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Criticism does not offend me: Naseeruddin Shah

Naseeruddin Shah, often called an institution in himself, got into the shoes of another genius physicist Albert Einstein, for his latest play. The maverick actor and director speaks to Deepali Dhingra about the production, how he takes criticism with a pinch of salt and why he doesn’t like meeting audiences immediately after a show

Just a few minutes before Naseeruddin Shah stepped onto the stage to transport audiences into physicist Albert Einstein’s world with his play, Einstein at Prithvi Fest 2014’s opening day on November 5, actor Denzil Smith made an announcement. “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former,” he said, quoting the brilliant scientist.

One of his shortcomings, believes Naseeruddin Shah, is that he can’t come up with fictional situations. And that’s probably the reason why he doesn’t think he can write a play. Pic/Satyajit Desai
One of his shortcomings, believes Naseeruddin Shah, is that he can’t come up with fictional situations. And that’s probably the reason why he doesn’t think he can write a play. Pic/Satyajit Desai

This was the Motley Theatre Group’s slightly quirky way of telling the audience to put their mobile phones on silent mode. Anyone who’s ever attended a play would empathise with theatre actors who often have to put up with shrill ring tones, right in the middle of a performance.

But it’s the slightly amusing way of asking audiences to keep their phones on silent mode, that has now, more or less become the trademark of a Motley production. “It makes me so angry when people’s phones ring during a performance, that now I’ve decided to get amused by it,” Shah explains.

Dressed in a lime green linen shirt and beige trousers, the veteran stage and film actor is in a relaxed mood when we meet him at his Bandra residence. Sharing an anecdote about the quirky mobile phone announcements, Shah recalls an incident when he was staging The Prophet and was delivering an extremely serious dialogue about death.

All of a sudden, a phone started ringing. “I was reminded of a similar incident with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain when he was performing at a concert. He turned to the person whose phone it was and said ‘If it’s for me, tell them I’m busy’. I did the same. The lady was completely embarrassed and scuttled out. The next day, I got a profusely apologetic note from her and she turned out to be Mrs Yash Chopra!” he guffaws.

Backstage musings
Ringing mobiles aside, the other thing that gets his goat is when strangers insist on meeting him backstage, following a show. “After a show ends, there is this great amount of warmth that emanates from the audience, especially if it’s been a good performance. It’s not as if I’m not interested in their reactions I certainly am but I prefer to interact with the audience a week or 10 days after they have seen the play,” says the talented artiste.

The reason, explains Shah, is that the audience would have, by then, taken time to ruminate about the show and give him productive feedback. As for garnering reaction for Einstein, he says, “I got plenty of positive feedback, and a few negative ones, which I later realised were quite helpful,” says the actor.

And although the next show of Einstein, happening today, won’t see any drastic changes, Shah does more than hint at the possibility that the production could change beyond recognition in a year from now. “The real understanding of a play, after all, comes to you when you’re out there performing,” he muses.

Craft of criticism
The 64-year-old reveals that he doesn’t get offended by criticism anymore. He was subjected to some pretty harsh criticism for his Bollywood directorial debut, the 2006 dud Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota, but the first-and-self-admittedly-last-time director, takes it sportingly.

“I read all the negative reviews; there were no positive ones,” he laughs, adding that while some critics were just settling scores with him, most others made a lot of sense. His recently-released autobiography And Then One Day, mostly garnered good reviews, but he admits to have encountered a few cynical ones too. “I’m not going to make the mistake of writing another book. I will get roasted, I’m sure,” smiles the maverick actor.

Einstein will be staged at Tata Theatre, NCPA at 7 pm today.

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