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15 February 2015

Nothing But The Truth

I grew up watching films. In Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil, English, Kannada, and when television made its grand entry into our home, in many other languages as well. My first love was Amitabh Bachchan. Then I discovered Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant... my tastes were unapologetically commercial, and as I grew older, I continued to devour the latest Hindi film release, as well as any old re-run.

With the advent of television, a great many 'art' films entered my purview. Doordarshan used to screen sub-titled award-winning films on Sunday afternoons. That slot introduced me to films I wouldn't have watched otherwise, and to a host of actors whose names I'd only read until then (and some whose names I did not recognise) - Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil (Shabana had already 'crossed over' and done a slew of commercial films by then), MK Raina, Shafi Inamdar, Rohini Hattangadi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anant Nag, Shreeram Lagoo, Pankaj Kapoor... 

I devoured those films as well, and perhaps I was too young then to appreciate the acting, because I quickly and happily went back to my popular cinema, leaving the 'art' film for Sunday afternoon viewing when I had no interesting book to read. It took Masoom, which came out in 1983, and was one of the last films I watched before leaving Bangalore, which made me take a closer look at Naseeruddin Shah. Then, Sparsh made its debut on TV. I hadn't watched it when it was released (it was 1980, and there was probably an Amitabh movie that released the same Friday), and now, Naseer, as an actor, left his mark on me. Like an itch that cannot be scratched, I kept going back to his body of work (and that of his peers), irresistibly drawn to it amidst all the 80s mayhem that I continued to watch.

My personal interaction with him was just as accidental - and humorous. I'd moved to Bombay and fulfilled a long-held ambition of becoming a journalist. I'd also vowed not to become a 'film journalist' because I'm afraid I'd a rather low opinion of them from what I'd read. (Yes, the hypocrisy of looking down on people whom I paid good money to watch on screen doesn't escape me. What can I say? I was young, and very sure of the 'rightness' of my opinions. One climbs down from such high horses. Eventually.) But our chief editor at the time was Mr Pritish Nandy. He had helmed The Illustrated Weekly before this, and was determined to make sure our paper's readership grew by leaps and bounds. So films became a huge part of the Sunday magazine section. And at the end of the year, he declared, the paper would hold an Awards Night. 

We were but minions pressed into the charge of making sure that we called actors, directors, music directors, anyone and everyone connected to the film industry to find out how many passes they needed. Apart from our own work - remember, these were the days of cut-and-paste - we now had to spend precious time holding onto phones while we were told by various servants, both male and female, in tones ranging from the disinterested to the frankly exasperated that the person we were trying to reach was 'out of town', 'bathing', 'shooting pe gaya hai'...  which didn't exactly increase my good opinion of them. The only two people on my list who answered their own phone, and replied promptly without giving me a runaround, were Dev Anand. And Naseeruddin Shah. 

In answer to my 'May I speak to Mr Shah, please?' I heard a deep voice answer, 'Speaking.' Being my first experience with an actor who answered his own phone, I asked again, 'Mr Naseeruddin Shah?' Slight emphasis on 'Naseeruddin'. 'As far as I know, there's only one of me,' he responded, his tone dryer than dust. 'Many people I know are thankful about that.' I quickly stifled my laughter, told him about the awards night, and asked him how many passes he would need. 
 'I'm sorry. I'm going on a holiday at the end of the month.' 
"Your wife, perhaps, or your family?'
His tone became even dryer, if that were possible: 'I'm going on holiday with my wife and family.' 
Perhaps it was his initial response that prompted me to ask what was surely an impertinent question (or perhaps my foot-in-the-mouth disease had begun even then): 'Are you really going on a holiday, Mr Shah?' ('Or are you avoiding the awards function?"  remained unspoken, but implied.) There was a short laugh and a pause, before he replied, 'You'll never know, will you?' 

That was the sum total of my interaction with Naseeruddin Shah, until we took our son to Prithvi Theatre, to watch Shah's adaptation of Androcles and the Lion. It was that memory of an actor who seemed human, it was to read what I hoped would be the same searing honesty and biting wit that prompted me to order his memoirs. 
And Then One Day (Penguin; Rs699) is not his autobiography, he's hastened to clarify in myriad interviews since. It is a retelling of his life from zero to thirty-two. And he began writing it during the 'bone-wrenchingly boring six-month shoot' of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a film he had signed because he desperately wanted to meet Sean Connery, and because they paid him an amount of money, which 'if not totally obscene, was definitely pretty vulgar.'

From the foreword on, I was hooked. Not since I'd read Dev Anand's Romancing with Life, which for all its flaws, was honestly rendered, have I read an actor write with such integrity. And so well. 

His childhood, experiences in boarding school, his loving relationship with his brothers (Zameer and Zaheer, the only two other than him who survived), and his distant relationship with his parents, especially his father, are all laid bare, and he makes no apologies for the contradiction in what he felt. While he seems to have adored his mother, who he says understood him though she did not try to 'get into his head', his father and he were estranged for a while. In fact, when he left for Bombay, he thought he was done with his parents forever, but realised when he went back home that he liked hearing his mother's voice, and on one visit, was pleased to know that his father wanted him to stay on an extra day.  

He writes about his experiences with sex, and his marriage to a woman many, many years his senior. We read about his shocking reaction to the birth of his daughter - it is the most self-flagellating chapter in the book, and one wonders how hard it was to write it - and the total collapse of his marriage afterwards. We read about his many dalliances that were peppered like punctuation marks in the narrative of his life.

He writes about his experiments with drugs, and his approach to both theatre and films. He mentions his experiences at FTII, and how he got his first major role. He writes with affection about Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad. We read about his initial struggles in Bombay, the machinations of the film industry where one was asked, nay expected, to drop a small film in favour of a bigger one; we hear about the birth of Prithvi Theatre, and his forays into the theatre scene in Bombay; about how the only role that he had gone after (Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi) eluded him. We are told about his meeting with Ratna Pathak, and about her mother's disapproval of him. 

Does Shah himself come off well? On the one hand, his absolute love for acting, for theatre and films shines through every chapter. This is all he has ever wanted to do from the time he saw a stage performance. And no one can doubt that this was what he was meant to do. On the other hand, he comes across as an insufferably arrogant man, condescending and patronising by turns, sometimes even whiny as he recounts his many travails. He's selfish in his relationship to his parents, avoiding his father as much as possible (he has only nice things to write about his ammi), but not beyond asking him for monetary  help whenever he needed it.

He's vitriolic towards the very film industry that gives him, as he admits, a rather well-off existence. Especially when one considers that his career in commercial cinema has quite a list of execrable films. He reserves his greatest vitriol to denounce Sholay, however, and considering he did a retelling of sorts in Karma, comes off as disingenuous, hypocritical even. Interestingly, he admits later on that his vitriol may be sour grapes. In one refreshingly honest moment, he confesses that '... the thought that I was not qualified to be the lead in popular movies pinched greatly, so this reaction was very possibly my defence mechanism working in advance to counter the rejection I anticipated…”   

He is also candid enough to admit that he 'acted' as well, tearing down his own performances with the same forthrightness that he tears down others'. When he writes about Junoon, for instance, he says that the only person who came off well in the film was Ismat Chughtai, a non-actor in a small part, because "she’s the only one of us not trying to ACT everyone else under the table."

At the same time, he is equally scathing towards the doyens of film and theatre: 
  • "Basu Bhattacharya could have done with some sensitivity himself." 
  • "...he [Peter Brook] turned out to be easily the vainest, most self-absorbed person I have ever met.”
  • [Mr Alyque Padamsee] ...had a secretary called Miss Pope, the better I suppose to savour the appellation ‘God’ by which he was referred to in ad circles,...”
He spares no one, not himself, nor others, and candidly admits that his contemporaries might recollect the same incidents differently from him.  He talks with affection and respect of Shabana Azmi, his co-star in many films ("...the most confident, generous, sane and positive female co-actor I've worked with in films."), but is scathing about the “...somewhat smug reverence she has for her own acting and her tendency to perform with background music playing inside her head.” Om Puri, on the other hand, a friend from his NSD days, comes off rather well - a man whom he says he derided for being unnecessarily sincere, blew him away with his performance in a Kabuki play, and he realised what the former had that he lacked - the will to work hard at his craft, and the discipline to continue to hone it. So does Shyam Benegal, whose art - and mastery over his craft of film making - he admires. And above all, he notes his admiration for Geoffrey Kendall, a man who, says Naseer, along with his wife, 'spread theatre awareness among school children in Asia' more than any Indian.

He writes with fondness about his meeting with Pran; the veteran actor who had come to epitomise badness on screen. The veteran actor had come to invite him to a cricket match (which Naseer refused), but they shared coffee and Shrewsbury biscuits, as Pran sat cross-legged on a huge mattress in Naseer's living room. Later, Naseer recounts, he got the chance to work with Pran, where he discovered that Pran loved being praised. Pran would be overjoyed, Naseer says Mithun [Chakraborty] told him, "if he were in make up and you walked past not recognising - or pretending not to recognise - him. Your subsequent fake apologies, 'Pran saab, kya fantastic get-up hai! Main toh pehchana hi nahin!' would literally make him blush!"

This is what lifts him above being thoroughly unlikeable as a person -- his absolute honesty as he lays threadbare the very fabric of his life, and the leavening of humour which allows him to see himself for what he is, both good and bad. You can disagree with him (and I do) but his opinions are subjective, and he is courageous enough to lay it out in plain sight. You can dislike what he writes, but you cannot say he is wrong to hold those opinions. Besides, how can you not like someone who is honest enough to write, 'My adolescent boast that 'I would show the bloody world' began gradually to transform itself into a resolve to become worthy of the arrogance nature seemed to have bestowed on me in such abundance.'

Along the way, we get a mini-history of the theatre and films of the age, as well as the complex picture of a man who is both intelligent and interesting, humorous and well-read, arrogant and humble ("I'm still often mistaken for Om Puri, Girish Karnad, or Nana Patekar... who they get mistaken for, I don't know.").  

And Then One Day is a memoir not to be missed, not just by fans of Naseeruddin Shah, or by fans of films in general, but by anyone who wants to know how a memoir should be written, if indeed it must. As I was reading the extremely well-written book, I thought, 'This is one person whom I'd like to know better.' And when the narrative ended very abruptly, and I closed the book far sooner than I'd have liked to, I was tempted to echo Shyam Benegal, who is reported to have read it and said, 'It was too short!'

6 comments:

  1. Hmmm. I'm not sure about this one. While it sounds fascinating - especially his anecdotes about fellow stars - and Naseeruddin Shah has always seemed to me a very intelligent and articulate man, I am always put off by the personal lives of people. When I want to read about film personalities, I'd prefer to read about their work, or at the most, those aspects of their personal lives that had an influence on their work. Not whom they slept with and stuff like that. So this, I think, is a book I shall probably give a miss.

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  2. Not whom they slept with and stuff like that.

    There are no salacious details, Madhu. It is not a kiss-and-tell book. But yes, this is about his personal journey from a small town where he first decided he was going to be an actor, to Bombay where he achieved what he set out to do. But at the end of it, these are memoirs, an autobiography.

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  3. I did not read the entire piece because on my recent trip to India I bought the book and it's still on my "To Read" list. I did not want to read the review before I had read the book. From all his interviews Naseeruddin Shah comes across as a very opinionated person. Sometimes I feel his expressed opinions are fake and just meant to startle. But these are the most interesting people whose memoirs make very good reading. Must get to it soon.

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  4. Soumya, do let me know what you thought of the book once you read it. As for being opinionated, yes, that he surely is. And he doesn't mince words. I do not think his opinions are fake; I think that is just how he thinks - he's been consistent through the years.

    (One person, whom I think talks just for the sake of shocking people? Mahesh Bhatt.)

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  5. I finally got around to reading the book and I agree with you - it's very honestly written.His passion for acting (especially for the theater) comes through very clearly. He does not hesitate to pull his own leg from time to time. I chuckled at his mocking Hiren Nag for asking him to flash a "churming esmaile" and his imitation of the director from the south ("mutlub mutlub"). I wish he had been more explicit as to who R and AP were. Come on, this is the age of dishing up dirt. :-)

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  6. I'm glad you liked the book and came back to comment. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments in the book.

    I, for one, am glad that he didn't name the women. It is not only his story to tell; it is theirs as well, and I'm glad he respected their privacy. I don't much like 'kiss and tell' books. YMMV. :)

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