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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shah of all he surveys

It is not every day that you get to meet an icon — and then have his undivided attention for the greater part of an hour. But Naseeruddin Shah, actor, director and theatre lover, is in an expansive mood. Life, after all, is moving along the lines he has scripted.

Shah has been in London for over a month, shooting for Jagmohan Mundhra’s upcoming film Shoot On Sight. He plays the lead role of Tariq Ali, inspired by the true story of Tariq Gaffur, an assistant commissioner of police (ACP), Scotland Yard.

Shah, sitting in a make-up van in a brown sweater and khakis, says he was hooked the moment he read the script. “Although the role is good, that is not why I chose the film. I am doing this film because I think it has got its head in the right direction,” he says.

Post 7/7, Muslim residents reported racial victimisation, forcing the UK government to introduce several confidence building measures. One such step was the appointment of Gaffur as an ACP. The film deals with the experiences of Tariq and his disillusionment with the system after the London bombings.

Shah, 57, rues that for many people, Islam and fundamentalism are today synonymous — but he holds the Muslim community equally responsible for the perception. “It is time the moderate, enlightened Muslims make their voices heard. We have had enough of these mullahs, with their completely bigoted, narrow-minded visions, acting as spokespersons for us.”

For the film, Naseeruddin Shah has adopted a south Asian British accent, a feat he insists came naturally to him because of his long association with the city. He fondly recollects his father telling him stories of London of the Thirties when he was a student in the city. “I would have loved to have brought him back here and shown him the London I’d seen.”

Shah has been to London on work on three earlier occasions. He was in the city two years ago to shoot a film called It Could Be You with Kiron Kher. A gentle little comedy about an elderly couple, it left the distributors cold and the film was never released. Earlier, it was Shah who had a serious problem with the staging in London of an Indian adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. “I felt like cutting my throat on stage in the curtain call every day — I left it at the earliest opportunity.”

On another occasion, he acted in Girish Karnad’s Bali at Leicester, but the play didn’t fare well despite the large Indian population there. He mimics, in perfect Gujarati English: “They are only interested in seeing the Bollywood shows. They are not interested in seeing the Naseeruddin Sah.”

Shah’s favourite pastime in London — and no prizes for guessing this one — is watching plays. “The essence of theatre is the human being with no obstruction between him and his audience. I have watched Lion King four times because I think it is the greatest musical ever.” On his own turf, Shah is busy with a new production of the Greek tragedy, Antigone, to be put up in India in September.

Shah’s love of theatre is equalled only by his love for his other thespian identity — that of a film actor. He insists that he takes up roles entirely on instinct. “Lots of times, my instincts have let me down. I have turned down projects that I regret not having done”

It was on one such whim that he says he decided to do Sunglass — primarily because he admires director Rituparno Ghosh, who he thinks is a “true cinema artist.” The presence of Konkona Sen Sharma was the other factor that egged him on. “I love her. I think she is the best artist Indian cinema has ever had. Her attitude is amazing and her skills are mind-boggling. I hope she never discovers how good she is.”

Shah has been breathing cinema ever since he arrived with a bang with Shyam Benegal's 1975 film, Nishant. He loved working with Shekhar Kapur, but rues that the director never offered him a role after Masoom. The other director he admires is Adoor Gopalakrishnan. “Adoor, along with the late Aravindan, was the only director who kept his commitments intact. Everybody else sold themselves to Bollywood.”

And though he is a part of Bollywood himself, “selling out to Bollywood” is something that Shah has been trying to avoid all his creative life. The bitter experience of his maiden directorial venture, Yun Hota to Kya Hota, has left him convinced of the kind of films he wants to direct in the future. “I do feel the urge to direct again, but nothing close to a mainstream film. I want to make small films about people, families, relationships that can be shot on a hand-held camera, provided I have good actors and a great script.”

The other condition that Naseeruddin Shah sets for himself is that he should finance the film he directs. “That means it has to be even less than a shoestring budget. But I cannot handle the responsibility of someone else’s money, ensure that he recovers it, and listen to the nonsensical suggestions of the money-man. I can’t take it! I’ll kill somebody!”

Clearly, his directorial debut was not an easy one. “I had an unsympathetic producer who went about bad-mouthing his own film. He did the final mix secretly because there were things he wanted to add or subtract from the film. He created bad impressions and killed the film as fast as he could at the release. I did not know how to counter it. I did not expect a hit but the film could have done better.”

His creative hunger is characteristic of the energy that keeps Shah going both physically and mentally. A keen sportsman, he still finds time to play the odd game of tennis and only strict orders from the doctor keeps him away from the cricket pitch. And when he has some spare time, he likes to read P.G. Wodehouse and Thomas Hardy, and listen to Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd.

The Shahs — he and his wife Ratna, also an actor — have successfully infused a creative hunger among their children too. His elder son featured in Shah’s maiden film and is now being directed by Prakash Jha and Sooni Taraporewala. His younger son is in high school and has already won awards for acting and directing. His daughter is all set to follow her illustrious parents to the stage. Shah says, only half-jokingly, that it is good to have her in his plays. “I can call her for rehearsals whenever I feel like,” he laughs.

Shah has one regret — and that’s the fact that his plays don’t get invited to Calcutta, a city he is greatly fond of. He says he fell in love with Calcutta when he stayed there for a month to shoot a television series called Cell One, later named Tarkash. Now with Sunglass and Anjan Dutta’s BBD, the city is back on his radar.

But that apart, there is little to complain about, for Shah has no regrets about his chosen vocation. “If I weren’t an actor, I would’ve been a failed actor,” he says.

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