Shah’s acclaimed portrayals:
As poor farmer Naurangia in Gautam Ghose’s Paar
As blind principal Anirudh Parmar in Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh
As villager Bhola in Shyam Benegal’s Manthan
As the troubled D.K. Malhotra in Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom
As the intrepid lensman in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.
When comedian Ravi Baswani mournfully says, using that tired but evocative clich', that they don't make them like that anymore, the coordinator of the revived acting course in Pune's Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) is not talking about films. He is referring to actors like Naseeruddin Shah.
There were many who would have echoed Baswani on Thursday when Shah ' once the face of Indian arthouse cinema ' walked up at the seventh International Film Festival in Mumbai to receive an award for his contribution to Indian cinema. The award, appropriately, was given away by director Shyam Benegal, who gave Shah his first break by casting him as one of four oppressive zamindar brothers who rape the village teacher's wife in Nishant.
Thirty years ago, when Naseeruddin Shah made his d'but, he was a newcomer with immense talent. Today, he is an institution. It was Shah who gave a new meaning to the word actor ' thereby founding an elite club that people still seek membership of. Last seen, Irrfan Khan ' a self-confessed fan of Shah ' was finding his place in the New School of Acting symbolised by Shah and his contemporaries.
So, when you have done all that, awards are no big deal. And especially not for someone who has a repertoire of more than 100 films, has won three national awards and was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 2003. 'I have shunned competitive awards for nearly 10 years. But, this one is special because it is being given by people who gave me the opportunity to play different roles,' says 54-year-old Shah, sitting comfortably in his bright Bandra office a few hours before the ceremony.
It all started with Benegal's film. The director who gave Shah the role of 'an introverted character, a man withdrawn into his own shadows' recalls how he had asked the then director of the FTII, Girish Karnad, to recommend a talented student. 'Karnad said there is one who is not only immensely talented but also a troublemaker,' laughs Benegal.
Shah's advent underlined changes that were taking place in Bombay. He didn't just win critical acclaim for his role in Nishant, but went on to become a mascot for the so-called new wave cinema of the Seventies and Eighties. He led a talented group of men and women ' including Om Puri, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi ' who redefined histrionics in mainstream cinema. Shah was a constant factor in almost every new film made during the period ' from Nishant and Manthan to Bhumika and Junoon. But it was Sai Paranjpye's Sparsh ' released in 1979 ' that established his prowess as an actor.
He sensitively played the self-reliant blind principal of a school for the visually handicapped who develops a relationship with a widow (Shabana Azmi). Shah, who had grown up in Aligarh observing a visually handicapped uncle in his family, brought such nuances to the role that many consider it his all-time best. 'I think it was the first time that somebody played a blind man so realistically. It ranks as my favourite Naseer role,' says Baswani, who has known Shah since his student days at the National School of Drama and the FTII.
Shah went from one critically acclaimed role to another. He was a subedaar lusting for women, a temperamental Goan Christian, a public prosecutor who couldn't deal with his first rape case, an alcoholic inspector, a trade union leader and even a pimp called Lukka. The accolades came pouring in, but just when it seemed Shah had reached his zenith, he did a turnaround.
The actor shocked the film fraternity when he decided to stop working with parallel filmmakers, and denounced them as 'pretentious' directors. He turned to mainstream cinema ' with roles in films such as Sir, Chamatkar, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Mohra, Rajkumar, Chinagate and Sarfarosh ' but his sudden departure from parallel cinema also marked its collapse.
'I don't want to go into that after all these years,' says Shah. 'I felt that the filmmakers were not true to themselves. They had no integrity but they wanted to make films with integrity. The so-called parallel cinema failed to give us any memorable films except Masoom and Manthan,' he holds.
But Shah seeks to stress that he is always there for a role in a different kind of a film. He has worked in Vishal Bharadwaj's Maqbool, Nagesh Kukunoor's 3 Deewarein, and will play the cricket coach of a deaf and dumb fast bowler from a south Indian village in Kukunoor's next film, Kolipad Express.
Shah, clearly, is not complaining. He acted with Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and says it was a pleasure working with him. 'But, he is a Hollywood star. You can't slap him on the back and say 'Hi'. You have to say 'Good morning, Mr Connery!',' he says, laughing.
What keeps him going is his first love ' theatre. 'I have always found theatre more stimulating. To work as a creative unit before, during and after the play enthuses me these days,' he says. His theatre group, Motley, has been active in Mumbai's theatre circles. With daughter Heeba and wife Ratna Pathak, Shah has been performing Ismat Apa Ke Naam based on three stories by Ismat Chugtai.
Shah has also focused his energies on the revived acting course in FTII which he runs with Baswani. 'The acting course had become a ticket to stardom after many FTII actors made it big in the film industry in the Seventies,' he says. 'We want to change that and create trained, dedicated and disciplined actors,' says Shah.
For Shah, life comes full circle.