Friday, March 19, 2010

A conversation with Naseeruddin Shah

[Excerpts from my talk with Naseeruddin Shah during the shooting of “The Hunt” in Vagamon – earlier posts about that trip here, here and here. This is in Q&A form, but I have lots of other material – watching Naseer at work, on the sets and between shots – which I’ll be writing as a flowing piece at some point. When you have nearly 15,000 words that are part-interview, part-observation, it’s very difficult to know how to organise them!]

In "The Hunt", Naseer plays a recluse known only as “Colonel”, living in a forest retreat secured by high-tech surveillance equipment. Here he cultivates a very potent variety of marijuana, an activity that makes him the object of much unwanted attention, and his life is further complicated when he is forced to play host to a young woman who is in mortal danger.


When we spoke in connection with Jaane bhi do Yaaro last year, you mentioned that in the early 1980s you were saying yes to practically any director who came to you with a novel/offbeat script – that you wanted to support people who were doing interesting things. Are you doing this very low-budget, non-Bollywood movie for similar reasons?

I never really stopped working in small films. I may have been very critical of the “art” filmmakers I used to work with, but even when I started doing commercial movies and working three shifts a day, I always did find the time for an interesting, offbeat, low-budget movie.

I often wondered why people like Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, who had made very effective low-budget films, didn’t attempt a popular film in the same budget; why were the zeroes to be increased manifold in order to make a popular film? If you could make a Bhavni Bhavai - a perfectly convincing recreation of a period - or an Aakrosh in three-and-a-half lakh rupees, why do you need Rs 20 crore to make a film today? Why can’t you make a popular film with a smaller budget? I couldn’t understand why no one attempted it – I believed it was possible, and also highly desirable. The ballooning budgets of Bollywood are getting out of hand, and the bubble is going to burst someday, like it happened in Hollywood with Cleopatra.

That’s one of the things that drew me to Anup’s project. I was reasonably impressed with his first film, Manasarovar – I wasn’t bowled over, but I felt that here’s someone who’s trying to say what he wants to say without blowing up money on unnecessary things. When he came to me, I said yes straight away. It seemed to me that this script represented an opportunity to make a commercially viable film with a low budget.

What I meant was that Anup Kurian is outside the Bollywood circle in a way that even someone like Rajat Kapoor or Neeraj Pandey isn’t – in that sense, The Hunt is an atypical film for you to be doing, more so than Mithya or A Wednesday.

True, but I thought this was a project with integrity; here is a guy whose prime motive in making this film is not to multiply his bank account but to make the kind of film that he likes.

The script, when I finally got it, was pretty damn good. I thought there were a few things I could add to it, and it’s worked out well so far.

How did you prepare for the character? How did the dreadlocks happen?

When I first read the script and saw that the character is called Colonel, I said there’s no way I’m going to have a handlebar moustache and a crew-cut! I think Anup wanted that sort of look. We were trying to figure it out when one day he emailed me and said “What is Colonel’s real name?” The script never tells us this – he has a bunch of fake identity cards.

So I started thinking about this – where does “Colonel” come from? Now, Pankaj Parashar, who made Jalwa, one of my favourite films, has been talking nonstop about doing Jalwa 2. We never got around to it, we haven’t seen eye to eye on it, but I thought to myself, hey, what if Colonel is the cop from Jalwa? This is the guy who busted a narcotics ring, shot the head guy and for his pains was dismissed from the service. It fits in perfectly, because such a thing WOULD happen to an inspector who goes and shoots a Dawood-like character; he would be fucked for life. So he has nothing to live for and he says okay, I’m going to grow marijuana and survive. Fuck honesty, fuck the police force after what they’ve done to me.”

I saw Jalwa as a 10-year-old and I think that was the first time I really noticed you. The boring, art-house actor as muscle man. You rocked.

It was the first time a lot of kids noticed me! That film was ahead of its times, it was the forerunner of MTV and all this slick filmmaking today. So what if it was a Beverly Hills Cop remake? Even Paar was a Do Bigha Zameen remake!

There’s this gym I go to – infrequently – and this beefy young man came up to me, started to touch my feet, and said, “Sir, I saw Jalwa when I was 10 and I started bodybuilding because I thought if YOU can do it, then I can definitely do it!”

Now there’s a backhanded compliment.

Yes, he must have seen me in some bloody Sunayana or some such film before that! (Laughs) He was off to a bodybuilding competition. I want your blessings, sir, he said, so I told him solemnly: God bless you. No idea if he won or what happened.

Anyway, for me, this is the sequel to Jalwa. I haven’t discussed it with Anup though.

I thought Colonel would be a guy who lives alone, a chap people wouldn’t approach easily – an enigmatic, hermit-like figure. And I always wanted to have long hair so I suggested it to Anup – he was taken aback at first but then he saw it as adding to the enigma of the character.

This hair attachment is stitched on to my own hair – I’m stuck with it till the end of the shooting. It’s horrible, but worth it for the movie.

The Colonel is a fairly laconic man, there aren’t many obvious character tics.

No. He’s a person you can’t figure out. I thought the relationship with the girl is interesting – here’s a lovely young thing brought to him, and it’s impossible for him to remain unmoved, he isn’t a machine after all. It’s an intriguing relationship – two very different people thrown together in an unresolvable situation.


You prepare meticulously for each character, but I’ve noticed that you don’t like theorising too much about acting technique.

Yes, because there’s so much hocus-pocus about acting styles and so on, there’s too much mysticism attached to it. But it’s a craft like any other, it’s something you have to work hard at. It isn’t like some people are born with “God-given talent”.

(Jokingly) Some people say ‘charakter nikaalna hai’, par character ‘nikalta’ kaise hai, yeh baat mujhe samajh nahin aati!

I believe any person can act, just like any person can sing. Any voice is capable of any sound. There’s no such thing as a be-sura person. People labour under this impression “main gaa nahin sakta”. But it might be more accurate to say that something happened to you in childhood because of which you can’t sing, whereas other people didn’t have that experience.

(Reflectively) I can recall being shouted at for singing or listening to music when I was young, by my dad – how dare you put on the radio without asking me, etc.

But when you do a Pestonjee or an Ishqiya, or play Gandhi on stage, and you’re talking in a voice or an accent that isn’t your own, does that need a significantly different approach?

The intent is never to look different for the sake of it, that’s a wrong approach in my opinion. Acting is not an end in itself. There was a time when I only wanted to show off, but as I’ve grown older I’ve realised that you act to communicate something, you’re a messenger. In order to get that message across uncorrupted and complete, if you have to use an accent or grow a beard or become thin or fat or muscular, that’s your job as an actor.

There have been times when I’ve appeared repetitive and people have complained. But I’m built like this, I can’t do plastic surgery and become a different person – I’m representing a character as best as I can given my own physicality and appearance. There are certain features which I cannot change. But if I manage to communicate what the writer and director intended, then I think it’s a success.

Actors have huge egos and consider themselves the centre of the universe. But I’m trying to overcome that and this is why I’ve started teaching so much – because I feel it’s terribly important to communicate to youngsters that everyone can’t get leading roles all their lives.

I loved guys like Charles Laughton, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni – he was the first truly original film actor among those who became famous. One similarly owes a debt to the early Dilip Kumar, the early, pre-Zanjeer Amitabh Bachchan. When you see their old work now it looks dated, but you can’t deny history.

I think there’s going to be a quantum leap in the standard of acting in India. It happened in America in the 1950s and one of the reasons for it was the advent of TV. Because on the small screen, people saw real conversations, real grief-stricken families for the first time, and they could distinguish between that and the stylised, mannered acting they had been seeing on the big screen before that.

Actors of today are photographed from the moment they are born almost. The camera is no longer an object of terror for them, the way it used to be for us. When I was a kid, getting photographed was an event. “Next month on the 25th we are going to Meerut to get photographed,” some one in the family would say, and we got all dressed up and went and there was this huge scary tripod.

Today’s actors aren’t as self-conscious about the camera. On the whole, they are better actors than our generation was.


You’ve often expressed your view that many of the old “parallel” films are mediocre and overrated. What do you feel is wrong with them? Is it the technical clunkiness or something at the level of the script?

What one saw was a lack of insight into how people behave, and to me – speaking as an actor – that was the first reason for disillusionment. It amazed me that some of those directors couldn’t see that a certain type of behaviour was false. It’s not a question of “underacting” or “overacting” – I don’t believe in those terms – it’s just a question of behaving truthfully, in a situation where you’re unlocking your door for example, or parking your bicycle. Many of these directors could not see what a performance would look like on the screen, 32 times magnified. They wanted the impact right there.

There were instances, while making Junoon or Manthan, for instance, where I would do a take and everyone sitting there would applaud. Now that’s a terrible, terrible thing to do to an actor, particularly a young, inexperienced, vain actor – because he then starts performing to the people present rather than communicating with the camera. Then the performance would get further magnified when you saw it on the screen, and that’s why it looked like shit.

None of these filmmakers ever did a study on the dynamics/mechanics of acting. The truth is, they always looked down on actors or resented them. Perhaps with good reason, because among the Film Institute graduates, it was always the actors who got the acclaim and were the first to buy an imported car, a house etc. The directors would make a movie, slog their butts off and the actors would get the attention, being the most visible component.

Their first movies were very good in many cases, or at least competent, but after that it was downhill. I used to feel, why don’t these people make movies about the things that affect them? Why are they sitting on Malabar Hill and making films about the starving peasants of Bihar? A lot of them would talk about their next film and make it sound very exciting but then they’d say “You know, I need a bigger budget. I’ll probably have to cast somebody famous.” And their justification was, “We need to get across to a bigger audience.” And I’d say: WHY? When you started your career you decided to take the path less travelled, you didn’t have much of an audience when you made your first film, you didn’t even care for the audience then. Now, suddenly, why do you need to get across to a bigger audience?

Anyway, they all made the fatal mistake of getting saleable actors. And the moment you take on a saleable actor the whole bloody odour of a project changes. To my mind, this was the biggest mistake: casting actors who have made their lives and careers and reputations by being synthetic. These guys have practised it, they’ve turned it into a fine art – being “convincingly synthetic”. And you are casting such actors and expecting them to play real people? They just can’t do it! Even the most gifted of them, Mr Bachchan, can’t do it any more. He has become a synthetic person. I would tell them this and they would say you are just envious.

Cast a popular star in a small movie and before you know it you’re making sure you’re keeping the star happy, without him even asking for it. This is where the rot set in with these arty filmmakers. Study any of their graphs and you’ll see the same story.

Did you ever worry that you would fall into the same trap, being a superstar of the “parallel star system” that was developing at the time?

No, because we weren’t getting anything like the rewards that those guys got! So we didn’t feel like stars, I was getting no money for any of these movies, it would amuse me no end that I was being called the Amitabh Bachchan of parallel cinema (laughs).

But yes, parallel cinema definitely had a star hierarchy of its own, and the same people would get cast over and over again. Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Smita Patil, Farooque Shaikh and Supriya Pathak. The last film in which Shyam Benegal cast a whole ensemble of newcomers was Nishant in 1975!

When I started getting deluged with awards, I became the darling of these filmmakers. And because I had a kind of malleable personality – and I had worked on it – I got cast as the Christian, the Gujarati, the goonda, everything. I believed in myself as all those people. But the bitter truth also is that I was the only idiot available who would work free and deliver the goods, which was a major reason for my getting these roles. There were many others who were just as capable as I was, but they wouldn’t have been available on the same terms.

Your willingness to be openly critical of people in the industry – to name names - is something that’s rare in Bollywood, where tact is the ultimate virtue. Has the bluntness alienated you from a lot of people or otherwise had repercussions on your professional life?

I’ve been very lucky never to be in a position where I’ve had to worry about pleasing people or saying the right things to them. Yes, I have lost friends and that’s something I’ve regretted at times. But as far as needing to say the right things or the diplomatic things, that’s never been an issue. After all, I made it on my own steam – even the people who gave me my early breaks did it because I had what they needed, I didn’t take any favours from them. So I don’t really feel like I owe them anything.

One thing that’s interesting: when I say these blunt things about Bollywood movies or synthetic actors or Institute directors, no one ever responds by saying “He’s wrong. That isn’t true.” Instead they respond by saying “Yeh sab kyun keh raha hai?” (“Why is he saying all this?”) It’s almost like there’s this understanding that once you’re part of the industry, you’re simply not supposed to say certain things – that you’re supposed to be tactful and look the other way.

Your rants about FTII directors are legion. Kundan Shah told me you were stomping around the Jaane bhi do Yaaro sets in a cold fury in 1982, yelling that Institute directors were all idiots.

I strongly believe that the direction course at the FTII should be scrapped. There should only be areas of specialisation, so students can acquire expertise in a particular branch of filmmaking. Too many of these Institute directors have their heads filled with nonsense about a film being “their film”. But only Charles bloody Chaplin had the right to make such a claim, and even he was dependent on so many other people. Look at someone like Satyajit Ray, who was a true all-rounder: even he never wrote “A film by Satyajit Ray” in the credits of his movies. The auteur theory is rubbish. In Indian cinema it all started with Benegal etc, but it’s a load of rubbish.

Some of these directors are so full of themselves that they have no sense of human behaviour: they treat actors as props, to be shifted around. They only come to actors for suggestions when they don’t have an idea in their heads – otherwise it’s always “No, it’s my film and this is the way I want this done.”

As it is, the way films are made in Bollywood, everything is completely centered around a star’s image rather than on the way a character would really behave. “Amitabh ji hain toh aisi kursi mein baithenge.” “Naseeruddin Shah ko anger wallah scene do.” “Paresh Rawal hai toh comedy wallah scene do.”

Which of the films you did are you reasonably happy with?

I was proud of Masoom, Sparsh, maybe Ardh Satya to an extent. A Wednesday, among the newer films. But in general I’ve lost the hope of seeing a truly great film being made in this country, at least in my lifetime. Time and time and time again, people fuck up the opportunities they have.

But isn’t the overall quality of today’s offbeat films better than their equivalents from the 70s and 80s?

Definitely, in every way. Scriptwise, craftwise, understanding-wise, and most importantly these are films about issues that directly affect these young writer-directors. Neeraj Pandey has suffered firsthand through what the common man in A Wednesday talks about. He’s a very down-to-earth person and I look forward to his future work. Rajat Kapoor’s first film Private Detective was a very bad combination of James Hadley Chase and Mani Kaul, and they go together like rum and whiskey (laughs). I was in that film, and no one has ever seen it. But the movies he’s making now, Bheja Fry or Mithya, they are about the things he’s concerned with, and there’s a basic honesty to them. Even a Farah Khan makes great movies, because they are based on her completely unabashed love for commercial movies and she makes no bones about them. Anurag Kashyap is the most exciting filmmaker in the country by a long stretch, and there are guys like Hirani and Dibakar Banerjee.

I think today’s filmmakers have better honed their craft. See the skill with which Nandita Das’s Firaaq was made. She was heartbroken when the film was sunk by the distributors. That was a real pity.

It’s too early to celebrate but there’s hope. And let’s not start talking about a New Movement and all that.

You made your own debut as a movie director with Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota. Any more plans in that direction?

No. That film didn’t work and it hurts me to think I made a film that was incompetent. Some people tell me they liked it, but frankly I think that was because they wanted to like it. I pay more heed to those who didn’t like it. It had a lot of flaws. I’d like to set that right in the future, but I don’t know if I have the ability. Film direction is a very difficult job.

What were you thinking when you did something like Krrish?

(Makes wry face, flicks fingers in “rokda” gesture) I hope I can continue to do one big commercial film every year so I can line my bank account. That would be the perfect existence.


With your dastangoi stint and with the new productions by your group Motley, you’ve been getting back to a no-frills, minimalist form of theatre. What attraction does this hold for you?

First of all, just to clear a misconception – my first love isn’t theatre, it’s cinema. I first dreamt of becoming a film actor when I first started dreaming at 14. I wanted to be rich and famous, I wanted to be Gary Cooper, I didn’t want to be an arty-farty type of guy trudging up hills and through streams and so on... (laughter) I wanted to live in palaces and be recognised everywhere and wear dark glasses and white suits.

Nobody becomes an actor to serve Art. You become an actor because you want to be famous, you want to meet girls, you want people to react to you. It was just chance that I discovered theatre along the way and became hooked to it, developed a great love for it which stayed with me. Then I went to FTII and started working in both forms simultaneously.

I don’t think I’m a hugely committed theatre-person – I don’t do street theatre or political theatre, which I perhaps would do if I were a theatre person above all else. To me, theatre is a stimulating experience that has taught me a great deal. But I love movies with a passion I can’t explain, and it hurts me to see people wasting the opportunities they have to make good films. It also hurts to see the neglect of film prints. The original prints of Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Bhavni Bhavai are in ruins, and these were government-made films; there’s no excuse at all.
Alam Ara, such a historically significant movie - the first sound film made in India - no longer exists, it exists only in stills.

But to get back to your question about returning to minimalist theatre... the more I’ve done theatre, the more convinced I’ve become about the thesis of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who wrote the book Towards a Poor Theatre. His argument was that European theatre is travelling in the wrong direction – more and more, people are trying to create the illusion of cinema through magical set changes, thunderstorms, floods, earthquakes, the stage going crooked etc. And he said, this is ridiculous – no matter what you do, cinema will always be better at doing these things.

Ergo, has theatre lost its function? Is what theatre did being done better by cinema today? And the answer is no. So, what is the identity of theatre in that case?

Grotowski was cash-strapped, in this communist regime with limited resources, and he developed the concept of poor theatre – he said our poverty of resources should be our strength. He defined ideal theatre as one actor, one audience. When I speak, you listen; when you speak, I listen. We respond to each other. And I thought, fuck man, this makes complete sense to me.

He went further: he said if I want to show a storm on stage, I don’t want to show water falling on the actor. I depend on the actor’s imagination, an actor whose body is capable and whose imagination is alive. Put the actor in minimal clothing and he expresses everything with his body and his voice. This was the sort of theatre he wanted to do.

He would go as far as to choose his audience. Girish Karnad is the only person I know who’s actually seen a performance of Grotowski’s group, and he told me it was like being submerged in water – he could only gasp for breath when he came out.

Grotowski said there is no point trying to create the illusion of being elsewhere – all an audience member has to do is look upwards and he can see the lights above the actors. You have to try and transport their minds. I’ve begun to gravitate towards this type of theatre. Dispense with all the props – if your imagination is good enough you can make the audience see the teapot and the teacup in a scene where the actor is making tea.

That reminds me of Spencer Tracy playing a shipwrecked sailor on stage once and saying he didn’t want a stubble. The director asked him incredulously, “You mean you’re going to act unshaven?” And that’s pretty much what Tracy did.

Was that in Captains Courageous? No no, that was a film.

Back in the 70s, under Mr Elkazi, I felt theatre was all about the grandeur. But the magic of theatre really is the stimulation you give the watcher’s mind. For that you don’t need anything except the actor. If I were to do Shaw's Saint Joan, which I badly want to, I would do it in this minimalist way. That play is full of such beautiful words, and that’s all you really need.

As far as Motley is concerned, I’m trying to spend as little time as possible on stage – because otherwise the play will become about Naseeruddin Shah, and I want the theatre group to outlive me.

(Later, Naseer showed me an article he’d been reading about J D Salinger. “There was such purity of purpose in this man,” he said, “in the way he let his work do the talking and kept himself in the background. Not that I consider myself anywhere near the same league, but there are times when I’m preparing for a play and I want to continue with the rehearsals without ever putting on the actual performance.”)


  1. This is quite a "Oh fuck brilliant". And i cant wait for "The Hunt" already. Thanks a million bucks for this one.

  2. What a brilliant interview .. Bloody fantastic .. Super Jai!

  3. Absolutely splendid work, Jai! Such a refreshing change from the sterile interviews we're used to. Hope this doesn't sound patronising, but this feels like it could be the beginning of a very significant body of work on the Indian film world. Looking forward to more such conversations. More power to your mind and pen!


  4. Lovely! Thank god for journalists like you...such few of you people out there! Most are TRASH!

  5. Jai,
    I've been reading ur posts quite a bit and this is a bloody good piece (see? Naseer's speaking through me already!).
    and his comment about amitabh bachchan and their ilk - telling. i wish amitabh reads it and tries to undo the damage he's doing to himself.looking forward to more of u and Naseer.

  6. The next time someone says that bloggers won't supplant the popular press, I'm going to point to this post and say, "this is what you get when you have a good, interested interviewer (and not a bored film journalist) talking to a good, self-aware actor." Great questions, Jai, and you should just do this a lot more. Ravi Baswani next, maybe? :)

  7. It's so refreshing to read such an open and honest interview. I wish more actors would be this forthright about their views and more importantly, more journos would know their subjects as well as you do. Splendid job! Can't wait for your book!

  8. Really eye-opening interview. I really like Naseer's honesty - in admitting his own mistakes, in pointing the flaws of others. Good thing that a legendary actor can speak completely disregarding the mysticism associated with his big name.

    Even on a personal level, the interview does wonders. Like it tells me the downfalls of thinking too much of the auteur theory - the director as the sole creator of a film.

  9. Thanks for the kind words, everyone - it was fun putting this together, though as I mentioned at the beginning of the post the real challenge will be to write a lengthy flowing profile that captures the many sides of Naseer: the intelligence and honesty, of course, but also the wild mood swings and the contradictions. A 1600-word profile is in tomorrow's Business Standard Weekend, but I hope to do something much more exhaustive at some point.

    Btw, I'm a big admirer of Naseer as an actor and person, but I don't quite agree with everything he says. However, this was meant as a straight Q&A - a transcription of his views on various things. No place here for my own commentary and analysis.

    I briefly toyed with the idea of doing this post in multiple formats: alternating between long-form feature writing, parenthetical commentary and Q&A. That would have allowed me to put in more info about watching Naseer rehearsing for a scene, for example, or the quips he makes in between shots. But I've been terribly busy of late and that would have required too much time. Plus, it would have meant putting up ALL my notes on the blog, which I'm not too keen to do at this point.

  10. Even on a personal level, the interview does wonders. Like it tells me the downfalls of thinking too much of the auteur theory - the director as the sole creator of a film.

    Sudipto: fair enough, as long as you don't completely dismiss the auteur theory just because Naseer does. In any case, none of the auteur proponents define it in such simplistic terms as "the director being the sole creator" - the theory, and the discourse around it, is much more complex than that. The idea is more that certain directors have managed to stamp their personalities and personal concerns on their films in some overall sense, even when working within constraints and being dependent on a lot of other creative talents. The idea is not to undermine the other contributions.

    From the point of view of an actor (especially an intelligent, individualistic actor who nisn't content to be a prop or a chess piece), a simplified version of the auteur theory would be complete rubbish, and even demeaning. But that doesn't negate the theory altogether.

  11. True, what I wanted to say is (and bungled, no doubt) that a film is not only the director's brainchild. Which is something I often forget.

    That said, a film still belongs more to the director than to anyone else. :P

  12. It's been ages since I last visited your blog. A friend alerted me about the Naseer interview and I couldn't resist. Just wanted to say thank you for doing this. Looking forward to more on him.

  13. Super interview!!!
    Thanks so much!
    Looking forward to reading an extended version

  14. I can only repeat the reactions from Boshu downwards.

    And envy you enormously for the chance to interact with this man.


  15. Interesting that he talks about directors being full of themselves. I thought that applies more to actors than anybody else in show business!

    There should only be areas of specialisation, so students can acquire expertise in a particular branch of filmmaking.

    I think this smacks of the middlebrow approach to filmmaking and criticism where you assign x points to each aspect of the film. The director brings a lot more to a film than a certain visual sensibility. A great director can impose on a film a certain world view, a certain attitude towards life!

    When we watch films as diverse as The Trouble with Harry and Strangers on a Train, we clearly observe a thematic consistency that may not be too obvious. Both films show our willingness to partake in/condone crime as long as someone else does the dirty work. Now, Hitch didn't write either of these films. Yet, his imprint is all over the script.

    Naseer's obsession with "naturalism" is also tiresome. For instance, Tracy was probably a more "natural" actor than say a Bogart. Yet, Bogart was undoubtedly the greater artist. His influence on a lot of the films exceeded that of the director. His presence meant a lot more than just mannerisms/personal style. The name "Bogart" is almost an adjective that connotes cynicism, understated chivalry and a stoic attitude towards life's outcomes.

    Tracy, for all his naturalism, is nowhere near as complex as Bogart on the screen.

  16. Shrikanth: as I mentioned in my comment, I don't agree with everything Naseer says, but one should at least keep in mind the context in which his comments are made. For instance, I don't see why we should bring someone of the stature of Hitchcock into a conversation about the limitations of the direction course at FTII. (It might also be worthwhile to remember that people like Hitch, Ford and Hawks - exemplars of the sort of auteurship you're talking about - never did a course in direction). In the context of FTII, I do think there's some validity to Naseer's observation.

    Also, I personally disagree with Bogart being "undoubtedly a greater artist" than Tracy (or a "less natural" actor than Tracy), though we're getting too far into nitty-gritties if we start arguing along those lines. (Just for your information: Naseer is a big Bogart fan too!)

  17. Lovely interview. A real pleasure to read!

  18. J'wock: I guess I quoted the wrong line from the post. Ofcourse, Naseer's gripe against FTII courses sounds fair enough.
    But his subsequent remarks didn't make a lot of sense. He seemed to suggest that for a director to claim "auteur"ship, he must be an "all-rounder" like a Chaplin or a Satyajit Ray. The auteur theory was never about being involved in all aspects of the film's creation as you rightly pointed out in an earlier comment. Which is why I picked Hitchcock's example - since he was far from an all rounder (never took even a writing credit).

    Anyway, they all made the fatal mistake of getting saleable actors. And the moment you take on a saleable actor the whole bloody odour of a project changes. To my mind, this was the biggest mistake

    I wonder if Naseer has seen Rossellini's neorealist film Viaggio in Italia starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, the ultimate refutation of this belief that casting movie stars hurts the quality of an "art" film (whatever that means).

    Movie stardom isn't about being "synthetic" or specialising in "mannerisms". It is about projecting a persona that the audiences can immediately relate to/empathise with. A great star can be as much of an auteur as a great director (as in the case of Bogart in several films)

  19. marvellous jai. few of us would get a chance to hear him think, as much as we may definitely get a chance to see him :)

    thanks for bringing this....


  20. I think Naseer is the best actor we have and he seems like a fun person to befriend as well. But somehow I get this feeling that he mustn't be very easy to live with...that he has a bad temper and is given to explosive outbursts! :D

  21. Damn cool interview with great responses from Naseer, although I don't particularly understand the beef he appears to have with Benegal who has made some of the most interesting movies in the parallel cinema vein.

  22. For Shrikanth and others interested in different manifestations of the Auteur debate, here's something I posted on the comments in Baradwaj Rangan's latest post:

    It seems to me that the concept of the "film auteur" often gets attacked for being something that it never quite claimed to be in the first place. None of the early auteur proponents ever suggested that a film could belong to a director to the same degree that a book belongs to its author. (It would be self-evidently absurd to make such a claim – at any rate, all you’d have to do is spend a single day on a film set for any such notion to vanish.) But even someone as intelligent as Pauline Kael gave the theory a very simplistic reading and then famously dismissed it and stomped all over it.

    One thing I should clarify: I was the one who brought the word "auteur" into the conversation with Naseer - when he was pausing for breath in between ranting about the ego-trips of the directors he used to work with - and in that sense it could be considered a "leading" question, asked at a time when the interviewee was in a vulnerable mood.

    At various other points in our interactions, Naseer spoke with admiration about directors like Herzog, Godard, Tarantino and even Hitchcock (whose famous line "actors are cattle" would appear to represent everything Naseer detests in self-centred directors). He definitely seems respectful of directors who did powerful individualistic work while overseeing the disparate elements of the filmmaking process.

  23. cinephile from delhi10:51 AM, March 21, 2010

    Excellent interview Jai

    Re. the much maligned "auteur theory" here are links to some original documents and a fascinating talk cross-posted from Brangan's blog


  24. cinephile: Thanks for linking Kael's rejoinder to Sarris. Had been looking for it lately.

    It was a great fun read. But Kael disappointed as expected. She essentially comes across in the essay as a Europhile infatuated with continental cinema with rigid notions of what constitutes artistic merit.

    To my mind, the auteur "theorists" made one significant contribution to criticism that is hard to deny, i.e the lack of pretense/cultural baggage while evaluating films. Thanks to them, it is possible now for us to mention Only Angels Have Wings and The Rules of the Game in the same breath, without sounding too foolish. I'm not sure whether that would've been possible say sixty years ago.

  25. Jai:
    Like you said, I didn't agree with all of Naseer's opinions. But damn, am I glad he has always had the guts to air the ones he has.

    It always is worth watching or reading one of his interviews, if only for the obvious thought and interest he takes in the industry, the profession, and the art of films.

    Thanks be to you for the whole set of posts on the film.

  26. Jai, intelligent questions for an intelligent actor. Its so refreshing from all the unworthy interviews we land up reading.

    But then I have always been a fan of your writing and Naseeruddin Shah's acting, so I could be a little biased.

  27. I can't believe he puts Anurag Kashyap "miles ahead" of Dibakar Banerjee.

    And, why isn't Oye Lucky a great film? I think it is.

  28. Kanishka: huh! Where exactly has Oye Lucky been mentioned in the post or in the comments? If you're alluding to Naseer's remark that he's lost the hope of seeing a truly great film being made in India, that's a sweeping statement anyway, and suggests that his benchmark for "greatness" is unrealistically high - one doesn't necessarily have to take it at face value.

    Personally I agree that Oye Lucky is a great film (and it isn't the only great Hindi film of the last 3-4 years), but that's neither here nor there.

  29. ONe of the best interviews I hv ever read. It also helps to have a great interviewer with insightful questions and a brilliant honest actor as subject. Well done. I hv had the priviledge of having Naseer spit on my face while he was immersed in one of the soliloqouys in Waiting for Godot at Prithvi. Hahaha. It was a grt performance. I agree that the art films that came in the 80s was skewed but some of them really is good cinema whatever naseer may say so. Also because he really excelled in those roles. Paar for one. Ardh satya. But this auteur theory is quite crap. Even Hitchcock did not say a film by... But also for him the craft was superior to the actors who he treated as props :)

  30. super actor...superbly interviewed...

  31. Well, no, Oye Lucky was not mentioned anywhere; but it would be interesting why this is not considered a truly great film by Naseeruddin Shah.

    The reason why this bothers me is that an actor of his ability has immense effect on anyone who takes movies even a bit seriously. If he thinks Oye Lucky is not truly great, and you & I do, either his standard is really high (which is what exactly?) or ours are low. Neither of these are satisfying.

    The issue isn't with any film, it's the statement that bothers me. It seems to indicate a hopelessness way out of line with the Bollywood of the last few years. Which would indicate that I should not be taking the man's words very seriously, because he's a bit out of touch.

    Well anyway, it was a good interview. Stirred up a lot of debate.

  32. If he thinks Oye Lucky is not truly great, and you & I do, either his standard is really high (which is what exactly?) or ours are low. Neither of these are satisfying.

    Kanishka: um, no. It could simply mean that the film, for whatever combination of unknowable reasons, didn't affect him in the same way that it affected us. No one is under any sort of obligation to form a consensus about these things, even if the film in question is Citizen Kane. I know at least one very intelligent person (and a sensitive movie watcher) who was left unmoved by OLLO. That doesn't mean either his view or ours is invalid, or that he has higher standards than us. You're making movie criticism sound like some sort of science, built on quantifiable factors and that terrifying concept of "objectivity".

    It seems to indicate a hopelessness way out of line with the Bollywood of the last few years.

    I'm not sure that statements like today’s filmmakers have better honed their craft and Scriptwise, craftwise and understanding-wise, today's offbeat films are much better than their equivalents from the 70s and 80s suggest that he's way out of touch with modern Bollywood. But yes, I'd agree that on the whole he tends to be extremely cynical about a lot of things. And certainly, there's no need for you to take anything he says very seriously if you strongly disagree with him.

  33. Points taken.


    "It could simply mean that the film, for whatever combination of unknowable reasons, didn't affect him in the same way that it affected us."

    Why? Yes, any appraisal of a creative pursuit is ultimately subjective, but there are certainly some attributes that one can list out. Naseeruddin Shah himself lists these in your interview.

    I am not satisfied with "this did not work for him".

    Why do you find objectivity terrifying? If you think about it, science would have appeared at some point of time to be so fantastic that one may have classified understanding it objectively as terrifying.

  34. Kanishka: I don't find objectivity terrifying - that was a feeble attempt at being funny. But I do find claims to objectivity - in the context of film criticism - banal, uninteresting and ultimately not very useful. Some of my favourite film reviewers/writers are people whose assessments I routinely disagree with, and I'm very glad about that. Movie reviewing is very different from science, and I hope a day never arrives when everyone is expected to have a homogenised set of views about any film.

    I am not satisfied with "this did not work for him".

    It's your prerogative to not be satisfied, of course, but I can hardly speculate any further on Naseer's behalf. If you were to sit down and specifically ask him why he doesn't consider OLLO a "truly great" film, I'm sure he would have a full set of reasons ready. (It's another matter, of course, whether you would be willing to simply accept those reasons, agree to disagree, and let the discussion come to an end.)

  35. Outstanding interview Jai. Been a while since I truly relished an interview so much :-)

  36. brilliant...some men are just honest-they surpass all other illusion's...

  37. Wonderfully done interview!
    Naseer remains the quintessential actor having roots firmly in the character that he essays. A true artist who works for and supports the newbies in an age of out and out commercial cinema.

  38. I love Naseer Shah especially when he has moustaches. He has a charming personality, beautiful voice and best actor in the India.

  39. Hi Jai,
    First things first..let me congratulate you for "jaane bhi do yaaron". It is a hugely inspiring and historically critical account that you've managed to write about.
    About the interview, it's as honest and interesting as it gets. Keenly looking forward to more interviews that you conduct. How about Pankaj Kapoor ? :)

  40. Naseeruddin Shah is such a wonderful actor. I seen his last movie character was terrorist. That is mindblowing.
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  41. WOW brilliant interview...i have loved this actor since the days of Mirza Ghalib! Brilliant actor!

  42. The best Naseer interview I have read. Thanks Jia ji...

  43. this was hands down the best interview from a creative person that i have ever read.

    thank you!

  44. He really is a great interview subject :) Here's the one I did in Lahore last year

  45. Shah says FTII Should scrap direction course and then he says direction is difficult. Is it bad to learn something difficult methodically and apply them when on job?