When a much-acclaimed actor like Naseeruddin Shah writes an autobiography, a few questions come to one’s mind immediately. So what is it about him we do not know? We hear him quite frequently talking about his craft. We see him at times on the stage. And yes, he is not the quintessential hero but we do see him in some potboilers. Quite a few of us, who follow the “art house” kind of cinema, have thoroughly enjoyed seeing his powerhouse performance in some of the films. We know that he is married to the immensely talented Ratna Pathak Shah and that his children have yet to make a mark on celluloid. So why come up with an autobiography? He is not even in the last leg of his career to merit a summing up of his journey as an actor. Some naysayers have pointed out that the aim was to titillate — sex at 14, intake of drugs –- anything to sell the product. But was Shah in such desperate need of money to have spent a considerable amount of time penning down this book, entitled “And then One Day: A Memoir.”
Telling it like it is
Well, the book worked for me right from the beginning. It had the incredibly relaxed, slightly superior and a very caustic Shah addressing his audience. It was exactly how one had heard him speak on television so one is tempted to believe that it was not ghost-written. Shah comes across as an actor who knows his craft but does not take filmdom or stardom with any degree of seriousness. A rare ability to laugh at oneself, coupled with an acute understanding of the world of theatre and Bollywood. It is difficult to talk about one’s life with any kind of objectivity and Shah manages just that with his funny bone absolutely intact. Be it the boarding school at Nainital, the hallowed portals of NSD or the Film Institute of Pune, Shah breezes through it all, seeing it with the critical eye of the present and looking at this intelligent non-conformist young Naseeruddin as he hems and haws through life. Not having set goals and not having made the obvious choices, the journey is tough as the young protagonist stumbles along in the haze of marijuana. Surprisingly, instead of clouding his mind, it enables him to think. Shah, however, is quick to point out that he is not recommending this to the youth and does not want anyone to emulate him.
Irreverence and wit
Irreverence could be Naseeruddin Shah’s middle name as nothing and nobody has been put on the pedestal. Yet there are small incidents that happen which go a long way in educating the young Shah. While annoyed with having to climb a large number of stairs during a film shoot he is humbled when he sees a young boy undertake the same climb with a kettle of tea and cups and saucers in his hand. The boy wheezes as bent with this load he makes this Herculean effort and Shah realizes how privileged he had been. He also records the various kindnesses he had received as a struggler from friends and their families. There is the sadness of never having been able to bond with his father and then fall out with his close associate Jaspal. Shah married early – at a very young age of nineteen. He also became the father of a girl who he would get to know only after she was twelve. Not one to spare himself, he writes: “I had to wrench myself away from being around this dazzling personification of charisma and other worldly bliss of living, eating, sleeping theatre in order to pay to Heeba’s existence the attention it needed. Thoughts of my infant daughter were non-existent in my mind. A total disconnect with my life in Aligarh had happened, it all seemed like another time altogether. As my fascination with city life and theatre work grew, my connection with what I suppose were my roots began to shrivel…” (131)
Naseeruddin Shah’s memoirs begin from his birth and continue till he is thirty four. The years in between sees the young Shah as a gawky child in a school which instructed with a missionary zeal – both literally and metaphorically. It also raises several questions about the education system where no teacher expressed surprise at the strange phenomenon of a child performing brilliantly in literature, but barely scraping through his grammar. He talks about his love for cinema and how the school shaped it unknowingly by screening brilliant films which would catch this young cine lover’s fancy. No one asked him to perform in any theatrical production as not being good in studies did not allow one to be good in extra- curricular activities either. This young sensitive lad goes from school to college and to an acting school – all the time forcing people to think differently about his métier, and yet he is not a rebel. He merely does not conform and sees no reason to validate his actions.
What stands out in Shah’s narrative is his infectious humour. While talking about his family’s origins he writes, “Baba had a peripatetic life before finally settling down to serve the British Government in the Provincial Civil Service when freedom’s dawn, Independence and Partition hit the country. Not wanting to take any chances he stayed on in India…. My oldest brother Zaheer was two, the one after him Zameer, newly born; and I had not yet arrived so we didn’t have much say in the matter, but doubtless we would all have backed the decision: none of us have been much of a gambler.” (2) The book carries on pretty much in this vein keeping the reader engrossed in the life and times of the 60s generation where “before prudery became fashionable and much before the moral police had begun flexing their muscles in India.” (69)
Playing by his own rules
Shah’s book has an extremely humane side to it where the reader does not feel in awe of a star but a human being on a journey that continues with all its rough and tumble in place. Now an established actor, Shah still feels he is being judged by an old man who might any moment materialise and tell him the flaws in his acting skills. It is this insecurity of the ‘non-star’ Shah that endears him to the reader. For the acting community, this book should provide a lot of information as Shah toys with different acting genres and finally chooses to play by his own rules. The book too, plays by its own rules – deciphering but not revealing the man who refuses to be slotted as a hero or a character artist in Bollywood and who chooses to be remembered and not revered for some of the most virtuoso acting skills in the industry.
(Nandini C. Sen is a Delhi-based academic)
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