Naseeruddin Shah & the Art of Being Brutally Honest

Naseeruddin Shah speaks on Sunny Leone, the absent Anupam Kher, the hypocrisy of art-house cinema, and Ratna Pathak.

6 min read

“Your friends and family won’t trust you if you told them about this encounter? It is sad you need a photo to prove that you’d met me. Why don’t we have a conversation instead?”

Naseeruddin Shah retorted thus when a fan insisted on taking a selfie with him at Mountain Echoes literature festival in Thimphu. The woman looked distraught when Shah, true to his word, offered her an engaged chat but no selfie.

Why settle for a selfie when you can have a conversation with Shah? Ask him the right questions and you have his attention. In this free-wheeling interview with The Quint, Shah holds back no punches, spares none—including himself.

Pusillanimity of Parallel Cinema

Often hailed as a doyen of the art-house tradition in Indian cinema, Shah has no qualms about exposing the hypocrisy of the ‘art film’ world. Talking about the ‘parallel’ filmmakers in the 70s–an oft touted golden era of Indian cinema–Shah expresses his dismay quite candidly. “The record of these filmmakers speaks for itself. You can go back and study the work of several filmmakers who began in the early 70s. There are very few exceptions, Mrinal Sen being one of them, Shyam Benegal being another. I’m hard pressed to think of a third name. The rest of them, they all started as cinema students, who wanted to make significant statements through their movies not worrying about–or claiming that they were not worried about–box office returns, and that they were not interested in making the kind of confection that the film world in Bombay produces” he says.

The kind of confection Shah had consciously kept himself away from.

He continues, “And each of them made one film that was true to his philosophy. Some made two, but none of them made more than two. I started working in 1975. My first film with Shyam came out in 1975, and I’ve worked with many of these gentlemen.

And I found, firstly, that they were not evolving as filmmakers. They were going on making the same film again and again.
Naseeruddin Shah

And if it’s really the question of issues than even Manmohan Desai made films about the mazdoors. The injustices meted out to the working class. It’s a question of how you put your point across. And all these so called committed filmmakers were, I think, very challenged as far as their film making abilities were concerned and were resorting to the easiest ways of doing it, provided they had a script with some substance.”

Shah’s disappointment grows more profound as he shares, “The moment they (filmmakers) got bigger opportunities, the moment any of them had a success with these small films, they immediately dumped their idealism and their commitment to the cinema they believed in and started making the usual, the conventional stuff. That really upset me. I think I had more faith in these guys than they had in themselves.”

Can we, then, surmise that commercial mainstream cinema is more honest than arthouse cinema as it doesn’t claim to be what it is not? Shah responds with caution.

“Well, in a sense yes. Nobody expects a social message in a David Dhawan film. But what irks me more is the fact that trashy films are being made and their makers have the gall to blame the audience for it. ‘You asked for it.’ No well-made film has been rejected by the audience, so it is just a convenient excuse for laziness and a lack of imagination. You take the audience for a ride and then blame them, too!”

Secular Facade of Films

The conversation around hypocrisy in cinema can not avoid touching upon the communal faultlines that are sometimes seen emerging. Shah has, in the past, stated that his Muslim identity is of no consequence to him.

“Film industry understands just one principle: money. Three biggest stars in the industry are Muslims, a lot of money rides on them. The film industry is forced to put up a secular face. There are all kinds of people here, but we are good with appearances. I don’t feel persecuted as a Muslim, I’m not even a practising Muslim. But I do feel angry at what has been happening in the country.”

Unlike most of his colleagues, Shah has been candid about his opinions on matters beyond cinema. Do film personalities get unfairly judged for taking political sides? Kangana Ranaut, for example, was recently lambasted for her support for PM Modi.

Shah says, “Yes, she was. And so was Prakash Raj. He has been marginalised even by his own people.”

Keeping Up With the Shahs

Ratna Pathak Shah was sitting on the next table rehearsing her lines for their upcoming performance, a dramatized reading of poetry and prose and the conversation veered from professional to personal. Ratna had once claimed, “We are the last of the bloody liberals left.”

Being reminded of that he smiles and says, “I really hope that there are many, many more couples like Ratna and I. Thankfully, I’m not accused of being a love-jihadi. We married at a time when this ghastly phrase love-jihad was not coined.

When my son was barely 5, he met a Hindu couple and was quite surprised. ‘Dad, do Hindus marry other Hindus also?’ He was used to seeing only mixed couples till then.
Naseeruddin Shah

Do such well-matched couples also fight? Shah responds with “Both Ratna and I have a temper and things do get explosive sometimes. But we are able to resolve our issues and that’s what the beauty of this relationship is. We are friends first, spouses later. That’s what makes this marriage work. Ratna wears the pants in this relationship and I like it that way. In fact, we are working together on a theatre project which she is directing. She is a hard-taskmaster and brings out the best in everyone, including me.”

Of Fathers, Sons, and Anger

As he sits smiling, it is difficult to believe that Shah is capable of being angry. But, as he admitted earlier, he does get angry just like the character he sashayed in the iconic Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai. He claims to have mellowed down a bit, though. “I used to get very angry, very quickly. Over a period of time, I’ve realised the futility of anger. I get angry about the poor quality of cinema in our country, the hate all around, the stupidity of questions that most journalists ask but I also understand that my anger doesn’t make any difference to anything. I can be upset with my children but I’m learning not to be overwhelmed by anger.”

Shah has said in the past that he inherited his temper from his father. His relationship with his father was strained. Does it, then, not bother him that he may replicate that relationship with his sons? Shah responds, “My relationship with my father was very different from my relationship with my sons. My father imposed his will on me. He did not understand my world. It is a fallacy that parents can force their children to do their bidding. For all his strictness, he could not make me choose a different career path. I was conscious of not making the same mistakes as my father. I wanted my sons to be able to hug me, to be able to start a conversation with me.

My father and I spoke very little with each other. Our conversation was limited to my academic performance and why I was doing so badly. I wanted to change that when it came to my children. But no matter how hard you try, you end up making the same mistakes as your parents.
Naseeruddin Shah

At least I’m aware that I have made mistakes.”

Where is Anupam Kher?

Shah continues to be associated with the Film and Television Institute of India, his alma mater, which is now being headed by another veteran actor, Anupam Kher. Shah and Kher have worked on more than 10 film projects together. How does he feel about his colleague’s work at the FTII.

Pat comes the response, “ Where is he? How can I comment on his work when he’s hardly ever at the FTII? I don’t think he’s been there more than twice. I go to the FTII to deliver some lectures every now and then. I am told that he’s not seen there very often. If he chooses to spend some more time at the institute, we’ll get to see the work and be able to comment on it. Till then, what can I say?”

Talking of co-actors, Shah reveals his favourite leading lady. And this comes as a surprise. “Sunny Leone is one of my favourite leading ladies. She’s a great human being, thorough professional and an extremely graceful woman. It is admirable how she has reinvented herself. It could not have been easy. The film industry can be a cruel place. I salute her courage and admire the resilience of her husband. He has been so supportive throughout.”

Homi Adajania, who directed Shah in Finding Fanny, is one of the contemporary directors that he has enjoyed working with the most.

Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!