Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Lunch with BS: Naseeruddin Shah

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Feature published in Business Standard, September 26, 2014

Naseeruddin Shah’s publishers aren’t letting him off the hook. The public and media response to his original and uncompromisingly candid memoir And Then One Day (Penguin; Rs 699) has been much bigger than expected: 15,000 copies have flown off the shelves since it came out on September 9 and a second edition is on its way. Like the goose that suddenly laid a golden egg, he’s been upgraded to five-star luxury: the media is queuing up all the way from the lobby to the baronial gates of the Oberoi, so going out isn’t a possibility. “Choose any restaurant you like but in the hotel,” said the publicist’s brisk email.

The actor himself is somewhat miffed at having to cancel his regular tennis game to which, at age 64, he’s addicted. We settle for a corner table at Threesixty, a glasshouse of a bistro where ladies-who-lunch and executives on expense account throw stones at each other. No one takes the slightest notice of him. Grey-haired and grizzly, in blue jeans and faded T shirt, a crumpled sweat shirt flung round his shoulders, he can almost have strayed out of Waiting for Godot.
Much as he’s tried to make a life’s work out of being someone else, the unexpected never leaves Naseeruddin Shah. “I never thought I’d get it written,” he says of working on and off for 10 years on the book. “I was expecting a sniffy, patronising reaction – ‘Oh look at this poor actor trying to write!'”

Not poor, exactly. In fact, a hefty Hollywood fee for filming The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in Prague got him going. “My per diem alone was $150. I would fly home to Mumbai on weekends. Then I got a laptop and someone to teach me. I wrote 25 pages, put it on a pen drive, gave it to my son to read, but he lost the pen drive. I started again, writing bits prompted by stirrings of memory. In the end, I wanted to see if I could structure it as a story and tell it with humour.”

The memoir isn’t framed cinematically but it is intensely imbued with an actor’s sensibility of portraying situations and characters. Sequences of a variegated life are laced with withering opinion and wit. His narrative is compelling, too, because you can hear him speaking the words – swiftly altering the register of his voice, from growls to guffaws.

We wander over to the buffet, and opt for starters of salmon and tuna sushi; a waiter brings a side of tossed green salad studded with artichokes. Shah orders a glass of the Oberoi house red, Cinkara, from their Australian vineyard.

It sticks in my mind that although And Then One Day brims with sharp appraisals of many of the most respected names in Indian film and theatre, he seems to be holding back when it comes to assessing big stars such as Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. Was the restraint deliberate? “Oh yes,” he agrees. “I didn’t want their fan clubs climbing up my ass.”

Off the record, though, he’ll give you accounts of the insufferable excesses of the film industry’s star system; in the book he is in turn scathing and satirical of the “terrifying…degree of dumbing down of the audience these [commercial] films have managed to achieve.”

“People often ask me if I prefer acting on stage to films,” he continues. “I love both but there’s a basic difference. On a film set, an actor is essentially isolated. You’re treated as special – there’s a chair for you, an umbrella to shade you, assistants flutter around. This disparity never fails to annoy me. But in the theatre, everyone has to pull together as a team, no matter if you’re Dustin Hoffman or Maggie Smith. But in India, the stage is somehow looked down upon. I have friends in the film industry who’ve never been to see a play.”

For the main course we decide to split a pizza; I’m happy to let him choose the toppings. “How about anchovies,” he announces with pleasure, “with olives and cherry tomatoes?” In an expert aside to the waiter, he asks for a bowl of feta cheese to crumble over. I should have known: If my guest is a very good actor and writer, he’s going to demand a handcrafted pizza.

But, surely, as an acting-obsessed youth growing up in small towns such as Nainital, Meerut and Aligarh, he must have harboured scorching fantasies of becoming rich and famous in films one day? “Of course, I wanted to sing and dance like Shammi Kapoor and shoot from horses like John Wayne.” It took him time, though, to realise that he lacked the necessary equipment for stardom. Failure had stalked most of his classmates at the National School of Drama and, later, the highly politicised Film and Television Institute of India. With the exception of Om Puri and himself, none are in the acting profession anymore. Despite the many hard-luck stories in the book, Shah himself belongs to the fortune-favours-the-brave school of life. “Inspiration strikes the prepared. Although I didn’t plan my career, I also manipulated to be at the right place at the right time.”

He describes his dedicated but doped-out drama school days as the happiest of his life but, retrospectively, they also brought him the worst regrets. His acting ambitions caused a lifelong rupture with his father who considered him a loser compared to his conventional careerist siblings. “I was terrified of him. He was harsh and judgemental. All I had to do was to go and hug him before he died but I didn’t summon up the courage.” As it happens he has outshone, in his own way, both his older brothers. (One, a former Army vice-chief, is now vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University; the other, a successful retired executive, divides his life between Egypt and India.)

Shah’s best buddy from that golden period slowly lost his mental balance and tried to knife him to death in a Mumbai restaurant. “I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead.” He has given Heeba, the daughter he abandoned in college days, a copy of his truth-telling tale but doesn’t know if she’ll ever read it. “I hope she does,” he says remorsefully.

To lighten the mood, we dig into slices of citron tart. It’s a good moment to teasingly ask: “You’re famous now…but also rich?” He’s unfazed by my query. “I guess so. I’m woolly about money, so my wife Ratna handles all that. We’re invested in property, stocks and bonds. I’m offered a lot of work but often say no. I’m making a movie called Welcome Back and am on stage with Motley, the repertory we started in 1979.” Shooting me a look, as if I was the capital’s principal philistine, he adds, “Motley gets invited to the South but I don’t know why Delhi won’t ask us?”

For homework, I went to see Finding Fanny, his most recent release. What on earth did he make of that foolish fandangle? “I’m astonished at its success. Not surprised, just astonished. I found parts of it quite unfunny.” Evidently taken by the memory, he rises abruptly, mumbles “But I must have a little nap now,” and makes the most anonymous stage exit Threesixty ever saw.

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