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Comic-book caper from Naseer

Last week, Naseeruddin Shah popped up among the stellar cast of a big budget Hollywood yarn, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen''. ANAND PARTHASARATHY writes...

Naseeruddin Shah as Captain Nemo in the new Hollywood film, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

ON SUNDAY, Naseeruddin Shah celebrates his birthday. It will be a comforting time for Naseer, the actor, because the candles on his cake — 53 — will be easily outnumbered by the films in which he has appeared — 86 — since his `guru' Shyam Benegal first cast the young product of the

National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1975 `New Wave' film, "Nishant''. Then quickly followed this, the very next year, with two more productions, "Manthan'' and "Bhumika''. Since then, Naseeruddin has turned in a series of memorable performances that have shown, that genuine acting talent, when supported by a good script and sensitive direction, can create better cinema than the assembly line products of Mumbai's tinsel town: In the intense drama ``Sparsh'', in the title role of "Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai'', as the compassionate parent in "Masoom'' and the lecherous subedar in "Mirch Masala''... Yet, he is no stranger to mainstream Bollywood, where he can be depended upon to infuse a little style into the proceedings — as his memorable hamming in "Tridev'' and "Hero Heeralal'' show. His `plum' English accent has come in handy when Indian documentary makers sought a wider audience ("Project Tiger'', ''Living on the Edge'') and this is also one of the reasons Naseer has managed to make an impression in stage and screen products of a more international nature.

His 1985 title role of Cyrano in the (British) National Theatre's production of the long nosed hero's lovelorn story; his appearance in Peter Brook's American production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet'' two years ago testify to his continued fascination for the stage. He also slid effortlessly into the role of the Mumbai CID detective, Inspector Ghote in the 1988 filmed version of H. R. F. Keating's novel, "The Perfect Murder''.

More recently, he has popped up in Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding'' and Kaizad Gustad's "Bombay Boys'' — proof that for Naseer in middle age, a small but strong role still wins over the more monetary attractions of Mumbai masala.

But Hollywood has its masala too. And last week, Naseer appeared alongside Sean Connery in a big budget film that, like its title, is quite extraordinary. ``The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'' owes its origin to a comic book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O' Neill which takes the mickey out of Victorian icons of literature by bringing half a dozen of them anachronistically together. So in the film, which had its global premiere in the U.S. on July 11, we have Connery playing Alan Quartermain — the Rider Haggard-created character of "King Solomon's Mines'' — at the head of a motely group of do-gooders that includes Captain Nemo (Nasseruddin Shah) the now reformed pirate of the submarine Nautilus dreamed up by Jules Verne. Others in the team include Tom Sawyer (the Mark Twain boy hero), Mina Harker (from Bram Stoker's Dracula), and that infamous split personality, Jekyll and Hyde. There is also Dorian Gray, about whose Picture, Oscar Wilde fashioned a famous story. This `A Team' of Victorian folk heroes is requisitioned to take on a shadowy villain known as The Fantom, who is about to conquer the world — but only after a slight detour to inundate Venice. Captain Nemo a.k.a Naseer is able to provide just the transportation to carry the League to the City of Canals: his submarine. And as a concession to his Indian origins, the script writers have cheerfully morphed the original Captain Nemo into an Indian freedom fighter who has a hidden agenda — to rid his native country of the British. The rest of the story is high-spirited spoofery — Hollywood style — and Naseer sends up his screen alter ego with the best of them.

Will it add to his reputation: unlikely. Will it earn him enough in petty cash to allow him the luxury of choosing some good if unremunerative roles in future — almost certainly. As "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'' rakes it in with other summer popcorn fare in the West before coming to India, Naseer can probably start reading a few more scripts to find something that excites him creatively. Happy hunting and happy birthday Nemo, sorry Naseer!

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