Acts of life

Posted on October 5, 2014


Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir is unflinching, evocative, witty, even if feels somewhat incomplete.

Sometime during the “bone-wrenchingly boring six-month shoot” of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Naseeruddin Shah began to type out what would become a memoir. In the book, titled And Then One Day, Shah explains why. “For me it’s an exorcism of sorts, and it’s for my children if they wish to understand me better.” And so we begin with his birth in Barabanki, a town near Lucknow. The date could be July 1949. Or maybe it was August 1950. No one seems to know for sure. What’s certain, though, is that the boy shared a seesawing relationship with his parents. Very early on, he says of his mother, “The most soothing sensation I have ever felt in my life is the touch of the breath-warmed corner of her dupatta on my eyelids.” Later, once he moved to Bombay (“the mother-in-law of all Indian cities”): “I hadn’t missed home for a second… not once did I find myself thinking of my parents. That was a closed chapter, I thought, I was done with them forever.” Then, when he visited home again: “I was surprised at how comforted I felt hearing her voice again.” About his father, we get, at one point: “I had never cared for him just as he had never cared for me.” Elsewhere, on learning that his father, after an illness, wanted him to stay on another day, Shah exults, “He actually wanted my company.”

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At least with women, his feelings weren’t as complicated – he loved them, and the picture of this lofty actor as something of a ladies’ man, who had sex before he learnt to masturbate, is one of the book’s happiest surprises. There’s “R,” who, after a while, left for the US and encouraged Shah to apply for a course in America, so that they could be together. I laughed hard – almost as hard as when I read the part about Shah, post Nishant, appearing in a commercial for Gulab agarbatti – at his gripe at having to sit for a “bloody TOEFL and GRE exam.” Then there’s Ratna, his wife, of whom he writes glowingly. But before Ratna, Shah was married to a Pakistani named Purveen, who was in India on a student visa. The birth of their child, Heeba, results in the book’s most self-flagellating passages. “At that age I had no fondness whatsoever for children, no fondness in fact for anything but myself.” Shah speaks of the “crushing disappointment” on learning it was a daughter, and “later when she was being fed and I was being ignored I, like all immature fathers, experienced the most intense jealousy…” His neglect still shames him, all these decades later. Shah wasn’t kidding about the book being some sort of exorcism.

The memoir, seen one way, is the record of a series of unhealthy relationships – with Rajendra Jaspal, a classmate from the National School of Drama; with cigarettes, marijuana and LSD; and, most importantly, with commercial Hindi cinema. Shah writes of his love for Dara Singh and Shammi Kapoor; his first appearance on screen, as an extra in the Rajendra Kumar-starrer Aman; his unsubmitted application for the Filmfare-United Producers’ Talent Contest (the winner was a 21-year-old who went by the name of Rajesh Khanna); and, incessantly, his contempt for the commercial idiom. He reserves special fury for Sholay, which he says conformed strictly to “the abysmal pattern of so-called Indian action movies.” (The fact that, years later, he accepted a part in Karma, Subhash Ghai’s unofficial Sholay remake, is surely one of life’s quaint little ironies.)

How did an actor with such attitude put himself through the paces of mainstream cinema? At least the likes of Jalwa and Hero Hiralal we can assume were projects he took on because of the directors (Pankaj Parashar, Ketan Mehta) with whom he shared a sensibility. But Tridev? Mohra? And, yes, Karma? At times, Shah seems to say that he didn’t mind the commercial stuff all that much, and that his vitriol was really sour grapes. “My attitude to Hindi cinema turned even more condescending, possibly because I couldn’t see myself fitting in in it. I was resentful in advance of being cast in roles it would hurt my ego to play… Though I have to say 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…” Later, he admits that “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.”

I wish Shah had expanded on these experiences. What, for instance, did he feel while wearing a dhoti and a Stetson and cooing “oye oye” into Sonam’s ear during the shooting of Tirchhi topi wale, the song that finally made him the kind of marquee name none of his acclaimed art films did? Tridev isn’t even mentioned. A representative of the publishers said that Shah stopped at a particular point because he didn’t think that life after that had anything interesting to offer the reader – but that’s a tragedy. Among other things, after his well-documented disillusionment with the parallel cinema of the 1980s, it would have been interesting to know what he felt about its transmogrification into the multiplex cinema of the 2000s, which gave him some of his juiciest roles (Maqbool, Ishqiya, Finding Fanny). Even the portions about working with Shyam Benegal don’t seem enough. Shabana Azmi makes a guest appearance when Shah professes his admiration for her while also noting the “somewhat smug reverence she has for her own acting and her tendency to perform with background music playing inside her head.” Smita Patil barely gets a mention. Bhavni Bhavai gets two pages. Masoom gets one. When Shah speaks fondly of the latter film, I wondered if this story of a man struggling to connect with his son – and this man really, really wants a son – connected at a deeper level with an actor who felt a “crushing disappointment” on the birth of his daughter and couldn’t connect her. With his keen and merciless introspection, what else might Shah have told us, had he chosen to dwell on these details from a time when there was “no relentless TV coverage of every fart, burp and nose-pick by actors”?

But perhaps the point is that cinema never meant as much to Shah as theatre did, as acting did. The latter is cue for another whiplash: “It does seem to be 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 fulfilment in hiding behind make-believe.” Shah recalls his mentors – Ebrahim Alkazi, Raushan Taneja, Satyadev Dubey. He tells us how impressed he was with how “real” Spencer Tracy looked in The Old Man and the Sea, and how much he respected Geoffrey Kendal and his troupe Shakespeareana. He tells us how astonished he was by Om Puri in the theatre days. He tells us about his ear for the spoken word (“I can still actually recall the grains in a voice I have heard fifty years ago”) and the limiting nature of “realistic acting.” He tells us how, while putting up with the “Vesuvian snores” of roommate Kulbhushan Kharbanda, he shaped his performances in his great early films – Nishant, Manthan, Junoon.

And he tells us that his first love – maybe his only love – is theatre. His earliest memory is that of a performance, probably a nautanki or a Ram Leela. “What has stayed burned into my mind is the thickly painted face of a person up there…” And in boarding school, when he was part of a group that enacted scenes from The Merchant of Venice, he discovered the high of being on stage. “[It] was like being submerged in warm rose water. I didn’t want to ever get off.” He practically dismisses the Method, for “giving the actor nothing except a momentary high of wallowing in memories,” and he scoffs at student actors, who are “only too happy to listen for hours to esotericisms spouted by acting teachers and are obsessed only with getting employment, not with understanding the mechanics of their work.” Shah can afford to indulge in these sermons from the moral high ground because he is as clear-eyed about his own failings as an actor, and because he never stopped striving to better himself. Even after he became an established name in the film industry, he flew to Poland to participate in a workshop by the theatre god Jerzy Grotowski, to acquire new abilities.

It’s fitting, then, that we now see another evolution, that of actor to writer –And Then One Day suggests that this was no phoned-in performance either. Shah writes unflinchingly, evocatively, wittily. Distant memories become vibrant scenes on the page, as in the episode where he waved his brother goodbye as the latter departed by train to boarding school. “And we saw a myriad white hankies waving back. Among the list of compulsory requirements for each departing boy was ‘one white handkerchief’… those white hankies waving from every window is an indelible memory, and though at a different time I suppose this very sight could evoke a giant washing line as well…” About a tonga ride home, he writes, “the horse would invariably crap on the way (an ability I’ve always envied, to be able to do that while running full pelt).” And when faced with the choice of becoming a cricketer or being in the movies, he says, “Cricketers were godlike creatures with special gifts, besides there were so few. There were many more actors, so I plumped for the easier alternative.” Easier? We’ll allow him this modesty even if he seems to be angling for a compliment. Really, who can deny him?

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