“Phata poster, nikla hero.”
Naseeruddin Shah—in stark contrast to the almost supernova-like introduction in an unforgettable sequence from Hero Hiralal—made a quiet but powerful debut as Vishwam in Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) to shine in the crowded constellation of Hindi cinema, a star that would become brighter with every passing day.
“Directing him, even during his first film, was quite like a dream,” says Benegal, who takes pride in being described as the director who introduced Shah to the popular psyche. And almost as if by habit, he plunges into an appraisal of Shah’s acting skills. “You know a fine actor when you see one. Even then he was extremely focused; when he spoke, you could rest assured that it was indeed him who was speaking those lines and not an amateur mouthing someone else’s script. It was almost as if he made those lines himself.”
Shah turned 60 on Tuesday. But even after around 35 years of straddling different roles, more often than not bestowed with countless awards, he shows no signs of tiring. One can perhaps attribute the hunger for artistic perfection to the times that saw him running away from home in Uttar Pradesh for Mumbai around 1966, the struggle for roles in films, the vision and skills accumulated and polished at the National School of Drama, and the initial days in the film industry itself.
Kundan Shah, who directed him in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, widely acknowledged as a satirical marvel of a film, agrees: “He’s remained the same. Thank God! Every film is a trip for him, and he still tends to refuse the odd film being produced by a big banner.”
Shah’s refusal to compromise on his artistic values, though, wasn’t always completely decipherable. He straddled both so-called art and commercial cinema, although not always with success. Yet his refusal lay in his commitment to the art of acting itself, the courageous leap from the shame of exhibiting himself to the glory of forgetting his self in the role.
“His life can be likened to (Guru) Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool; it is in its highs that his greatness lies. His career is chequered, yes. But the highs are sublime,” says Kundan Shah. There’s no arguing with that—the highs of a Pestonjee (1988), the almost blinding brilliance of Sparsh (1979), a Paar (1984) that made the crowds at the Venice Film Festival wonder whether it was a real life labourer playing himself in the film, the effortlessness with which he ambled into the soul of Mirza Ghalib (1988), Sarfarosh’s (1999) Gulfam and his chilling silences, the gravelly voice weaving that utterly majestic monologue in Khuda Kay Liye (2007).
Whether within his beloved theatre or on the flickering images of the cinema screen, the art of Shah is there for all to see.