Thursday, September 11, 2014

Faulaadi mukka - on Naseeruddin Shah's autobiography

[Did a version of this review of And Then One Day… for Open magazine]

Naseeruddin Shah’s account of his life up to age 32 – or 33, since Shah himself is unsure whether he was born in 1949 or 1950 and says this allows him to be “whichever age it suits me to be on any particular day” – is one of the two best books I have read by, or even about, an Indian actor. The other one is Dev Anand’s ego project Romancing with Life. That might sound like a flippant comparison (and it may even be a little insulting to And Then One Day..., which is unquestionably the “better written” book in the generally understood sense of that term). Could two performers be more different? One was a larger-than-life movie star who spent decades embracing his own fame and “connecting” with his adoring fans; the other is a non-starry actor who determinedly eschews larger-than-life-ness, prioritises finding a character's inner truth, and says he turned a corner in his career when he became conscious of his own arrogance.


But the memoirs have this in common: you can almost hear each man saying the words as you read along. Anand’s book was florid, often narcissistic, always sanguine about how others viewed him (even as he continued to make embarrassing films in his last years) and founded on a certainty that his story HAD to be told in his own special way; that he had a moral duty to live up to the Image. Shah’s is hard-hitting, caustic, constantly aiming for self-awareness, and often uncertain and self-deprecating in the process. “What this book will mean to anyone I have no clue but I had to get it out of my system,” he writes drily in his preface. It is a moot point how “honest” a memoir can ever be, but both these approaches are utterly authentic, and both are true to the subject’s personality.

The elliptical title “And then one day”, with its sense of neither a clear beginning nor a clear end but a story constantly in progress (the words don’t refer to a single episode in Shah’s life), is apt for a book about someone who expects never to stop learning things about himself and his craft. Which doesn’t mean Shah is averse to narrative-creation. Trying to explain his passion for acting, he writes, “It does seem like an aberration of behaviour to want to be someone else all the time, and I think it happens to people who, like me, can find no self-worth early in life, and thus find fulfillment in hiding behind make-believe.” Describing being back-stage before a performance, and the opening of the curtain, he says: “Suddenly the womb was gone and I was staring into a black void.” And here is the rationalist mesmerized by a childhood memory of an actor (or was it a clown, or are they the same thing?) looming above him on a platform: “I have since steadfastly believed that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage.”

The question of employing a ghost-writer probably never arose. Shah has shown himself to be a fine essayist before (as in a piece he did about actors in Bimal Roy’s cinema, for an anthology) and his interest in writing is palpable almost from the start of this book, when he describes his first school St Joseph’s College as a version of Transylvania, “with the brooding atmosphere of self-denial clinging to it […] Nainital’s rains, gusty winds and frequent mist probably reminded these Irish adventurers of home, but all it needed was rider-less carriages and giant bats flying around at dusk to complete the picture”, and himself as a pre-teen afflicted by a stammer during a class play. It was here that his lifelong love for cinema began, mainly through regular screenings of American and British movies, but also a dubbed Sivaji Ganesan-starrer that he hated; it would be a while before he was more properly introduced to Indian films.


In these early chapters he writes about a conflicted relationship with his father (one that would see a form of closure only years after the latter’s death), a series of academic failures, the raging of hormones in a time “before prudery became fashionable”, a first sexual tryst at age 15 when he was still ignorant of masturbation (“I must be one of very few guys who had sex before learning to worship at the altar of Onan”) and the advent of marijuana in his life. Scattered through these sections are many things that are relevant to understanding his long and winding journey to becoming a professional actor. (He could imagine himself in the roles of an NDA cadet or a doctor – “I could probably make a great impact white-coated and stethoscoped, striding down a corridor issuing curt instructions to my assistants” – which were professions that his parents would rather have seen him take up in “real life”.) Some bits – accounts of property-related bloodshed in his extended family, or an early, failed trip to Bombay where he got to play an extra in two movies – are meandering and repetitive, held together mainly by his wry, unsentimental narration. But by the time he arrives at the National School of Drama (NSD) in the late 1960s – a period that coincides with a rushed wedding to a woman 14 years older – and later at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the narrative has coalesced and the “David Copperfield kind of crap” (the first chapter head, channeling JD Salinger) has made way for a portrait of a young man on the cusp of self-realisation.

Reading this book, one usually gets the impression that Shah is organising scattered memories, articulating them for himself, without thinking about his importance as a public figure or the impression any of this will leave on fans or detractors. There is a breathlessness in the writing, there are long paragraphs with few visual breaks (the sort of thing writers and publishers are often cautioned against in an attention-deficit age, but which works very well here) as well as parenthetical asides (describing a homecoming and a tonga ride in Ajmer, Shah mentions that the horse “would invariably crap on the way” and then adds, apropos of nothing, “an ability I’ve always envied, to be able to do that while running full pelt”). To select a passage at random, here is part of an account of a nerve-wracking physics exam: “There was a question on the Wimshurst machine (if I’ve got the name right and an astrophysicist I know assures me I haven’t), an object the size and shape of a knife-sharpener’s wheel with what looked like a number of cut-throat razors attached to it in circular fashion. I had spotted the accursed thing in a physics lab and had always left it well alone, as evidently had the rest of the class. What it is used for I still couldn’t tell you but I managed that night to chew the cud and ingested enough information to regurgitate it all on to the paper the next day and scrape through by the skin of my whatsits.” Anyone who has spoken with Shah will recognise the voice immediately – it is almost exactly as he might tell the same story in a tone that manages to be eloquent, casual and sing-song at once, with a few effective pauses sprinkled through the telling.


He doesn’t skimp on the admiration when discussing such personal heroes as Geoffrey Kendal – who combined humility and purity of purpose with a missionary-like zeal for teaching Shakespeare – or mentors such as Shyam Benegal and the FTII professor Roshan Taneja. But there is also casual irreverence, whether disclosing his love for corny old Dara Singh films with such titles as Fauladi Mukka or his regard for the eccentric Raaj Kumar, “not for his acting which was dreadful, but for the way he safeguarded his interests, prolonged his career and sent all Follywood for a flying fuck to the moon whenever he felt like it”. He is frank, even cutting, about various people he knew or worked with over the years – from Satyadev Dubey to Peter Brook – but reserves some of the sharpest barbs for himself, describing his inability to be a father to his first child Heeba (“I played the part of the obnoxious adolescent to perfection […] I completely shirked my share of the duties, while idiotically attempting at the same time to assert my rights as a husband”), realising at the FTII that he had allowed himself to become complacent as an actor (“The thought would hit me like one of Delhi’s hot winds that in these three years I had grown only in my conceit”) or dismissing his own work in such key films as Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (“I had gone all Elvis Presley and James Dean when it was street cred that was required. Mine is an immature, self-adulatory performance”).

****

One of the most affecting things in this book – all the more so because Shah himself doesn’t get maudlin about it, though much of it must have been deeply upsetting when it happened – is his account of a friendship with an actor named Rajendra Jaswal. They were so close in NSD and later in FTII that they were treated as a single person and even referred to as “Jaspal / Shah”, but the intensity of the relationship had ugly repercussions, as Jaspal – a talented actor undone by his own insecurities – became pathologically obsessed. Things came to a head with a murderous attack in a dhaba around the time Bhumika was being shot, culminating in a surreal scene – more “filmi” than anything in the movies Shah was doing at the time – where clueless policemen smack a wounded Naseer about before taking him to the hospital.

So dramatic is this story (in terms of its inherent content, not the telling) that I briefly wondered if Jaspal – about whom an initial online search revealed nothing – was an invented doppelganger, a sort of sly literary device incorporated within the text of an otherwise “honest” memoir, used to comment on the perils of too much closeness and identification (things that Shah himself is wary of as an actor – he has little patience with the theories that demand “immersion” into a character). The story is true though, and it’s tempting to compare “Jaspal / Shah” to the Mozart-Salieri story, except that would amount to romanticising a dismal tragedy – and anyway, Shah has never been anything like the archetype of the genius possessed with God-gifted brilliance, conquering the world one symphony (or performance) at a time. As he repeatedly indicates himself, hard work, passion and constant curiosity got him where he is, along with a measure of that essential but often-unmentioned factor, sheer good luck (perhaps things would have been tougher for him if he hadn’t been a fluent English-speaker, or if his FTII years hadn’t coincided with the beginning of Benegal’s feature-film career and the emergence of a new kind of cinema).


Even after becoming a “star” in the parallel-film circuit, Shah continued his efforts to find inner truth as a performer, which led to a disillusioning stint with the theatre innovator Jerzy Grotowski in Poland, complete with a bizarre workshop in a forest, much pretentious talk about reaching the “primal state” and (there is a neat, circular irony here) a variation on the personality cults he was constantly trying to escape in the big bad world of Bombay cinema. (“This had the smell of proselytizing and prophet-building.”) And so, poignantly, And Then One Day... closes by recounting a series of failures or uncertainties: the disenchantment with Grotowski; the falling through of Shah’s dream of playing Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film; an apprehensive reunion with the daughter he hadn’t seen for 12 years, at precisely the point (though this isn’t underlined for the reader) where he is preparing to shoot Masoom, in which his character must take responsibility for a son he has never met before. Though his relationship with Ratna Pathak, whom he married in 1982, brings emotional security, the impression as the narrative ends is that of a man, and an actor, still trying to find his way forward.

****


For me, the main value of this book is that it provides a fuller, more elaborate view of Shah’s sharp, searching mind than one gets from the interviews that usually appear in media – and this is particularly important for someone whose default mode is to be strongly critical, even rude. The short newspaper or TV interview can never do such a person justice, and indeed Shah has sometimes come across as one-dimensionally condescending in such interactions. (The journalistic tradition of condensing and using quotes as sensational headlines adds to that image.) By writing a book entirely on his own terms, giving himself this much space to expand on his opinions and set them against a larger context – even at the cost of some rambling – he shows a more measured side to his personality.

There are many glimpses here of Naseeruddin Shah the curmudgeon (and who would have it any other way?) but there is also a clear sense of where those qualities stem from. During a conversation a few years ago, I inwardly bristled when Shah snapped “This Auteur Theory, it’s bloody rubbish!” (That’s a silly remark, valid only as a response to the straw-man idea that “the director is the sole author of a movie”). Yet when you read the details of his strife-ridden time at the FTII – the struggles of actors who were treated as outcasts by the establishment, not given the same basic respect due to every other element of filmmaking – it becomes easier to understand his anger and frustration towards self-important directors. Or when you hear of his later experiences in the film industry – being peremptorily summoned for a meeting by big-money producers, for instance, and informed that he had been selected to play a role in a big film, which would naturally mean abandoning midway the “small and inconsequential” project he was working on.


Shah is upfront about doing certain films purely for money, but I have always been a little foxed by just how bad he has been in some of his commercial ventures. Take the 1992 Tahalka – in a film packed with dreadful performances trying manfully to outdo each other, his is arguably the worst, less credible even than Aditya Pancholi’s. Yet there may be a part-explanation here: “My attitude to Hindi cinema turned even more condescending, possibly because I couldn’t see myself fitting in in it[…] the thought that I was not qualified to be the lead in popular movies pinched greatly, so this reaction was very possibly my defence mechanism working in advance to counter the rejection I anticipated […] Being so appallingly bad in my early commercial movies was not entirely my fault. The only two who could make the schmaltzy Hindi film dialogue and ersatz situations believable were Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, and I was nowhere in their league. Being effective in popular movies requires a certain kind of sensibility and an unshakable belief in them, neither of which I possessed.” It is the sort of admission that has sometimes been made even by actors - such as Waheeda Rehman - who had far more success in commercial cinema than Shah did.

It is possible to disagree strongly with some of Shah’s opinions (such as his dismissal of popular films, his contempt for the personality-driven acting that has been an essential, vitalising part of movie history for over a hundred years, his scoffing at critics who read meaning into Sholay and “other equally shallow films” – as if serious, considered analysis must be reserved only for the works of Ray or Fellini or the obviously highbrow artists – and, on a lighter note, his description of Asha Parekh as a “perky sex bomb”!) while at the same time being glad that someone of his stature, someone hard to ignore, is willing to be an enfant terrible in an industry so intent on self-congratulation, so full of political correctness and celebrity-adoration. More than once, he expresses doubt about the wider appeal of this book, implying it is a selfish exercise, “an exorcism”, something he hopes his children might read “if they wish to understand me better”. Which could be a euphemistic way of saying (and this is not generally speaking a book of euphemisms) that he gives a flying so-and-so whether or not you, dear reader, find any of it useful. But that candour, and the sharpness of thought and expression that accompanies it, is what makes this memoir so readable in the first place. So don’t trust the crabby old man trying to short-sell his authorial gifts – trust the tale instead.

--------------------------------

EXTRA!!


Here is a long interview I did with Naseer in 2010. And pasted below is a piece I wrote for The Sunday Guardian that same year, shortly after meeting Naseer on the sets of Anup Kurian’s The Blueberry Hunt (a film that has been long completed but never released, in large part because of its star – but that is another story, and best not told here).

****

I’m standing outside the cafeteria of a guesthouse in the hills of Kerala, expecting to see Naseeruddin Shah any minute. An old man walks by, slightly hunched, dressed in jeans and a windcheater, his hair arranged in a set of white dreadlocks. No light goes off in my head until one of the film’s co-producers shouts across, “Weren’t you looking for Naseer? There he is!”

The missed connection could partly be the result of my being a little distracted, but even so there’s something apt about the moment. Apart from being one of our finest actors, Shah is an immediately recognisable figure in both mainstream and non-mainstream cinema, but you’d expect a first encounter with him to be unobtrusive. It ties in with his grounded approach to his craft.


We are at the shoot of Anup Kurian’s The Hunt, in which Shah plays a recluse named Colonel who lives in a mountain retreat, growing marijuana and fending off (potentially dangerous) trespassers. The dreadlocks were his idea and they aren’t just a flamboyant accessory; they are right for the character. “Colonel is an enigmatic figure leading an unconventional life, and the hair adds to the sense of him being an outsider in this setting,” he says.

As it happens, Shah is not the sort of performer who makes elaborate use of masks and disguises to change his features from one role to the next, but he has something subtler and, in many ways, more impressive: a chameleon-like quality that enables him to slide into a character, to become a different person almost before you realise what’s happened. A friend who saw him as Mahatma Gandhi in the play Mahatma Vs Gandhi observed that he almost seemed to have shrunk physically when he was on the stage and that it was startling to see him later, outside the theatre, talking with friends.

I witness a similar metamorphosis one evening in his room in the guesthouse, during a scene reading. Shah lounges on the bed, cigarette in hand, looking even more hippie-like now that the Rastafarian locks are complemented by a sleeveless blue shirt and pyjamas. With him are Kurian and actor Vipin Sharma; the scene being rehearsed is a tense encounter between Colonel and Sharma’s character Sett. They read the lines, banter lightly, focus on words and inflexions, discuss character motivations. Anup laughs a little nervously when Naseer improvises the word “behenchod” into one of his Hindi lines, Naseer points out that part of the dialogue will have to be altered because the scene it refers to was never shot. It’s all very laidback so far; an uninformed outsider walking into the room would think this was a group of friends having some fun over drinks.


But then Kurian suggests that the scene can be performed with Colonel pressing his gun to Sett’s back, pushing him ahead so that they are walking and saying their lines simultaneously. Something flickers in Shah’s eyes. “Good idea,” he says, he puts away his cigarette and they start reading again, but this time Shah says his lines with much greater vitality than before. Now he’s holding an imaginary gun and waving it around, the words are spoken at twice the speed as before, and Sharma responds, as one performer often will to another during an intense scene; suddenly there’s an electric charge in the room and I get a very real sense of what the scene will look like the next day, when they play it for the camera.

In the cafeteria over dinner, we behold the actor as raconteur, polymath and jokester, holding everyone’s attention without making an obvious effort. He regales us with stories, anecdotes, acting some of them out – not in a self-conscious, “look at me, I’m putting on a display” way but as if it’s the most natural thing to do; why content yourself with describing when you can show? We talk about cinema and other things. When I chance to mention Monty Python’s Life of Brian, he roars into life with an imitation of the Roman centurion’s Cockney accent: “Yes? Crucifixion? Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each.”

One often reads about actors who internalise a role or immerse themselves into a scene so thoroughly that it can take hours, or even days, for them to come “out of character”. Shah isn’t like that, and in fact he enjoys taking little digs at the pompousness that often accompanies discussions of acting theory. (“Some people like to say ‘charakter nikaalna hai’, par character ‘nikalta’ kaise hai, yeh baat mujhe kabhi samajh nahin aayi!”) “Chalo, let’s do some out of-focus acting now,” he jokingly tells Vipin Sharma, when they are informed that an evening shot taken in fading light will be slightly out of focus.

One evening I watch him perform an abstract, wordless scene where his character, wounded by a bullet, has a vision of three tribal singers and follows them through a forest. The camera rolls, Shah staggers past us as if in a trance, eyes glazed, hand clutched to his abdomen. But almost the second the camera stops rolling he snaps back to normalcy, joking about the faux-artiness of the scene and the grand old time Film Institute students will have reading meaning into it. There are no Method Actor hang-ups here.

“Most acting theories are tedious,” he likes to say. “There’s nothing mystical or grand about the process, it’s a craft like any other.” This casualness seems like a subterfuge when one watches the wrenching scene from Parzania where, as the father of a little boy missing in communal riots, he conveys his anguish by twisting his head in despair as if that would help him get all the bad thoughts out of it. Or his pitch-perfect turn as the blind professor in Sparsh, where he eschews the upturned-eyeball look that passes for “playing blind” in much of our cinema and instead uses careful movements to suggest an unsighted person’s reliance on his sense of hearing. Surely pulling off roles like these requires a high degree of natural skill allied with an uncanny talent for putting oneself in someone else’s head? But no, he says. Observing and imitating – and lots of practice – are the cornerstones of a performance.

Perhaps he imitates better than most others. Perhaps it really is that simple.

14 comments:

  1. Sparsh is my favourite Naseer's movie performance. My favourite scene is in the beginning, when he comes from the school to his house with his assistant. His assistant goes to make a cup of tea. Seeing burnt milk, he complains and says why doesn't he get a helper? Naseer suddenly loses his cool. The way acts while losing cool and says something like, "Jagdish maine tumko sirf chai banane ko bola tha mashwara dene ke liye nahin". I have pre-ordered the book on Flipkart. Duuno when I will get it.

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    1. Must see that film again - have the DVD lying around, I think. 1979-80 was a very fecund time for him: Sparsh (though it was released years later), Aakrosh, Albert Pinto and Bhavani Bhavai (which is one of my favourite performances of his, and a great film - though I don't think a complete print exists any more). Basically - some of the most notably work of Nihalani, Mirza, Paranjpye and Ketan Mehta all around the same time.

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    2. Didn't know that Sparsh wasn't released for years. I knew this anecdote that Paranjpe thought he would wear goggles. On the first day of shooting, he said few would play blind without wearing goggles. Sparsh also shows Delhi very nicely, foggy winter morning and in an age when automobiles hardly existed, roads were so nice with trees along them. Haven't seen Bhavani Bhavai. Will watch it on YouTube.

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    3. I briefly wondered if Jaspal – about whom an initial online search revealed nothing – was an invented doppelganger>>
      Another proof for Jaspal can be found in Girish Karnad's autobiography (I read the Marathi translation). It seems that Jaspal and Naseer enrolled at FTII, Pune together. Karnad gives a detailed account of the student strike (which he says was their idea), they were expelled from FTII. Later, Naseer got the role in Nishant and Karnad was the one who suggested it to him. And this seems to be the point of conflict between Jaspal and Naseer. Karnad also mentions that Jaspal tried to hurt Naseer with a knife.

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    4. Yes, most of that is in this book too (and I mentioned the knife incident in the review). Naseer was joking the other day over dinner about how Karnad's version of many key events, including the student strike, is very different from his own.

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    5. yes, I think you put it best about memoirs being honest a moot point. What I find fascinating is it gives a glimpse of what the actor went through in his long journey to become what he is. (Have not read Dev Anand's book but would like to for the same reason)

      btw, not sure why my comment appeared as a reply to earlier one. Meant to post it as a separate one..

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  2. Oops. I meant: On the first day of shooting, he said he would play blind without wearing goggles.

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  3. I am reading the book. I have a question which might sound ridiculous. Naseer says Jaspal was a damn good actor. He says how his performance in Manthan had a quality which is beyond performance. I wonder then why was it the case that Naseer ahead of Jaspal and Om Puri got break in the movies. Is it actually the case that English speaking actors were easier to sell to directors who themselves spoke in English? (I know it is a generalisation) If it is true then it, in a way, begs a question as to how rooted those directors were who wanted to make movies on rooted characters?

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    1. I have touched on those things in the review too, in the passage about Jaspal. Sheer luck, being in the right time at the right place etc, has a lot to do with it, but of course the fluency in English and general "sophistication" of personality made a difference too. And about "rootedness" - that has always been a talking point when we examine the "art/parallel" film directors of the 70s and 80s. In my old interview with Naseer, he sharply criticises filmmakers who were sitting in bungalows in Malabar Hill and making films about the rural downtrodden. Some of his personal annoyance with people like Ketan Mehta, Nihalani and maybe even Benegal also arose when they (in his view) started hankering after bigger budgets for their films.

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    2. Also, "quality beyond performance" doesn't necessarily mean it was a great performance; Naseer specifically holds that performance (which may have been a direct result of Jaspal's personal anger with Naseer) up as a caution against "becoming one with a role".

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  4. One of the Best Memoirs to read.

    Pros:
    Engaging. Sparking. Humoring. Saddening. Satisfying.

    Cons:
    You want more. You'll crave for more. You'd want to read "Continued..." on the last page.

    The book should be a must-read for all aspiring actors, both for what they should do and what they shouldn't. They need to read Shah to know why they won't have as much fun as he did. And why they won't learn as much as he did. the most riveting chapters of And Then One Day are his early years, the autobiography is also a chronicle of time. Shah takes us right into the heart of the Benegal-inspired art cinema, whose then emerging stars are titans now.

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  5. Rajendras Jaspal played 'Bernie' Alice's brother in 'Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaanl' which you have reviewed.

    The whole Jaspal / Shah episode of his life had this haunting quality to it which is one thing I cannot stop thinking about, This one time when they were in FTII and Naseer stood first in class and later while hanging out with Jaspal smoking , Jaspal says ' We' came first yaar...

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    1. Yes, I went back and watched some of those Bernie scenes in Arvind Desai after I figured out who he was. And yes, those passages have a very haunting, "secret-sharer"/what-might-have-been quality about them...

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  6. My 2nd memoir of a Hindi film actor and I'm enjoying it to bits! The Ist interestingly was Dev Anand's where he's nowhere close to Naseer's polish but his honesty made him so becoming too. Have enjoyed the bindaas and yet self-deprecating tone of Naseer in this memoir. Only read 70% and felt I must google faces of the time...the parents and particularly Rajendra Jaspal. Could only find his photo on imdb and of course he looked so familiar -- is that from Doordarshan plays of the 80s? Your typo above had initially given me a hope that I'd find loads on him as Jaswal. Nothing though. How did he possibly remove his reference from everywhere online other than imdb...
    If at all possible, I'd love to know Naseer's advice to his 2 sons on film acting. Would he encourage them or echo Dilip Kumar's view passed along on their first meet?

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