Naseeruddin Shah is one of the finest Indian film performers ever – and is a keeper of India’s conscience in its current political climate. He is the only Indian to date to win the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival (for 1984’s Paar), and the recipient of India’s top civilian honours and several national film awards. Last year, Shah was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Hungry is available on Amazon Prime.
His performances have defined cinematic intensity and subtlety, and he is a pillar of the Indian parallel cinema movement. Starting with Nishant, which won him instant notice, he has made more than 100 movies (mainly in Hindi but also other languages) that range from offbeat to ‘middle cinema’ to outright commercial. He has acted in international cinema, too, in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding to critical acclaim, and alongside Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and written a lively and honest memoir, And Then One Day.
Shah has recently been in the headlines due to his courageous stance on behalf of minorities and free expression in India. As a Muslim married to a Hindu, he has expressed concern for his children’s safety in a country currently governed by Hindu nationalists and has voiced his amazement that the life of a cow matters more there today than even that of a police officer. When Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan attempted to score political points against India off of these remarks, Shah told him to mind his business.
Shah has also recorded a video for Amnesty in which he warns: “Artists, actors, scholars and poets, all are being stifled. Journalists, too, are being silenced. In the name of religion, walls of hate are being erected. Innocents are being killed. The country is awash with horrific hatred and cruelty.” This outspokenness has enraged Indian rightwing activists, who forced the cancellation of his keynote address at a literature festival and bought him a one-way ticket to Pakistan.
Back in the 1970s, Shah set up a theatre group called Motley Productions and is known in Mumbai as much for his stage performances as his cinema work. So it’s only fitting that I met Shah at an auditorium in an old part of Mumbai where he was rehearsing for a production of Florian Zeller’s The Father. He rolled cigarettes while we chatted in a rehearsal room. Shah was warm, voluble, frank and funny while he talked at length about his life all the way from his childhood to his lead role in a recent film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus titled The Hungry.
What got you interested in acting and cinema?
My dad occupied a government position, deputy collector, in a city called Nainital, so we had access to the cinemas at any time. I saw my first movies when I was very young. Several of those films have stuck in my mind, such as Scaramouche, The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Rob Roy, Robin Hood, Peter Pan and the Tarzan movies. Somehow, Hindi movies never took me in the same way Hollywood films did. Even at the age of five or six, I could see the difference in the quality of execution.
We watched movies regularly in my boarding school. From Mickey Mouse to Citizen Kane, I saw them all. What drew me into being an actor was that I never got cast in the school plays – and it used to kill me. My dad pulled me out of that school and put me in one where he thought he could keep an eye on me and it was there that I had an opportunity to act in a play. Since that day, I haven’t looked back. I started reading Shakespeare, I began to gain confidence that this was my love, and I was hit with a terrible dilemma: how do I break it to the old man, who was waiting for me to pass with flying colours and become a doctor?
Luckily, I had this role model, Geoffrey Kendal (the inspiration for the 1965 Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah), who I saw in school performing in a play. I’m an actor because I wanted to emulate Mr Kendal. The Kendals spent their entire lives performing for students, never once appearing in a commercial production, never having a home of their own – itinerant players all their lives. It was a shining example of a person who truly loved theatre.
I had a chance to meet Mr Kendal during the shooting of a film, Junoon (1978). I asked him if he had any regret in life. He replied, “What regret? I am not an actor; I am a missionary. My mission is to spread Shakespeare.”
Could we talk about your association with Shyam Benegal, the doyen of Hindi offbeat cinema, and the break that he gave you?
When I saw Ankur , Shyam’s first movie, I had a great helium high because I felt, hey, this is the kind of movie I’ve been waiting for. When I went to FTII, the Film and Television Institute of India, I saw Japanese movies, Italian movies, Swedish movies, German movies, and actors like Mifune in Japan and Per Oscarsson from Sweden, and Belmondo – and Klaus Kinski and Max von Sydow. I said, “Wow! How do they do this?” Ankur came around, and I realised, this is the kind of filmmaker I want to work with.
As luck would have it, I got cast in Shyam’s second film, Nishant. Then he made Manthan, in which he gave me a drastically different part. Shyam had enough perception to know that I have this anger within me. I had to do the best I could and it was a success. I don’t consider it one of my best performances but it was certainly one of my most energetic, and energy always grabs the audience.
Looking back on your association with 1970s and 80s parallel cinema directors such as Benegal and Govind Nihalani, was it worth it to make those movies?
Shyam and Govind pointed out the direction to filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap, youngsters who are brilliant like Vikramaditya Motwane or the young people who have made films such as Anaarkali of Aarah  or Lipstick Under My Burkha  – had Shyam and Govind not been there, these films today would not have been made.
What do you feel are your best performances?
Nishant  and Paar are two of my favourites. Both are based on my real-life experiences. My maternal grandfather was a landlord. I’ve seen people in my life like in Nishant and Paar. Among my maternal uncles, I’ve seen the interaction of relationships like in Nishant. They were four wonderful specimens of men. The eldest was quite fearsome. The youngest was also quite a cat on his own, but in front of the big brother was submissive.
I myself was the youngest of three brothers [like in Nishant], and we were not great friends when we were kids. I was the butt of ridicule all the time, like a lot of younger brothers are. And, so, I could empathise with this character very well. I realised you could not play stupid by being goggle-eyed. What I was supposed to do was: this is a stupid guy but he does not show his stupidity. Rather, he’ll try very hard to understand. It paid off with the performance.
What I did for Paar was to evoke the muscle memory of having to dig a hole in the ground for water to pass through and to study the physiques and body language of such people. I worked very hard, lost a lot of weight and exercised strenuously. I had to look like a man who had not eaten anything but puffed rice and sugarless tea for years.
For Sparsh  it was also a question of recalling things I had seen. My grandmother was blind. So were a couple of my college classmates. I had observed their bodily behaviour. I’ve always found people with physical disabilities interesting to watch: how the dynamics of their body work, what makes them move this way or that.
You’ve also acted in some small Western movies. What has been your experience acting in Western cinema?
The smaller ones are very exploitative, just like our 1970s offbeat movies: making a movie because no one is giving you money to make a blockbuster, getting actors slyly on the cheap, getting nonunion actors and paying them chickenshit. Acting in League… helped me find out what the big-budget Hollywood monster is all about. It’s no different from the Bollywood monster. The stars are treated with velvet gloves, and those who are inconsequential are treated like shit. And the gulf in payment between the star and the guy who’s doing all the work is as vast as in a Bombay movie.
This poor guy who is climbing and sitting in the rafters holding a light gets paid nothing while this idiot who can’t act and learn his lines and is being prompted in the shot is being paid tens of millions of rupees. This kind of thing has never ceased to offend me. Doing League… made me understand it’s no different in Hollywood. I got paid a lot of money, and so that didn’t hurt. But I didn’t enjoy that movie.
What are your thoughts about current Hollywood cinema?
They are making fairy tales.
My 13-year-old is in seventh heaven because Hollywood makes movies for her.
Yes. And one superhero is not enough now. You need six. How big is it going to be? It is a replay of what happened to Hollywood in the 1960s when the movies got bigger and bigger and bigger and then the bottom fell out. Hollywood was saved then by a movie called Easy Rider made by two dope-smoking guys. What is also happening – and Hollywood is canny enough to do this – is that movies like The King’s Speech and Whiplash and Spotlight are being backed, too.
And what are your thoughts on Hindi cinema today?
It will continue to promote mediocrity. And it will continue to make money. What we can hope for is that guys who’ve made movies like Anaarkali of Aarah and Lipstick Under My Burkha won’t succumb to the lure of big money, like the 1970s offbeat filmmakers did, and will continue to make small movies that are important, that will be remembered and that will act as some kind of antidote to the Bollywood poison.
You’ve been in two acclaimed movies, Firaaq and Parzania, that dealt with a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom carried out in the state of Gujarat under the watch of Narendra Modi, who was then in charge of the province and is now India’s prime minister. You have also spoken out against the growing influence of Hindu nationalism in Bollywood. May I ask you what it means to be a minority Muslim in current-day India?
One thing I’m determined not to do is to feel scared. To anybody who tells me to go to Pakistan, I say, “Fuck off.” This is the country where my forefathers are buried, and any son of a bitch who tells me to get out of here has a fight on his hands. This is the attitude that I want to propagate among Muslims here. We must not feel victimised.
The hate has been incubating for ages, since 1947, and finally it has gained validity. It has become legitimate where if you say, “I wish my country was cleaner, I wish people wouldn’t break traffic lights in my country,” you are accused of being anti-national. It has reached paranoid levels. And surely the example begins at the top. Well, I am determined to continue loving my country and to continue criticising it if I feel it needs to be criticised.
You’ve also appeared in a number of Pakistani movies and performed on stage in Pakistan. How was your experience in that country?
Pakistani hospitality is so famous that I don’t need to mention it. The audience there is very receptive. They were delighted that we were doing serious plays like A Walk in the Woods. They lapped it up and loved us for it. I intend to go back there and perform every time I am invited.
Have you any final reflections on where you are in cinema today and where you are headed?
I am in a very good place, because the few parts I’m getting at my age are really challenging. There’s one I’m really looking forward to, which is that of a transsexual. It may or may not happen. The script is still being written. But I’m getting to do so much of the work that I love, which is theatre and helping students work.