Naseeruddin Shah and Girish Karnad in conversation. Introduced by Nasreen Munni Kabir.
The lawns of the Diggi Palace are filled to the brim as cinema luminaries Girish Karnad and Naseeruddin Shah take centre stage. The stage is set to discuss Shah’s memoir “And Then One Day” and the already enraptured audience is seemingly filled with awe and adulation for the greats of Indian cinema.
A session ‘not to celebrate an actor, but to celebrate a writer’, creates an ambience that is too good to be true. For everyone in the audience to separate Naseeruddin Shah from acting is impossible and thus even while talking about his memoir, Naseeruddin Shah the actor is invariably discussed and we aren’t complaining.
Talking about his memoir, Shah says rather amusingly, “One thing about writing memoirs is that if you don’t write about someone, they get upset. But if you write about someone, they get more upset!”
Shah, in his memoir recounts his passages through Aligarh University, the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India. Since they played such a vital role in him becoming the actor he is today, he discusses this period of his life at length. Shah tells the audience how he himself was rather apprehensive about the possible contribution an institute could make to his skills but he proudly says he was proved wrong. “Why this judgmental attitude in training institutes?” Shah comments. After all the schools are what makes him stand apart from the crowd even today. Discussing the lack of interest mainstream cinema takes in trained actors, Girish Karnad comments “Institutes were geared towards the industry, but the industry didn’t need one.” Taking the conversation forward, Shah adds, “Film institutes believed if you were good looking, you could become a hero. You were immediately categorized as hero, villain, and comedian”. Recalling an instance that concedes to this very statement of Shah, Girish Karnad says, “I remember the jury (of the film institute) rejecting Om Puri ‘he is a good actor but he doesn’t have a cinematic face’, they said”
The conversation now progresses to the invariable connection between an actor and his good looks. The Indian Film Industry has forever placed a premium on the supposed “good looks” of an actor. Girish Karnad says, “Shyam Benegal wanted an actor, but not one who was a chocolate boy. So I sent him (Shah)”. Naseeruddin Shah is quick to add rather wittily, “There were other actors in the making but the problem was that they were too good looking,” he continues his humorous banter, “I lost a girlfriend because she thought I wasn’t good looking enough to be an actor”. The sheer hollowness and superficiality of good looks in Indian Cinema is clearly up for a critiquing by these two luminaries.
As the actors jump from one topic of discussion to another, Girish Karnad begins to speak about his career. “I became an actor by accident”, he says. Well, thank the heavens that accidents like these occur! As he continues recalling his earlier days, he tells the audience of his days when he along with a couple of his friends wrote, directed and produced films amongst themselves. “I made my first movie, which was banned by the government. I fought for it. It was released, and won an award from the government. That’s democracy.” Karnad says proudly of his endeavour as an artist.
Shah now talks about his favourite roles as an actor. Surely, a man with a work canvas as impressive as him would have a tough time deciding his best. “I think of all the parts that I have played, Nishant is the closest to me.” Elaborating on his role in Nishant, he says, “I’ve been the slightly stupid one, the one who makes mistakes, the one who gets smitten”. And what would be his close second? “Manthan” he answers confidently and his friend Javed Akhtar cannot help but agree- “It was after Manthan that I realized how good your work was in Nishant”
Shah has forever been known for the sheer depth he brings to every character he plays. As he talks about his process of character creation he says that he first began by noticing other people, studying them. But in time he realised that this method was wrong. “I should not have created characters in my head. It was my reflexes that were needed.” He further adds on, almost as if he is sending out a message, “We have every kind of potential within us. We have to recognize it.”
In the presence of two such huge ‘stars’ of the industry, the complexities of stardom could not help but be discussed. “People become stars, then they don’t learn” says Karnad. Shah on the other hand has a different way of looking at this complexity, “I never became a star. It was disappointing because I wanted to, but I didn’t. Not becoming a star helped me to concentrate on things I love”
As the session continues, Naseeruddin Shah says something truly beautiful that not only will inspire the current and the future generations of actors but will also inspire us to be the best version of ourselves every day. “There is no such thing as a perfect actor or a perfect performance. You grow every day!”
Towards the closing of the session, Girish Karnad requests Shah to read to the audiences his favourite part from the memoir. He chooses an excerpt that is a rather personal one. Shah talks about the complicated relationship he had with his father. As he reads the excerpt the audiences are told that he shared a very distant relationship with his father, “I don’t even remember touching him”, Shah says. It was only after his father’s death that he realized what he had lost. “Some mistakes cannot be undone”, Shah says rather regretfully. The audience cannot help but contemplate. Indeed his reading of the excerpt left the audiences to introspect on the strained relationships in their lives. What started off as a talk on the actor’s remarkable journey, ends on a rather melancholic and emotional note.
Get your copy of Naseeruddin Shah’s ‘And Then One Day’ here- bit.ly/16dy96f