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Richard Attenborough auditioning Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil for ‘Gandhi’. Photographs courtesy Penguin India
Richard Attenborough auditioning Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil for ‘Gandhi’. Photographs courtesy Penguin India

Naseeruddin Shah: Drama king

Naseeruddin Shah's memoir is essential reading on the art of acting and its travails, told through the actor's daring life story

Naseeruddin Shah is a contentious interviewee. In interviews, he has castigated everyone and everything in Hindi cinema, from its biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan to directors of India’s parallel cinema movement in the 1970s and 1980s. He can be candid, self-effacing and curmudgeonly, often all at the same time. That’s the man journalists who have met him a few times, your reviewer included, and his friends would not mistake for another in the apolitical cinema world of Mumbai. But the personality, much of which he reveals in his autobiography And Then One Day: A Memoir, is peripheral to Naseeruddin Shah.

And Then One Day—A Memoir: Hamish Hamilton, 272 pages, Rs699
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And Then One Day—A Memoir: Hamish Hamilton, 272 pages, Rs699

Unfortunately for a cinema-loving country, these films belong to a remote cultural landscape now, but Shah has insinuated these characters unforgettably into the minds of those who have watched them. He has occasionally even walloped stars on their own stomping grounds. Remember Shah as a cardboard Muslim traitor and Aamir Khan as a cardboard patriot in the climactic scenes in Sarfarosh (1999), pitted against each other in overheated histrionics?

Shah’s memoir is essentially about acting, his lifeblood. He discovered a state of fearlessness on the stage in front of blinding lights, while he was a teenager during a school play; he confesses early on in the book that acting was the only skill that ever got him any praise. We travel with him through the classes of the National School of Drama, cradle of the great Ebrahim Alkazi, and through the thorny years at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), which was liberating as well as suffocating for the budding actor, through Mumbai’s audition rooms, Roshan Taneja’s acting classes (yes, he even attended some of those!), and through small and purposeful, as well as absurdly big, film sets, and the fortuitous event of being found by Shyam Benegal, whom he describes as a foster parent. The making and fruition of Motley, Shah’s theatre company with actor Benjamin Gilani, is a climactic end to this journey, although not the literal end of the book. Shah met Geoffrey Kendal, the British actor who propagated theatre in India like few Indians ever have, and made Kendal his god. Later on, Bollywood’s stark lack of serious intent behind film-making incites Shah’s demons; its hypocrisies provoke him to wild outpourings.

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Naseeruddin Shah with wife Ratna Pathak Shah at a film party.

In all this, there is a disarmingly blunt charm. He has no big bone to pick against many, although his opinion is never impaired—be it on the perceived grandeur of Sholay or the intellectual posturing of FTII students. He is hard on himself, refuses to play the martyr, and his minute recall of scenes from his past is astonishingly cinematic. At the Bombay airport in 1975, waiting to catch a flight to Hyderabad, where he was to act in his first lead role in Nishant: “There were some dead neon signs, a few shuttered kiosks and abandoned check-in counters. Even without a soul in sight the place still looked grand compared to what I’d experienced in the name of travel so far. The concept of plastic bucket seats hadn’t been imported yet; there were rexine sofas with foam cushioning, on one of which I reclined in great style, lighting a cigarette and forseeing a future like Hugh Hefner. Like him I would have airports and airplanes to myself."

And Then One Day is a rarity in an age when much of cultural documentation and memoir writing is through a distiller or a ghost writer. It is memoir in the classical sense, in which the voice and the views are intensely personal. The book has a consistently wry style, impossible to separate from the man, never mythologized, except perhaps by young, serious actors. In an interview to Mint Lounge last year, Irrfan Khan said that when he began as an actor, there was Shah to look up to, that he made young actors believe there was another way of acting and surviving.

Shah stops the memoir at the time when he was around 40. We don’t know if acting in the films of Vishal Bhardwaj, Neeraj Pandey and Abhishek Chaubey—the directors of the Noughties and beyond—challenge him or comfort him, although we can make safe guesses. At a point in his long career when it seemed unlikely Shah could surprise us, he has done it with this moving self-portrait—of a man largely at ease with his past.

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