Naseeruddin Shah: ‘We haven’t made any damn masterpieces’

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By Hindustan Times

Naseeruddin Shah looks back at the industry, relives cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, admits he failed as a director but won’t settle for mediocrity like some contemporaries.

You’re a cop in Maximum?
I play an old encounter specialist, who is being upstaged by a younger Sonu Sood. The equation is like the Othello-Iago one: of this resentful person, who sees himself being overtaken.

Why this part?
The reason for doing this film is not the role. That’s no longer my reason for accepting or turning down a movie. What a character does is secondary to what the film is trying to say… and your performance isn’t as important as the totality of the film. I admired Kabir’s (director Kabir Kaushik) first film Sehar (2005). Then he got a little bit derailed.

You did yet another small part in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara?
I get offered lots of these. I feel like supporting them. Not in ZNMD, that didn’t need my support, I did that only for fun and it turned out to be the best scene in the film.

Naseeruddin ShahYou’re playing yourself in it?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of me in that part because I went through something similar with Hiba (daughter from first marriage). I first met her when she was 13. I hadn’t even seen her before that, except when she was born. Normally, if I were offered a one-scene role in a Hrithik Roshan-starrer, I’d kick the guy out of my house… but this was Zoya (Akhtar). It was my affection for her that made me say ‘yes’ without reading the script. I still haven’t. But I believe it’s really nice. It isn’t my kind of film; I couldn’t sit through three hours just to watch myself.

I’ve realised that a role is not what an actor’s sight should be set on. You give a great performance or don’t, according to the script. There is no way you can give a great performance in a movie without truthful writing. One shouldn’t succumb to the temptation of ‘hey, this is a great part’ ‘its there from beginning to end’.
The criterion should be, ‘does the script make sense and is it coherent?’. ZNMD definitely was. I met tonnes of people who loved it. I’ve got more compliments for that than I have for the rest of my career. I’m not joking. I feel happy that I was able to contribute. That’s become my priority, to be part of movies that will be remembered.

You’ve danced in Dirty Picture?
Absolutely. All that is part of the job. Also, I’ve come to the realisation, which is a bit scary, but it is backed up by what I have observed of older stars around me, that guys who are in the sunset of their lives; the newer generation hasn’t even heard of them. Guys, who were called heart throbs and superstars, the younger generation would find it hard to identify some of them. It’s a very fickle business. That’s what made me realise that an actor is remembered by the movies he does. If you’ve not done any worthwhile movies, you will be buried and forgotten, no matter how great an actor you may have been.

Your contemporaries?
There are a few, who packed it all up, or gave up or settled down in their mediocrity, that’s their choice. I feel sad for actors like Kulbhushan (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), whom I had the greatest admiration for, we started together in Nishant (1975)… or Agashe (Mohan Agashe).

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) was shown at the Mumbai Film Fest. That’s amazing. Nobody was willing to buy a ticket when it released. It wasn’t a success. Jaane Bhi… deserves to survive. But I don’t think it qualifies to be called a masterpiece; we haven’t made any damn masterpieces in this country. We are too quick to label things, things which are a cut above average; there should be objective assessment. Not to run down Jaane Bhi… I’m very proud of it, but people praise it a little more than it deserves. It’s put on a pedestal, because there is no other movie that measures up to it. It stands alone.

You’re returning to that era in Dirty Picture.
Yes. I stayed away from those ’80s Jeetendra movies, on which my character is modelled. I never went near those damn things. Though I love watching bad movies; Bhojpuri and Punjabi; just to laugh. I’ve seen every Dara Singh movie ever made.

When Dirty... came to me, I was hesitant because I didn’t think I was right for it. I’ve known Bunty (director Milan Luthria) since he was an assistant with Mr Bhatt. So I said ‘I don’t think I can pull this off, I suggest you take a star type’, and he said ‘no, I want you and that over-the-hill look about this guy trying to hang on to this youth, which is kind of pathetic’.

You watched South Indian films?
I did and I thought it would be fun to try this. But look at some of the South stars, and you wonder what it is, I guess the concept of beauty is nothing, but conditioning. Look at some of those guys. They are universally adored. They are hilarious, but they do their stuff with utmost panache and confidence. With potbellies hanging over their belts, they’ll do all the disco moves.

In Dirty... I played the part with as much conviction as I could. My character could be called a shallow hypocrite, but he wouldn’t say that about himself, so I haven’t played him as a shallow hypocrite. Every part should be played like that; even if you’re playing a so-called bad guy, and I think I am, in The Dirty Picture. The guy, who uses, exploits and discards and is utterly ruthless. It was good fun. Niharika Khan designed some of the most wonderful clothes I’ve ever worn and will never wear again.

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