play Mirza Ghalib?
(shakes his head)
Would you like to see him play Mirza Ghalib?
(Giggles) I wouldn’t. Would he like to see me play Bill Clinton?
I’m sure he would. It’s a sexy role.
No. No. Not particularly, let’s say.
I’ve gone through those scripts, you know, the Azad thing he did, and the Ghalib thing he did. I didn’t like them.
I’m asking you about him playing Mirza Ghalib.
An actor can only be as good as the material he has (laughs).
Give me an answer (I beseech)
Tom is a friend and I don’t want to say anything about that. Let it go at that — that an actor can only be as good as the material he’s in.
I wanted to talk a little bit about what you’ve not talked about in the book.
hmm-hmm Which is?
About what’s missing. You mention “luminous ladies” — Waheeda Rehman, Nargis, call them “modern actresses”. You mention “divinely gorgeous Madhubala”, “unbearable sexy Nutan”, “perky sex-bombs”
Aaa, you are getting to Shabana Azmi, I can see.
(I wasn’t, at all) You write about them — “delectable stars, worthy of lighting up any screen in the world” and say you love them all.
Love them all.
Yet not a word about their acting?
Haven’t I said Waheeda Rehman and Nargis still, till today, are Hindi cinema’s modern actors. That’s enough compliment. I’m not going to analyse their work and all. I’m not writing about them… I think what you are getting at is why isn’t Shabana Azmi in that list.
(I’m still not) My question is that you treat them as these gorgeous women, which they are. But your connect with them is as
As gorgeous women, and not as actors. The only two who were great actor among this lot (which includes Waheeda Rehman, Nargis, Madhubala Meena Kumari, Nutan, Asha Parekh, Rajshree, Mumtaz, Nadira, Shashikala, Bela Bose, Cuckoo and Helen) were Nargis and Waheeda Rehman. None of the others. The others were all great stars. Very popular. And considered great actors, too, Nutan and Meena Kumari particularly… I think they were way too sentimental for my liking.
I think Waheeda and Nargis were the last word as far as female actors in India go. They have not been bettered till today. And that includes Shabana Azmi.
And about Shabana what I’ve written, apparently she’s taken great offence to it.
Because you’ve said
Because I’ve said that she has a smug reverence for her own work… Hasn’t she been praised enough? I mean how much more praise does she want? And if she can’t take three lines of criticism, compared to three paragraphs of praise, then I think there’s something wrong with her.
So, Smita Patil.
She didn’t figure.
You’ve acted with her.
Ya. But she didn’t figure in any way. Apart from the shots that we did together, I had nothing to do with her.
She had these pretensions about being a serious actor. She looked down on commercial movies even when she was doing them, but maybe that was her forte. Because I happened to work with her in that phase and I could see how she was being affected by it. So when I say that she was acting like Amitabh Bachchan in Umbartha, I’m not joking. She had been working with Amitabh Bachchan before that and her performance is pure Amitabh Bachchan in Umbartha (Shakti, Namak Halaal and Umbartha all released in 1982).
So which is your favourite movie?
Among my own?
Not Katha. Not Paar. But Manthan. Sparsh.
Shyam Benegal. You last worked with him in 1983, Mandi.
No, I did a small part in his Discovery of India. After that, no. I haven’t worked with him for a long time.
He’s never had the right part for me, I guess.
You really wanted to play Gandhi for a long time. And when he made Making of Gandhi
He asked me to play it, but I turned it down because it was being produced by NFDC. And I told Shyam I have done enough work for free for NFDC and I insist on being paid a fat amount this time and NFDC did not agree. So I had to pass.
So what is this great fascination you have to play Gandhi?
It wasn’t any fascination to play Gandhi. I wanted the role in Attenborough’s film because I wanted to be an international star, quite simply. I didn’t want to play Gandhi. I wanted to play the Lone Ranger. I wanted to play Gunga Din. I wanted to play James Bond.
Apart from film, theatre, cricket, the only extra-curricular activity in your book is
Smoking dope (laughs)
Yes. And sex.
Ya, isn’t that enough to pass your time? They are two pleasurable activities and one can devote a lot of time to those two.
Except that your first time was a really short one
You describe sex with the prostitute, but later, when you write about your other relationships, there is not even a hint of sex.
There was plenty but I didn’t want to… I didn’t want to because the girl I’ve talked about, R, who dumped me, I didn’t want to, you know, her children might read the book someday and I didn’t want… Things which should be left unsaid, should be left unsaid.
There’s this bit about how you wanted to experience sex on LSD, with the mysterious R. Did you?
No. Somehow on LSD it’s the last thing on your mind. I was curious to see… let me see what happens. But it really is the last thing, because there’s so much else that’s going on in your head at that time. It seems like a very mundane thing in that state.
You’ve described your journey to acting, understanding, learning, even going to crazy-ass camps to learn acting. And you’ve discussed various styles of acting. And you enjoy teaching. So today, what is your commitment to acting, in cinema, Indian cinema?
To be a part of movies which I think will be remembered. In between, to make a fat amount of money as well, which is why I’m doing a film called Welcome Back. Shooting in Dubai, immediately after this. I’ve always balanced what I’ve wanted to do, my theatre work, my teaching work, my serious work with the odd commercial movie which helps my bank balance. So it’s the same now. I very much want to be part of movies which I think will be remembered. I am not really interested in the length of the part, I’m not interested in playing the great roles anymore. I want to be part of work which I’ll enjoy and which will be remembered.
So please explain Chaalis Chauraasi, Jackpot and
I thought I’d enjoy it. Jackpot was for the money, purely, nothing else.
But Sona Spa?
Sona Spa. I like Makarand Deshpande very much. I find his theatre work very interesting.
Sona Spa — he had done it as a play and it was fun just hanging around with Makarand one day and talking nonsense, even on camera, spoofing godmen, which I enjoy doing. So each film has its individual reason.
One has to feel like doing it, for whatever reason. The reason may be the money, the reason may be the one scene which you’ve been given which you love, like in Zoya Akhtar’s film (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). The reason may be that you want to hang around with the guys you love being with, like in the case with Sona Spa. Or Chaalis Chauraasi — I love the thought of working with KK and Atul Kulkarni and we had a ball shooting it. Turned out to be a terrible film, that’s a different matter.
How were you in the film, you think?
Okay. Nothing to write home about.
How were you in Finding Fanny, you think?
(pause) I’m receiving a lot of compliments for my performance, but two very close friends of mine, who I’ve mentioned in the book, Asif and Jasdev Singh, both saw the film in London and they thought, “Theek hai yaar. It’s okay. But tumhara kaam bahut hi bura hai. Tumhein jhapar marne ko jee chah-raha tha.”
Toh I said, achcha, why? They said, “You were very irritating.”
Yaar, everybody’s telling me “you were very loveable”.
“Koi lovable-vabeble nahin, tumhein jhapad mare ko jee chah-raha tha.”
“Kyun jhapad marne ko jee chah-raha tha?”
“Arre, come on, get on with it. How long are you going to keep on crying?”
So they are people who know me very well, and they know I’m not at all that kind of a person. So something about that bugged them. But there is perhaps something to that criticism.
What did you think, is what I’m asking.
I find it very tough to be objective about my own work in such a short span. I will probably be able to give you an opinion two years from now.
So you are happy with your performance in Finding Fanny, as of (I’m desperately controlling, holding my thought lest it slip out of my mind into my mouth)
Well, it was what the director wanted. I really, I really don’t know how to assess it. I think
I think you were crap.
Ya? Really? Why? No why? Tell me why.
Well, you played him like a retard.
Hmmmm But it was written like that.
He was a simple man in a mythical village. He wasn’t a retard.
I think that was my intention. But if it doesn’t help the film, then it’s not at all a good choice.
I’m not at all sure of my performance.
And it was, what you said, “sentimental” acting. Like when you put your head on Deepika’s shoulder… Eewo.
Ya? See, a performance is a good performance if it serves the purpose of the script. If you analyse it separately, then that’s a different matter. So, so far all I know is that it has served the purpose of the script. I don’t kid myself when people say how cute and this and that. I don’t buy all that.
To be able to assess it myself, and thanks for saying this, because it really gives me a way to watch the movie a little more carefully and to see whether this quality that I’ve played helps or hinders the film.
I unfortunately don’t see your plays, but in the last few films, except Dedh Ishqiya, where I though you were just marvelous, you sleepwalk through your films.
Ya. Chaalis Chauraasi type of role I sleepwalk though. Jackpot I would sleepwalk though. Dedh Ishqiya, no. I was very keen on that. I enjoyed that very much.
You write a lot about mirrors. What’s your relationship with mirrors today?
What everybody’s relationship is. People may not admit it, but everybody is obsessed with mirrors all the time, right from the moment we can walk, I think. We look at ourselves in the mirror a great deal. And as far as I was concerned, I was examining myself, not admiring myself, because I saw very early that I don’t have the matinee idol looks. I knew that and that has not bothered me ever. So when I’ve been told, you are not good-looking and this and that, it never bothered me.
Now that I’m receiving compliments in my old age, it feels damn good. But I brush them off, as I would, any other. But the mirror helped me a great deal to discover my strengths, and to practice expressiveness.
I still work with the mirror when I’m doing a scene or something. I talk to myself in the mirror. Do my lines to myself, often.
You’ve describe yourself in the book as an arrogant, loud mouth, conceited, crabby bitch
That’s what other people call me, crabby bitch.
Is that how you see yourself?
At times I am, that. Loud mouth I don’t think I am any more.
Arrogance is part of my DNA, I suppose. I’m a crabby bitch because I don’t like how things are going, and sometimes I complain, sometimes I don’t.