Mumbai, Nov. 14 -- Most actors who work in Bollywood potboilers find a way to defend their choice of films. But Naseeruddin Shah has never been one to mince words. We meet the actor at his Bandra office, ahead of his new play, that's to be staged over the weekend. He talks about being labelled as a 'hypocrite', about his son Vivaan's choice of distinctly more commercial films, and even about his mindset during the 1993 riots in Mumbai.
Cinema in India is often divided into parallel and commercial. As an actor who's done films across the spectrum, do these labels bother you?
It bothers me, but what is one to do? The press loves to come out with a label every day. For me, there's only good films and bad films, that's it. People somehow imagine I'll be anti-commercial. Why the hell would I be anti-commercial? Why would I act in a film like Krrish (2006) if I was anti-commercial? People call me a hypocrite. They say, 'You mock commercial cinema, yet you work in it'. If criticising my own work, and wanting to improve it makes me a hypocrite, then maybe I am one. The fact is that I mock the attitudes of a lot of popular film-makers... Making a good film is the last thing on anyone's mind; the first priority is to make '100 crore... I can't sit through them. Yet, I act in some of them because I want my work to be seen. And I want to give my family a good life and lead a comfortable life myself.
Your son, Vivaan, seems to be finding his feet in Bollywood now.
Yes. I hope it leads to other work for him. I hope he can take the success in his stride, and work hard... All I want to tell him is that if he wants to do popular films, he's in for a hard time.
But he didn't start his Bollywood journey with the kind of offbeat films that you did. Were you okay with that?
That's how things happen. I didn't start with art cinema out of choice. It was the only thing I was offered. If I was offered a side-y villain's role in a Z-grade movie, I would have accepted that too, because that was a time when I needed money and work. It was just good luck that Shyam Benegal came my way.
Why didn't you direct a film after Yun Hota To Kya Hota (2006)?
I don't think I'll direct another film. I'm not good at it. It requires a different set of skills, which I do not have. I would much rather direct in theatre. I enjoy that more.
While you once said that cinema is your first love and theatre comes second, you are still one of the few film actors closely connected with theatre.
There is nothing in cinema that can remotely compare the thrill of being on stage. That's why I keep at it. It's like net practice for me. I stay in shape; I can work on my craft. I enjoy the process of rehearsals. I also love working with young actors.
You've done films for over four decades now. What do you feel when you look back?
I'm not happy with all the work I've done. But I feel I've been extremely fortunate; I got the opportunity to do all sorts of things. Even in commercial films, which I thought I will never get. I ended up playing the hero, singing romantic songs... It's been fulfilling.
You are going to stage your new play, Einstein, at the NCPA soon. You had the script for a decade, so why did it take so long to turn it into a play?
Someone gave me this script 10 years ago. I read it and decided I would do the play one day. Then, a couple of months back when I wanted to work on a play, I just happened to remember this script. The play makes an important statement, given the state of readiness for war that many countries in South Asia seem to be in. Apart from providing a brief life sketch of (Albert) Einstein, this play talks about his guilt, which is associated with the creation of bombs, in which he unwittingly played a part. The play makes a strong antiwar statement, which I think is very important.
Do you relate to Einstein in any way?
He was a Jew in a country that was getting rabid about Jews, and he said that before this situation, he never felt his Jewish identity; I could say the same about myself. I had never felt I have a Muslim identity, and that it's been an obstacle in any way. But during the 1993 Bombay riots, I was reminded that I'm a Muslim. It infuriated me because this is my home. So, that was something I related to.