Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir “And Then One Day” has an opening quote of Pink Floyd “No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun”. I would like to say a lot of people told him to run, some rather roughly. Naseer did miss the starting gun. He did not, however, remain behind but kept running, with determination and, consumed by passion, he ended a winner.
I think very few of our actors compare with his talent and versatility. I agree with Naseer that “The acting in Indian movies is so unbearably false”. I never had any fascination for Bollywood cinema though I tried to see all of Naseer’s movies. He stands out for his stellar performances just like the way his memoir stands out for its boldness, frankness and scintillating use of the English language. I must confess I had to refer to the dictionary, to understand the import of a few words he has so effortlessly used.
This is a very enjoyable memoir, very readable and full of self-effacing humour. Unlike other movie stars’ memoirs, Naseer has not revealed the juicy peccadilloes of fellow actors which would have had movie buffs salivating. He has spared criticism of his creed of actors. One of the few persons he has not been charitable to is my father, Aley Mohammed Shah (Baba). Naseer was his favourite, lovingly called him “Champa Kali”. Baba, who having been deprived of a good school education, wanted to give his sons the best schooling. This certainly laid strong foundations. Zaheer “cracked” IIT, I joined NDA and Naseer ran away to Bombay – but he still made good.
Another aspect I differ with Naseer is about our Alma Mater St. Joseph’s College in Nainital. I think Naseer, being a very sensitive person, resented the corporal punishment meted out to students which was the norm in those days. “Six of the best” and “Public Flogging” were common. I was subjected to it several times. It did me no harm, not that I approve of it. We had found a way to avoid any pain by wearing a friend’s “tiger skin” underwear, whenever punishment was to be administered. The cane made a loud sound when resounding on our backside, but there was no pain.
Naseer’s pique about St. Joseph’s is understandable. His burning desire to act remained unfulfilled because students weak in studies, were not chosen for plays which required a lot of time and practice. Zaheer was a brilliant student and won best actor awards several times. I did play some minor roles but held my own due to sports, specially in boxing.
I would attribute several reasons for Naseer’s success. He has a powerful baritone voice and his diction and delivery of words is flawless. He owes Aligarh Muslim University a debt for learning the correct nuances of Urdu which he used with mesmerizing effect in the serial “Mirza Ghalib”. It remains my favourite, although I liked him immensely as the lecherous Subedar in “Mirch Masala”. Naseer feels I liked his performance because he played the role of a fauji . That may be true but it had black humour and we were familiar, since childhood, with the dominating, bullying and boorish behaviour of zamidars . Naseer has so lucidly and lovingly described my “Mamus” who were of the “manor born” and never hesitated to pull punches or draw weapons.
Naseer has an amazing memory. I had forgotten many childhood anecdotes and my wife and I laughed when we read about them. The only event he seems to forget is why he won his first cup. Well it was the “football tunnel” race where 10 boys in each team had to bend forward to pass a football under their legs, collect the ball and run to the winning post. I also participated, lost to Naseer’s team, and was green with envy.
The ability to memorize a script, after a few readings is his forte. I witnessed this myself when a senior army officer gave him a two page script for an introductory talk for an army film on ecology. He did two readings and in half-an-hour was ready for the “shoot”. This explains why he is so easy to work with. He doesn’t have to consult his script after every sentence. I have seen him toiling on his script, before every shooting schedule.
Then come Naseer’s chameleon like looks. He can be a dapper, handsome young businessman in “Masoom”, the rustic villager in “Manthan” the impoverished villager in “Paar” or the dirty old man in “Dirty Picture” and “Ishqiyan”. If he had the “chocolate boy” looks, he “wouldn’t have effectively been able to perform those roles.
This brother of mine is the same fun loving, generous, individual we teasingly called Ustad Pedro after a ridiculous movie of the 1960s. We Shah brothers, whenever we meet discuss, sports, books and family anecdotes. Naseer encouraged such exchanges. I didn’t know he was collecting material for his book.
Naseer has talked about his penchant for movie watching. Baba allowed us the English matinee every Sunday morning. When Brigitte Bardot’s “The Truth” came to town we befooled Baba with allowing us to see it by explaining it was a “Biblical” film.
I was one of the few Naseer confided in when he planned to marry, Purveen, his first wife. I advised him against this venture, telling him it would be a biological disaster marrying a woman almost double his age. He dismissed my advice as “old fashioned”. I am glad he has not been bitter about Purveen, despite, the failed marriage and ultimate divorce.
In the end I would like to admit that I am the “Boy from Sardhana” (Chapter 2). While reading the book I laughed aloud just as much as I laughed while reading about the antics of “Billy Bunter”, as a child, or “Jeeves”, of PG Wodehouse fame as a young adult. I did, however, find the book far too confessional – visits to “Falkland Road” et al. Some secrets need never be revealed for the sake of posterity or ones own children. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and readable book – not the work of a ghostwriter – but the work of a great artiste – undiluted Naseeruddin Shah.
(The writer is Naseerudin Shah’s brother and Vice-Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University)