That Naseeruddin Shah is a class act, an exceptionally gifted actor is a given… a boring and acknowledged truism. From the Big B to the Khans to every sane star, NS is something else! A Poster Boy of the Parallel Cinema movement of the 70's, Shah (along with Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil) showcased and starred in several memorable movies that powered a movement that defined and offered an intelligent, sensitive and powerful alternative to the populist star-driven mainstream masala.
While critical acclaim came from all quarters (he also won a top award at the prestigious Venice Fest for Paar), popular acclaim was nowhere in sight. The Big B’s towering shadow ruled and Dharmendra, Jeetendra and gang fired public imagination at a popular level, Naseer couldn’t hope to remotely touch.
He just didn’t feature in that scheme of things and a couple of embarrassing commercial forays had to be peeled off the ceiling with the local wit uttering those deathless lines...Pehla din ticket nahin mila. Doosra din picture nahin mila! Licked, he backtracked swiftly to home turf and waited for his time to come.
After all, hard work, training at NSD, intelligence, knowledge and a fabulous portfolio of brilliant performances that won accolades and awards from eminent critics must count for something?
Today, looking back on his career in year 2012, it is clear that despite all that fab work, nobody from the mainstream stable of hot film-makers bothered to cast him. It took a maverick and audacious Mahesh Bhatt to seek him out and cast him in a slew of films that at least reached out to an audience way beyond his 'arty' target group. Bhatt believed that while stars had charisma that translated to mass appeal, the ability to bring intensity, passion and credibility to make-believe in a way that impacted people’s emotions, was an area that Shah was matchless in and he proved it time and again in those edgy Bhatt ventures.
While the Industry noted these performances and appreciated them, they were clueless about how to use an actor who seemed, invariably, to be way bigger than his role. Besides, his tag as an 'arty' actor from the parallel cinema (forever celebrating the miseries of the have-nots) also failed to sweep the polls in his favour.
Clearly actors – then, even now – are a breed more admired than hired! No matter how riveting he was and how confidently and powerfully he stood up against any hot star of the day (going eyeball-to-eyeball with style) – be it Dilip Kumar, Anil Kapoor, Ajay Devgun or Aamir Khan – he remained largely ignored and overlooked.
Is that why he dismisses all that B-town is doing with an amused shrug and genuinely believes that with the slew of new, audience-engaging, non-formulaic successes are nothing more than a passing phase and "not a trend?" Does, somewhere, the public veto, their total non-acceptance of him as a marketable commodity who can sell tickets, invite gigantic theatre footfalls, generate buzz and excitement and generally force the powers-that-be to sign him, prompt this negativity and cynicism?
Is it pique, anger, envy, frustration or disgust at watching loads of non-talented dumbos raking in the loot and basking in the limelight while he continues to live in the shadows, by choice...or lack of it?
30-year-old Bollywatcher Arnab Sen, believes it's "nothing but sour grapes! Arty-farty stuff is fine for Film Festivals, cine clubs, fakes, pseudos and students/lovers of serious cinema, but in the real duniya, they are bad news. Entertainment is the name of the game. Naseer is a fab actor but he can never grab popular attention because he lacks glamour.
Heroes need to look hot n' handsome - in any decade – and our friend looks scary. So, character roles (or lead in those arty camp-wallahs projects) is all that he got. Remember audiences don’t go to see character artistes, but dazzling hunks; sexy heroes. I guess his being methodically side-tracked pissed him off, leading to his cute frothing-in-the-mouth routine.
B-town doesn't give a shit, nor the public at large. "No big deal!" Bangalore-based Chitra Subramanium, a great Naseer fan, however, seems disappointed at his constant put-downers targeting Bollywood. "All sane, intelligent and informed people know what Bollywood stands for, so that part is taken care of.
"It's your choice and there’s no value-judgement involved. However, in recent times there have been outstanding exceptions too. Along with the populist, brain-dead Rowdy Rathores & Bol Bachchans, have come Kahaani, Pan Singh,
Vicky Donor, Shanghai, Wasseypur… shouldn’t that be lauded?
As a star of the Parallel cinema of the 70’s, when similar mainstream fare blitzed popular imagination, has he forgotten his role in doing his bit towards contributing for a cinema that embraced realism, away from the heavy-handed, armpit-rhetoric-driven drivel? As an evolved artiste, shouldn’t he express solidarity and encouragement instead of being a cynical kill-joy? Truly disappointed!"
Critics bring their own spin to the table. Rauf Ahmed is convinced that Shah is absolutely justified in thinking and feeling the way he does. The respected film scholar lays it on the line. "Look, he is easily one of the finest talents in the industry, but he has never ever got his due, because he lacks the conventional ham-glam looks, posturing and over-the-top dramabaazi propagated and consumed by our star-struck audiences. Also, because he is not a part of any 100 crore club.
"Hence he is not really paid any attention or given roles that would allow him to demonstrate his true worth as a consummate actor. Remember his riveting face-offs with Aamir in Sarfarosh? Remember his tiny but mind-blowing cameo as Farhan’s father in Zoya's Zindagi… and more recently his fabulous, studied, conscious & exaggerated, over-the-top turn in The Dirty Picture? Did they get an iota of the acclaim they deserved? Naturally he will react."
Saibal Chatterjee is not remotely surprised and insists that "Naseer and Cynicism are the made-for-each-other blend!" He believes that Naseer is the exact opposite of the Bollywood prototype, perpetually on a high, usually without any valid reason. Naseer’s best roles continue to be playing The Devil’s Advocate & Mr. Kill Joy! He is there to give these flaky dream-merchants a reality-check.
This has happened due to a number of reasons and he was not always this way. "When he entered this line, the Parallel Cinema was taking shape, a cinema that appealed to his sensibilities. He leaped in and gave it his all. With time – along with some others – he became the ‘face’ of this movement, giving it luster, glow, credence, respectability and class, powering the journey heart n' soul.
Soon, however, he became disillusioned both with the direction of the movement and the intent of some of its stalwarts and switched to commercial cinema, a space which he reckoned was not, at least, pretentious. After "oye-oye-ing" his way through a few of these ventures, he tired of their obsession of catering to the lowest common denominator and Friday pickings and opted out.”
Chatterjee believes that, having washed his hands off both these models, he has little space or scope to display his magical wares. "While he is not totally wrong in his evaluation and assessment of the general mindset and values grabbing B-town, he seems to ignore or forget the critical aspect of market forces. Talent is great, but audience is greater. What’s the point in engaging with films that no one sees – Maximum being the latest. A little practicality or pragmatism would help. New directors are in awe of his talent but nervous to cast him because of his constant battle with the 'real' thing.
They’d rather go with someone fresh, gifted and open to their vision and ready to go the distance come what may. He is not young, handsome, glamorous, so the mainstream is not interested. Others are wary of his spirit of enquiry. Tough call. He should chill a bit. Loosen up. Adapt...let the world sample his genius."
Will that happen? Can that happen? Unlikely. The legendary Brando had once said that "great acting and stardom demand contradictory attributes. An actor's most priceless gift is his range; A star's, an identifiable niche in the public mind, a deathless image, a persona to which the fans can continuously relate. The Actor-star, hence, is constantly engaged in a two-front war. As the Actor stretches, the star retracts."
Naseeruddin Shah is an actor first and last and unlikely to ever retract. (While Smita Patil is no more, Om Puri quite happily engaged in doing any which role that comes his way from mainstream or any quarter and Shabana, glamorously co-opted into the swish set, posing happily with Javed, Farhan, Zoya at Bollywood tamashas, wherever and whenever) Naseer continues to consciously distance himself from all these events.
Iconoclast, rebel, dissenter, he will continue to go with films that excite him – the Pakistani Khuda Ke Liye and now Zinda Bhaag, Anjum (Peepli Live) Rizvi’s next John Day & Charlie ke Chakkar. Also in the wings, a play called Walk in the Woods, an Indian adaptation of an American play of the same name written by Lee Blessings. He will continue to offer his views and comments in a frank and forthright manner, unlike the hypocritical, double-speak spouted by many media-savvy heavies. Kill-joy, Devil’s Advocate, a jealous and frustrated veteran… or secure, amused and totally confident, fulfilled artiste thriving while doing his own thing? You decide. At the end of the day one thing, however, is certain for this amazing “ekla cholo re actor … like the fabled Sinatra, he can have the satisfaction of also crooning the classic lyrics … I did it, my way.