There were a lot of questions, but we were given a window of ten minutes each which finally extended to twenty but not beyond! Naseeruddin Shah reminisces about the messiah who taught him breathing exercise, gives tantalizing hints about a second directorial venture and minces no words on Bollywood! By Sayan Bhattacharya, at the Kolkata Literary Meet 2014.
At your solo performance of Toba Tek Singh, besides other things, what I kept thinking about were voice and diction. So how do you take care of your voice? How do you train your voice?
How do I take care of my voice? I don’t really take care of it as much as I should, I can’t stop smoking for one thing, which I should- but I can’t. The other thing that I do is breathing exercises, which were taught to me by sheer chance. I did two acting courses, one at the Drama school in Delhi and one at the Film Institute. No one there could tell me anything helpful about voice. Diction I never had a problem with. And I attribute it to having been forced to read Arabic when I was a child, to learn the Arabic alphabet and to read the Quran. And from class 4 or something we were also taught Sanskrit in school. So I attribute my ability with speech to these two things. To having been compelled to go through those impossible sounds in both these languages. And I used to wonder what on earth am I being made to do this for? What use is this ever going to be to me and I finally know what use it is. So that took care of the diction. And also because I had a very keen ear for speech. That was the only gift I was ever born with. I listened very carefully to everything said around me, and I absorbed it, not the content necessarily, but the way it was said. Which is why I paid no attention to trigonometry or zoology (laughs). But I still remember Latin terms, I remember cos, theta and sin and pi and all that stuff. So that is what took care of the speech. But the voice I always had a problem with, through drama school, through film, and through my earlier movies. In fact dubbing Manthan and Junoon, if you have seen them, both of which had a lot of yelling to do. I used to lose my voice every time. Every stage performance would end with my voice in a whisper. And I have been through many performances with a bad voice. Until one day, I met a gentleman who sat through a performance of Julius Caesar in which I played Brutus, as well as I was directing it. I was stressed out totally and I was speaking like this (mimics voice). And he came backstage and introduced himself. And he said “you know you are going to lose your voice if you continue like this. You are misusing your voice.” And I said, “Ya man! What the f@#k do I do about it? You help me?” and he said yes. And he said he would start with me next morning. “I will turn up at your house at 7 o’ clock,” and he did. And without any mention of fees or anything, without talking about himself- I later discovered that he was a speech therapist, who worked in an institute for the hearing impaired, a guy called Raj Kumar. And I’d ask him how I will get in touch with you, he would say, “I will call you up.” He never gave me a number and I never knew where he lived or what he did the rest of his time, but he’d turn up every alternate day at 7 in the morning and teach me simple breathing exercises. He taught me how an actor should breathe. And I realized I was doing it wrong and no one had corrected me, which is why I would run out of breath on stage trying to impress the audience by my first few words and I’d have no breath left for the rest of the sentence. And then I would speak the next sentence without taking another breath, and voice is nothing but breath brushing past your vocal chords. Now if your vocal chords are in a f*%ed up condition… you’re gonna have to correct this French of mine if you like!
No we don’t! Please continue…
…Then there’s no way they are going to produce the sound they should. And he impressed upon me the fact that there is no such thing as a good or bad voice. We are all born with every possibility present in ourselves. We lose it. We are all born with the ability to sing, many of us lose it. And he taught me how to breathe and he made me promise I would continue this exercise. After 6 months the man worked with me and did not accept a penny. And I kept asking him what do I owe you and he said we’d talk about it. And after 6 months he said, “I’m shifting base back to Kashmir,” and he just vanished out of my life.
But you’ve continued those exercises…
Yes! I have continued those exercises. And I still pray for that man every day of my life, with every breath I take. I don’t know where he is; I don’t know what he does. But I know he turned up when I needed him.
You said that there aren’t enough actors who can do Shakespeare on stage because what is Shakespeare without those words… Do you think it is because we don’t have this multi lingual culture anymore – is that the reason why we can’t have actors who can do Shakespeare?
We don’t have actors who can speak the language he wrote but why on earth should we continue doing Shakespeare?
No! It could be anything, but I am essentially talking about pronunciation.
It’s about pronunciation, the main reason I’m not doing him… And the second reason is that his plots seem downright laughable to me.
Ya! Shylock and Othello are bloody racists! And there’s no redeeming quality in these men. And those stories have been copied so often and those formulae have been used so much by Hindi cinema, that it’ll look like a Hindi movie if you do a play that translates Shakespeare into Hindi. And it’s ludicrous to have people talking of London and Norfolk and so on in bad accents and tacky costumes. So what’s the point? We want to try and uncover stuff that’s been written here and encourage newer stuff to be written. Now all the kids I am associated with, and I do work with young actors, they’re terrified of listening to a frank opinion, so they never come to me with their work and I see a lot of it done by youngsters just out of college and so on. Groups like Aquarius, Q’s group, Soumo and others… and I do see it and I don’t like much of it, but I do make it a point to see it and to encourage these people because it’s important that they continue. They’ll find their path. And what one should do to encourage them is to create new theatre out of their life experiences, rather than resort to musty old classics. They should leave that for old fogeys like me to do their Shaws!
In these times of 24/7 media, everything gets amplifiedyour success or failure- how does an actor maintain one’s sanity?
(Laughs) By not caring two hoots for what is written about him! And I know that’s tough for a lot of actors to do but I have managed it because that is how I have conducted myself from the start.
With your humour and cynicism?
And I’ve managed it from the start. And at that time no one paid any attention to it, and got used to paying not much attention to it, and they still don’t pay too much attention to it. Which is fine by me! Because if somebody is asking me a question, whether he’s an interviewer or whether he’s a student or whether he’s a co-worker, I think he merits an honest answer.
I would like to ask you a bit about your directorial venture Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota. I loved that film…
And especially Suhasini Mulay’s character which you could’ve developed a bit more. Why didn’t you…
The scripting was faulty. I had no one to help me. I was rushed into it. I had to start shooting it by a particular date, because the producer insisted and he would have walked out if I hadn’t started. I wish I had the time – another year of so – to think about the script. But I didn’t. And so I rushed into it foolishly. I should’ve not. I could’ve made a better film if I’d waited a year. May be I would’ve found a producer if I had waited a year but I felt I won’t. And I was desperate to make it. But my enthusiasm faded very quickly because the support system was not with me – except for the actors.
Support system in terms of the distribution…
No! No! The unit. People who were working with me, my DOP, my sound recordist, my producer… everybody was negative and I don’t know why. I must’ve been really incompetent. I can’t figure out how, though, because I finished the film under budget and within schedule. But I must’ve been doing something wrong, I guess, because… I don’t want to go into a litany of complaints. I fell short on many scores. As a director I should’ve asserted myself more, I guess. I should’ve been better prepared, which I wasn’t. I took it in the same way I take my acting. I don’t really engage with something until I’m completely in it. And often it’s too late. I go by instincts so I choose many movies that turn out to be rotten. Jackpot, Michael (shot in Calcutta) which I had great hopes for. A thing called Bluberry Hunt. A thing called Coffin Maker. Which I thought were wonderful ideas. I didn’t think deeply about them before agreeing to them, once I was in them I realized HELP! This requires a lot of repair work! But it was too late then. And then I have to also make sure that I don’t get in the way of completing the film, one goes with it. And so I approached my directorial venture in the same way without enough groundwork, without making drawings of the scenes, without really visualizing the scenes. I just went into it thinking all I have to do is to get the actors to behave right, and I have to cover it.
I don’t think you should consider growing your hair to be a great acting achievement. It’s not. So getting physically ready for the part is something that you have to do, and if you don’t do it you are going to fall short. So it’s not a great thing if you have done that. Getting into the emotional shoes of that character sometimes proves difficult and that’s why I’ve had difficulty with the synthetic kind of roles I’ve been asked to do. Jalwa had no emotional moments and so it was a cakewalk.
That’s the reason you don’t want to make another…
That was a big mistake. I’m beginning to revise that feeling now because I think I know what to do to correct the flaws that were in the earlier one, but even the thought is tiring. But you never know! Those who say they will never do it again invariable end up doing it again!
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The sequel has been in the scripting stage for a long time now. Don’t you think that these are apt times when a person who cannot give a one rupee change, shows a Facebook video because it’s worth one rupee on her mobile phone…
It’s ripe for a sequel but Ravi (Vaswani) is gone and that is the biggest thing. Kundan has a script, which, I think, should be made. I’m convinced about it. But it’s impossible to replace Ravi. And why I am convinced about it is because it is not trying to repeat the magic of the film. None of us thought JBDY had that magic while we were making it. Then, I thought it was the worst film I’d ever done! But I went with it, the way I go along with any other job I’m in.
And the actors wore your clothes and you were so involved in it…
Yes! Because I just wanted it to get made and I was vastly relieved when it was over. I slept for a week!! But Kundan is not trying to remind viewers of the first one. He is now dealing with corruption on a level that concerns him. Not the atthanni being taken away by a cop. No! That no longer concerns him; it no longer concerns any of us. So… let’s see if he can find a replacement for Ravi.
That would be very tough.
I interviewed Shyam Benegal a year back on Mandi. I think that’s one of his best films, because he didn’t take himself seriously in that film…
I think so too!
When you look back at that film, what comes to your mind? He mentioned how a monkey scratched your head during a shot and you were given a tetanus shot.
No, the monkey bit me, in fact, scratching my head was all right. He sat on my shoulder and bit me on the ear, so I had to be given rabies injection. But I really think it’s a very sweet and whimsical film, and that it deserved more notice than it got. I loved the performances in it. The male performances, particularly, which people haven’t taken note of. There’s Om Puri in it- who is fantastic and there’s Pankaj Kapoor in one scene. There’s Satish Kaushik also. There are a lot of actors in it who are now well known, like in JBDY. It’s a really funny film, it’s really touching, and I get emotional every time I think of it. And I’ve really thought that what have I got to do in this film. But I went along, because Shyam had said “You’ve gotta be in it!” So I said okay. I never realized the worth of that character until it was through. I went through it with the physical stuff and so on because I have seen people who move like this. You know, the memories that awoke when I was doing Paar… to draw references from your surroundings… The same thing happened with Mandi. But I went through it! The biggest compliment I’ve got was when someone asked me if my entire shooting was done in one day. And he said it looked like that. It wasn’t the case! It was over two months.
You, once, said that Paar was not one of your challenging roles…
No it was! I didn’t say that!
It was not as challenging probably as some other…
Well, because you know it’s not a question of assuming a character from outside. It’s a question of recognizing that person within you. And once you’ve identified a person within you, it’s easy to… you just have to then reveal that person. Recognize and reveal.
So which has been very difficult, which you felt that you couldn’t really recognize within you…
When I’ve had to do commercial movies I’ve not been able to do that, I have failed completely.
Jalwa, for instance?
Jalwa was a different kind of a movie. I didn’t have to sing and dance!
Like quoting these figures all over the place. It’s absolutely vulgar, in my mind. I don’t see why they need to do that but at least they’re finally admitting that that is why we are making movies. To make a 100 or 200 or 300 crores, now people are talking about 500 crores. I don’t know, it doesn’t interest me at all. And as far as nation building and stuff and all these fancy terms, I don’t think Hindi cinema or popular cinema all over the country has outlived the early theatre at its prime form. It’s high time we did that.
You had to bulk up…
I had fun doing that but I don’t think that is a great achievement, because if your part requires you to do it- that’s that! I don’t think you should consider growing your hair to be a great acting achievement. It’s not. So getting physically ready for the part is something that you have to do, and if you don’t do it you are going to fall short. So it’s not a great thing if you have done that. Getting into the emotional shoes of that character sometimes proves difficult and that’s why I’ve had difficulty with the synthetic kind of roles I’ve been asked to do. Jalwa had no emotional moments and so it was a cakewalk. I felt I could fly while we were shooting that film.
I recently attended a session loftily titled, ‘Bollywood and Nation Making’ and Meghnad Desai was talking about Dilip Kumar and Irfan Khan was talking about Pan Singh Tomar. In these times of 200 crore Bollywood blockbusters, how is Bollywood making the nation, you think?
It’s finally admitting the real reason why they actually make movies. Like quoting these figures all over the place. It’s absolutely vulgar, in my mind. I don’t see why they need to do that but at least they’re finally admitting that that is why we are making movies. To make a 100 or 200 or 300 crores, now people are talking about 500 crores. I don’t know, it doesn’t interest me at all. And as far as nation building and stuff and all these fancy terms, I don’t think Hindi cinema or popular cinema all over the country has outlived the early theatre at its prime form. It’s high time we did that.
Finally one last question, Farooque Sheikh’s sudden death… it’s a huge loss for all of us… if we could end this chat with your thoughts on him…
What do I say? I don’t want to spout any clichés about him. It’s very sobering, that’s all I can say. What happened to him is very sobering and it should make us all realize that we need to take care of ourselves. If you don’t look after your body, it’s going to give way soon!