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I Can Watch Naseeruddin Shah Over and Over Again: Shabana Azmi 

On Naseeruddin Shah’s birthday, Shabana Azmi looks back on their formidable pairing on screen.

Updated
Bollywood
4 min read
Shabana Azmi gets candid about co-star and friend Naseeruddin Shah.
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No two ways about it, they were the formidable jodi of the New Wave of Indian cinema of the 1970s and ‘80s. In fact, to think of cinema without Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi - is to think of cinema being created without a camera.

On Naseer’s birthday, who else but Ms Azmi to talk about the Shah genius? Excerpts from an exclusive conversation for The Quint.

Shabana Azmi. 
Shabana Azmi. 
(Photo Courtesy: Karan Desai)

Any spontaneous thoughts on Naseer’s birthday?

Shabana Azmi: I wish Naseer well from the bottom of my heart. Jeete raho, khush raho. May you continue to enrich our lives with many more performances.

You acted with him in 15 films. Has this jodi been given its due?

Shabana: That’s for the audience to decide. But there was a time when Naseer and I were spending more time together than he was with Ratna or I with Javed. We were playing every kind of couple - rural, urban,rich, poor, middle class. We were fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. So many roles came our way which gave us respectability as actors.Acting is a collaborative medium. When your co-star is good it makes your work that much easier. I do hope we can work together soon.

Which were your most satisfying films together?

Shabana: Sparsh,Paar, Masoom, Khandhar and Mandi.

Do you think Naseer could fit into the mould of commercial cinema?

Shabana: He is the first person to admit that he was a misfit in commercial cinema but now he is doing pretty well in that sphere as well.

Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in a still from <i>Sparsh</i>.&nbsp;
Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in a still from Sparsh

After a point, Naseer became disenchanted with small-budget cinema and spoke up against art-house filmmakers. Was he justified?

Shabana: I think his disappointment stemmed from the feeling that he was being cheated. You see he had supported a lot of art-house filmmakers by working for free for them. However, at the first given opportunity these filmmakers went to the regular stars. He felt used. Yet his tirade against all of them at one go was misplaced in my opinion. After all, the films of Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen and Goutam Ghose gave him an opportunity to display his enormous talent.

Which would you rate as Naseer’s underrated performances? Mandi?

Shabana: Arre, he was loved in Mandi!

Can Naseer be an argumentative co-actor or is he in sync?

Shabana: Naseer has always been a diligent actor. He would read the script over and over again and calibrate his performances really well. If he felt that in Scene 36, he needs to give only 60 per cent of himself because Scene 82 needs 80 per cent, he could hold back. For someone who claims that acting is not creative because it merely requires you to interpret the vision of the writers and the directors, Naseer has done some pretty good stuff.

How do you look back on Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh and Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom?

Shabana: He was brilliant in Sparsh.  Quite often,  after a shot I would instinctively stretch out my hand in support. I had forgotten, he wasn’t blind in real life. I had predicted that he would win the National Award for it. Sparsh had very fresh writing by Sai and Naseer gave the role his all.

In Masoom, the love affair was between Shekhar Kapur and Naseer. Shekhar won Naseer’s trust. He convinced Naseer to cut his beard and gave him nice clothes to wear – small things which make an actor feel good about himself. I remember complaining that I wish Shekhar wouldn’t treat me like Dresden China, that I’m a pro and need to be told upfront that this isn’t working. It was Naseer who said, “That’s Shekhar’s style. He is gentle with you, with me and the kids. Give him the support to direct you in the way he is most comfortable.”

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Both of you are dedicated to theatre. In recent times though, you have appeared only in one play (Broken Images) while Naseer is constantly on stage.

Shabana: Excuse me! I have done 10 plays including one at the National Theatre in London and another at the Singapore repertory theatre. I enjoy theatre very much. I was four months old when my mother would strap me on her back and take me to Prithvi theatre. Still, basically I am a film actor. Naseer on the other hand, is a theatre actor. He owns the stage. Kitni aasani se saans leta hai! He is fantastic in A Walk in the Woods and in Einstein. I can watch him over and over again.

Shabana Azmi performing on stage for <i>Broken Images. </i>(Photo Courtesy: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/RaellPadamseesACE/">Facebook/RaellPadamsee’sACE</a>)
Shabana Azmi performing on stage for Broken Images. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/RaellPadamsee’sACE)

Did or can anyone come close to the Naseer-Shabana pair?

Shabana: Of course, yes. There were Om Puri and Smita Patil, Farouque Shaikh and Deepti Naval. The advent of casting directors has changed the eco-system: stock characters like Om Prakash, Madan Puri and Shivraj have been replaced. There are some amazing actors today. Sanjay Mishra, Kumud Mishra and Shashank Arora are excellent. I saw Titli and loved all the performances.

Lastly, do Naseer and you keep in touch?

Shabana: Unfortunately not. We had a common friend, Farhan Mujib, and would meet whenever he came into town. Unfortunately he passed away.

I was pleasantly surprised when Naseer said some nice things about me in his book. In real life whenever I ask him about my work, he chuckles, “Your mother, Shauqat aapa, is a wonderful actress!” Go figure.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Naseeruddin Shah’s birthday.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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