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Naseer courts Ismat

Actor Naseeruddin Shah is now a compelling storyteller too

HIS RANGE is formidable and his roles have embraced a continuum of acting from blind teacher to brash advertising executive. Recently, however, Naseeruddin Shah has been staging plays based on short stories, with his family in the cast. Looking ahead he hopes to teach and direct, but currently it's the staging of essays by Harishankar Parsai which is keeping him busy.

Your recent plays have focussed on a sort of story telling based on short stories. How did you come to discover and explore this form?

It came from the dearth of current Indian plays available. I, as a sort of desperate measure, resorted to reading some Hindustani literature, first of all the stories of Ismat who was a great writer. I knew her personally but had no idea of the level of her writing. I would visit her and she was quite fond of me. Never once did she suggest I read anything she'd written. On my own I discovered these stories in an English translation and was totally mesmerised by the quality of the story telling and so I read them in Hindi and decided on the first reading to stage these.

There can't be a greater challenge for an actor because he has to create the world of the characters and he has to convey the story all on his own without the support of characterisation, sets or other actors. It's a tremendously taxing job and also very challenging. Most of the time, in our country, the kind of work actors have to do is not very challenging, especially in movies. (Laughs.)

Along with discovering storytelling, was there a parallel disillusionment with the Bollywood roles you were being offered?

I've never been very comfortable with the Bombay film set-up. I never fitted in and I was never very good in those movies. My orientation into movies was through the early films of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, etc. To fit into those films, I had to shed all traces of larger-than-life, heroic acting from my work to portray the realistic characters required of me. Having discarded that brash confidence I had when I was 17 or 18, I found it difficult to recover (laughs). So when I was asked to work in these larger-than-life movies and play these roles, I found myself unable to perform the task.

It's a question of being able to find truth in the work you do. I'd be a liar if I say I never wanted to be well known and celebrated and famous... no one becomes an actor to serve art. You become an actor because you want to meet girls, quite simply. Because you want to be noticed, you want to be appreciated. I had no reservation about singing and dancing; the fact that I'm not very good at it is a different matter.

Some of your best work has come from the new wave cinema of the '70s.

I'm always held responsible for the death of the so-called art film movement; people say I "deserted" it. I never deserted it; I'm willing to do those kinds of movies if only the filmmakers would make them. The filmmakers gave up making them. If a movement could die because one actor deserted, it, what kind of movement was it?

What these filmmakers claim now is that they have jumped onto the commercial bandwagon because there was no audience and no finance for the kind of movies they wanted to make. I don't understand that — I consider it a betrayal.

You've often said you did your Hollywood debut film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, from a sense of curiosity. So with that satiated is this it in Hollywood?

Well there was curiosity mainly. Also the desire to make a lot of money. I'm not averse to Hollywood just as I'm not averse to working in Bollywood every now and then. But it was a disappointment. I didn't expect it to be a great movie but I expected it to be slightly more interesting. It was just the same old garbage. I've acted in about five movies with the same story as The League... . I would like to do an occasional English or American film as it takes my fancy.


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