December Issue 2014
Book Review: Naseeruddin Shah Memoir
If the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and, later, Shahrukh Khan have ruled over Bollywood, then Naseeruddin Shah has definitely remained the crowned head of Indian parallel cinema. Over the span of his career, he has managed to become a household name while maintaining his artistic integrity and remaining true to his oeuvre and professional sensibilities. His memoirs titled And Then One Day, recount not only his own struggle and slow rise to success but also gives a glimpse into the world of alternative Indian cinema and the hallowed halls of Indian theatre, of which Shah has always remained a part.
Shah tells his story with the same quiet understatement and candour that characterise much of his acting. Born into a middle class Muslim family in Lucknow, Shah and his two brothers were raised with the old-fashioned, solid family values that characterised “shareef” families. With his abysmal academic performance, Shah proved to be the maverick in the family. It was clear from the start that he would not follow the suitable careers then earmarked for him and his brothers. He suffered through the unrewarding school years, the only relief from the tedium being cinema which the young Shah had a voracious appetite for. Fortunately, it was also later in school that this shy, unremarkable boy discovered how the stage made him feel completely at home and alive. Acting became his salvation. As Shah tells his story, one can imagine no other life for him besides the one he eventually chose.
The overall picture that the actor paints of himself is of a careless, self-effacing yet somewhat arrogant, dope-smoking young man who was driven not by material reward or fame but by the fulfillment of his art. Barely graduating from Aligarh University, Shah joined the National School of Drama in Delhi. Later, he joined the Film institute of Pune, which opened the doors to his film career.
Shah talks at length about his teachers at the two institutes and the plays and scripts that moulded his craft. Notwithstanding the fact that as a child he had lapped up any film that came his way, as an acting student, Shah knew early on that the style of cinema he admired was European and Japanese, not mainstream Hollywood or Bollywood. Fortunately for him, the art movie scene in India was also quietly simmering, with directors like Shyam Benegal leading the way.
When one thinks of the vast body of work done by Shah, it comes as a surprise how few and far between his early films were. His first major film Manthan, which boasted the who’s who of art films at the time, and which dealt with the unglamorous subject of a milk cooperative, went on to become a critical and commercial success. But he remained unemployed for over a year after that. On the other hand, the other leading lights of parallel cinema, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, seem to have tasted success much earlier than Shah, and were established actors while he was still struggling. This may be because these ladies also dabbled in commercial films. Shah, surprisingly, does not speak about his own brush with commercial cinema. At least one of his films, an unabashed commercial venture, saw considerable success but Shah remains mum about that. But then, this is not a definitive biography. While talking extensively about his early years and personal life, the actor does not mention many of the projects for which he has won critical acclaim. The memoirs stop at Shah’s second marriage and wherever his career stood at that juncture.
The book is written with touching candour. Shah speaks of his difficult relationship with his father to whom he was a disappointment, or at least that’s how the young boy perceived it. It is unbearably tragic that the only real conversation he had with his father was after the old man passed away and Shah sat beside his grave and talked to him. It could be a scene straight out of a Naseeruddin Shah film. But Shah is not bitter. He recounts his experiences with the ease and acceptance of a man who has had a good life. He writes with empathy about his father and shows an understanding that can only come with maturity and the passage of time. In fact, throughout the book, his affection for his family, when he writes about his mother’s stoic support or his brothers’ generosity, comes through.
He is also brutally honest about his own failing as a father to his only daughter from his first, short-lived marriage. Shah makes no excuses for his early abandonment of his child for which he later made amends. For this, he gives much of the credit to his second wife Ratna. An actress of some ability herself and hailing from a family of accomplished actors, Shah’s sincere affection and devotion to Ratna shines through his reminiscences. His daughter Heeba later came to live with him and his new family and as a theatre actress herself, she often performs alongside her father.
In fact, Shah, his wife and daughter visited Karachi last year to perform in the city and one was struck by the non-starriness of this star family — they were down to earth and real, much like the cinema and theatre they prefer.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue under the headline “In His Own Write.”
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.