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Happy Birthday, Naseeruddin Shah, Are You India’s Greatest Male Actor?



Naseeruddin Shah

Each birthday now  means the tolling of the bell for Naseeruddin Shah.

Says  Naseer, “Thoughts of mortality have been in my head since I turned fifty.Each new decade introduces one to newer bodily frailties.And I want to get more work  done before my time is up. The thought of death doesn’t scare me but the possibility of becoming an invalid does.”

 As he approaches the winter of his life Naseer  recalls there were  no birthday celebrations when he  was a child.

 Asked to name his favourite performances, Naseer  quotes  George Bernard Shaw who when asked to name the three greatest writers of all time began his answer with “The other two are….”!!!

 Naseer’s own  favourites are Nishant, Sparsh Masoom,Mandi and Bombay Boys. “However I’ve had more than my share of great parts and am perfectly happy now to participate in projects which I enjoy doing.”

Theatre  has always been more fascinating to  Naseer  than cinema?  “Theatre, like a tree, is a living thing which continues to organically evolve, unlike films where once it’s done it’s done. Also in theatre one can engage with the greatest texts in the world whereas in our cinema we have to mostly make do with the work of hacks and plagiarists.”

   My favourite  Naseer performance   include Sai  Paranjpye’s  Sparsh.  Many  have  played blind. But none as  the one  who can see right through human hypocrisy. Naseer as  the the self-respecting , self-sufficient  visually impaired Annirudh Parmar  is the best portrayal  I’ve seen  of  a  blind  man in cinema  from any  part  of  the world in any language.This incredible performance  has  become  a reference point for  all  actors playing blind. Stumbling over furniture  to look blind went out of fashion after Naseer’s Sparsh.

   Another personal  favourite  is  Albert Pinto Ko Gussa  Kyon Aata Hai(1979). I  love watching  Naseer do accents. Because he doesn’t “do” them . He  embraces accents  like long-lost brothers. As the angry Albert Pinto, Naseer was spot-on with the Catholic colloquialism.  Like   Meryl Streep,Naseer  never  loses  hold  of an accent.  The  language doesn’t  betray the character  for even a second. But  why is  Pinto so  angry? Look around you.The  issues that angered him  are more relevant today than ever.

   It isn’t easy  making  the father  of  an illegitimate child look  sympathetic. But  Naseer’s anguished outburst in  Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom  when he tells his rightly  unforgiving wife, “Kya karun? Should I  kill myself?” reverberates across the  frames of  this sublime lyrical  take on infidelity and  forgiveness.  Not often  does Naseer get a chance  to play an urban upperclass gentleman with problems that Pinto  or Parmar wouldn’t entertain  if they can help it.Naseer’s scenes with his  screen-son  Jugal Hansraj reminded many years later  found an echo in  Liam Neeson and his little son in  Curtis Hanson’s  Love Actually.

In     Paar(1983)  Naseer was ‘paar’ excellence. It’s  a pig’s life for  the  economically backward Naurangia  in this powerful   parable  on poverty .Naseer and Shabana  both won richly deserved National awards  for portraying a desperately poor couple herding pigs through a dangerous  river. For Naseer this  was  the first part in his career that required  him to make physical preparation. Bare-chested and defiant he rages against the  river currents like a penniless King Lear raging against the winds.

 In  Pestonjee(1988)  Naseer  gives  us the  best Parsi accent  I’ve heard, better than even Boman Irani’s  genealogically bequeathed Parsi accent. Naseer was  Piroj Shah,  the fumbling loser who watches the love of his life marry his best friend. It’s a  sad droopy listless character, surrounded by an aura  of doom. Naseer plays Piroj with an air of tragic inevitability, as if he knows this man won’t be happy in  life. But Piroj  is capable of  unexpected courage under  pressure.Naseer  could, and did,  bring layers  of  character to his  personality.

Naseeruddin Shah has  only done  one international film,  a  big comicbook adaptation  titled  The  League  Of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2003.It was   not  a pleasant experience  for Naseer and he never returned  to international projects.

He says, “At this juncture in my career I’m not looking to give great performances. I feel fatigued carrying a film on my shoulders. I’ve done enough of that. I now want to do projects that I’ll enjoy, that need to be made and which need my support.”

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