There are two actors who reside in the legend we know as Naseeruddin Shah. One is a veteran artiste who looks back at his robust legacy of arthouse films with pride. The other is a trenchant critic of run-of-the-mill commercial cinema, of which he too is a part of. How do the two reconcile, if at all? We find out at the Dubai International Film Festival, where he was recently honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
You said a very interesting thing about Dubai while receiving your Lifetime Achievement Award. You called it a mirage that is real. What did you mean by that?
The first time I came here, it looked like a phoenix rising from the ashes. There was construction all over, and there were a very few buildings. But that time, there was a vision of what the city would look like. Now over a span of 30-35 years, they have built it into a dream city. What you see all around does look unreal.It is aspiring to be the capital of the world. It is a beautiful mirage, and I hope it is real.
Your film Waiting was screened at the festival. It was interesting to see your much older Shiv bonding with the much younger Tara. How do you interpret the relationship?
I would not like to intellectualise it. Perhaps under different circumstances, this could have ended up being an intimate relationship. I feel one must empathise with it. If a guy like Shiv met someone like Tara when he was vulnerable and so was she and both needed each other’s support, it would be natural that he would be drawn to her. There would be a bond, not the father-daughter kind, but a genuine friendship. I am not being prudish when I say this because Shiv is probably beyond the age where he can fall in love with a girl that young. But there is a great deal of unspoken attachment between the two, as there would be in life too if one encountered such a situation.
As someone who has a fairly strong foothold in commercial cinema as well, do you think Bollywood shies away from portraying such complex relationships?
They are afraid of getting complex about anything. Everything has to be in the simplest possible terms. Everything has to be underlined and spelt out. I think Bollywood constantly undervalues the audience’s intelligence and that’s what makes me very angry. They have dumbed down the tastes of the audience. They have been making films for over 100 years, but they don’t realise that they have been making the same films. About 10 years ago, films were the only form of entertainment that was available to the audiences; there was no Internet. They provided the junk that the audience swallowed. Hopefully, the coming generations will see through the sham because unless that happens, the quality of films that Bollywood routinely churns out is not going to improve. Fifty years ago, Mr (Satyajit) Ray said in his collection of essays, Our Films Their Films, that he wished that our audiences were more demanding. The fact is that they aren’t. They will flock to see a movie even when they know it is rotten. They will hate it, but will see it a second time to ensure it is rotten (laughs).
It is interesting that you spoke about audience’s preferences. Recently, when two leading actors spoke their mind on the issue of intolerance, it wasn’t received well on the social media. Does that indicate that our audiences see our actors as model beings who say and do the ‘right’ thing?What Aamir (Khan) and Shah Rukh (Khan) said has been misinterpreted as anti-national statements because both of them are Muslims. Neither of them said a word about being Muslim, but it has been put in their mouth. I wish more support had been extended to these two guys. Unfortunately, no one ever came forward. It would be interesting to see how people would react if a non-Muslim had said something similar. A lot of people say that both the actors have a lot to be grateful about to the country, but they have never denied that. They are talking of an atmosphere that is turning sullied. But then the fact is that it is not as if any other government has been squeaky clean either. Even during the Congress government’s rule, there was intolerance. Activists had been killed, artists had been threatened.
Do you think these episodes will further discourage the actors from speaking their mind on political issues?
Probably. But then if a person is pointing out what he feels is wrong with his country, how is it a traitorous statement.
From arthouse cinema to Bollywood, how difficult has the shift been for you?
It has been difficult because I started my career in serious movies where I had to be real, movies like Nishant and Manthan. These films did not require a star presence, they required a human being. So when I got my first commercial cinema Sunaina, I was thoroughly at sea. I did not know how to dance around a tree, or how to look charming. I was a miserable failure and have continued to be one in such films through my life (laughs). I think to act in such films, you really need to believe in them, and I certainly don’t.