Naseeruddin Shah talks to Ajachi Chakrabarti about acting, his politics (or lack thereof) and Bollywood's insistence on making trashy films.
Is there really a theory to acting? You’ve been an alumnus of two of the premier national institutes for the performing arts. Apart from an introduction into the wonderful world of psychedelia and the friends and contacts you made there, what value do you think those institutions added to your acting?
See, an institution is conducive to learning. Acting is a job that you learn; you are not taught it. In fact, there are as many techniques of acting as there are actors. There is no one infallible technique. There was a time I was completely sold on naturalistic acting. Over the years, I have learnt that it is not the answer. Far from being the answer to everything, it has severe limitations.
So, my theory—if you can call it that—rather, my approach to acting is to make sure that the same performance reaches every single viewer. Now, there’s a lot of nonsense talked about in the theatre about how you have to be loud enough to be heard in the last row. You have to be, but you have to find a way that the person in the first row doesn’t get his ears blasted because you’re trying to reach the guy in the last row. So it’s a question of balancing your performance and getting across, basically. That’s what it is. Whatever way you do it is valid.
Is there a difference between your approach to a film role and a theatre role?
Yes, there is. In fact, over the years, I have come to realise also that trying to persuade an audience that what they’re seeing is actually happening is futile. So, I have abandoned all plans—if I ever had any—of doing realistic plays with realistic settings and all that headache, because it is all completely unnecessary. What is needed in a play, the essential components of a play, are one actor and one text. And because of the kind of theatre we’ve been doing, the kind of storytelling theatre, I have realised that my approach to theatre is quite different from movies, because in movies, one has to simulate reality. In theatre, that is not required. In theatre, one has to do it in fleeting moments. What is more essential in theatre is clarity of communication.
You led the actors’ strike at FTII while you were there, what you have described in your autobiography as a stupid agitation. What are your thoughts on the current FTII strike [which has since been called off]?
See, what the kids are saying is right. I just wish they had thought of protesting about all the shortcomings in the institute before this. There is absolutely no condoning 2008-batch students still being there. What the hell are they doing there? They should be kicked out lock, stock and barrel. But they’ve been allowed to stay there, and this whole situation has festered. The kids say there is a shortage of facilities, there is this—why the hell didn’t you go on strike about that? You’re going on strike about something that doesn’t concern you. Granted, Gajendra Chauhan is a patent idiot—he gave himself away on TV in two minutes—but surely it’s more important for you to learn your job and get the hell out of there and start plying your trade, instead of trying to determine how the institute should be run.
What are your politics? Are you allowed to have politics?
My politics are, or at least the expression of my politics is, I’m a mouthpiece for other people’s views. Any actor is.
But what about your views?
They are of no consequence, as far as my work is concerned. If there is something that I disagree with, I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t have any strong political views.
Toni Morrison said that “the best art is political, and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” Your opinion of Indian parallel cinema, in your book and in interviews, seems to be that it was too much of the first and too little of the other. But do you agree with the statement? Does art have an obligation to be political?
Absolutely, it has an obligation to be a truthful representation of its times, and that fulfils both the conditions.
Here are a couple of quotes from your autobiography. One of them was “If it is true that an actor’s talent lies in his choices, then I must confess that I have absolutely no talent at all.” Also, you consider Raaj Kumar a role model “not for his acting, which was dreadful, but for the way he safeguarded his interests, prolonged his career, and sent all Follywood on a flying fuck to the moon whenever he felt like it.” I suppose my question, for want of a better way to put it, is why does Bollywood dish out so much crap? I mean, we’re a country of a billion people with a rich literary and dramatic tradition that embraces complexity . . .
It’s a mystery. One begins to believe that there is absolutely no desire in Bollywood to work or to exert your intellect to the slightest bit. I’ve written quite a lot about Sholay, and Javed sa’ab was enraged. So I said to him, “Why is it so difficult for you to accept someone else’s opinion about this thing? You keep talking about how it’s the ultimate movie, the perfect movie, but come on, you can’t be serious.”
It’s basically a Spaghetti Western . . .
Yeah, and it’s stolen in bits and pieces from other movies, but everyone is thoroughly satisfied. I’ve been receiving hate mail for criticising Sholay: “Get a life!” “You didn’t like Sholay; what kind of films did you make?” I mean, Sholay is the biggest con that has been pulled over everyone.
I was watching this random video on YouTube, some TV channel criticising you for not watching Dirty Politics. You’re perfectly entitled not to watch the film, of course, not have anything to do with it once your role has been recorded. You’ve done 131 films, according to Wikipedia. How many of them would you say you’ve seen?
I would have seen about a hundred. I’ve not seen a lot of them.
And how many would you say you’ve liked?
Really liked, I would say about five. And I would say that I’ve done about 10 or 15 decent movies, which is not a bad average, actually. I’ve done more than 131 films, though, almost 200.
How does your mindset change when you’re making these obviously crappy movies, the ones that are clearly just a payday for you? I mean, I watched you in Welcome Back the other day, and honestly, you were the worst thing about the movie—maybe Shiney Ahuja was worse, but you were pretty bad. Your flamboyant gangster shtick is fast getting old.
I don’t know. I can’t figure out the technique for making these movies. I don’t like these movies. I wouldn’t go anywhere near them. I wouldn’t watch them at gunpoint. So naturally, I flounder when I’m asked to act in these movies. I try, because I do want to do popular movies, but this is all the stuff that comes my way.
Do you think about things like legacy, how you would like to be remembered? What would you like to be said about you at your centenary?
I don’t give a shit.