I don't believe an actor can become a character: Naseeruddin Shah

Naseeruddin Shah tells Ananya Ghosh about his new play, his love for theatre, why he is reluctant to stage Shakespeare, and why an actor shouldn’t become the character

The walk from the elevator to the door was probably the longest I have undertaken in recent years and I almost have my heart in my mouth. The last time I felt something close to this was when the teacher had handed me the Math question paper during my Board Exams. The doorbell is staring at me. I gulp, take a deep breath and press it. Moments later, I am in a drawing room stacked with books and DVDs. Sitting next to a dark and rather snobbish cat is the man himself.

Naseeruddin Shah
Pic/Sameer Markande

Naseeruddin Shah needs no introduction. Having grown up watching his films and having religiously attended most of his plays, I am in awe of this man, and at the moment also tongue-tied. Not a good sign, especially if you are in the interviewer’s chair, something I am yet to warm up to. My face must have betrayed my emotions, for Mr Shah gives me a wide smile, “Let’s do this!”

I cross my fingers and toes.

A scene from Motley's new production Gadh-ha aur Gadd-Ha, which will be staged on May 30 and 31 at Prithvi Theatre as part of Summertime@Prithvi
A scene from Motley's new production Gadh-ha aur Gadd-Ha, which will be staged on May 30 and 31 at Prithvi Theatre as part of Summertime@Prithvi

Child's play
His upcoming play Gadh-ha aur Gadd-Ha is based on Krishen Chander’s satirical writings. Altho-ugh known for his no frills productions that usually consist of no more than three characters, this play has an eight-member cast. “We usually don’t have a big cast, but this one required it Luckily, we had a few talented actors around, many of whom are my students,” says Shah.

This is the first time he is attempting an out-and-out children’s play although previously he had staged George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man for children, “although no children came for the play,” he complains. But, that is not really a children’s play...I point out rather sheepishly. “Yes, it is a satire on war. I saw it first when I was a five-year-old. Geoffrey Kendal’s Shakespeareana used to come to our school every year and they used to stage the play quite often. I didn’t understand anything but it always stayed with me. Even if 15-20 children come to watch our play and remember it, I am happy,” he says.

Mr Kendal and his theatre company had an immense impact on Shah in his growing up years — so much so that Shah often calls himself his Eklavya. And now his own theatre company Motley, which he built with Benjamin Gilani in 1979, is trying to do the same. “We stage plays in schools in Delhi, Dehradun, Patiala; but in Mumbai nobody calls us. I guess the school curriculum is too busy to incorporate theatre,” he rues.

According to him what makes children better audience is that they don’t come with preconceived notions. “Even doing a play like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for children is quite fantastic. They don’t look for deeper meanings and just enjoy the play. We should not be condescending towards them. They are smarter than we think they are,” says Shah.

Shakespeare; not for dummies
Shah has a penchant for adapting literary works of famous authors and has worked extensively on the texts of Shaw, Beckett, and more recently Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto. But unlike his guru Mr Kendal, he has so far not shown any particular love for The Bard; although he has grown up watching Shakespeare’s plays. “It is very difficult to do Shakespeare because you don’t get actors who can speak the way Shakespeare should be spoken. In fact, I would like to teach Shakespeare in schools. But, the problem is that if I approach a school here they will be suspicious about my motive!” he says.

What about a Hindi adaptation then? And this elicits laughter. “Shakespeare has been borrowed by Hindi filmmakers ad nauseam. It all started with the Parsi theatre of Agha Hashar Kashmiri who made plays like Khoon ka Khoon based on Hamlet, Teen Betiyaan based on King Lear, and so on. Parsi Theatre gave way to Hindi cinema where people sang for no reason and where all the emotions were underlined and spelt out, and at the end everything was resolved rather easily. All this is Shakes-peare. There is nothing great in the stories of Shakespeare; the real magic of his work lies in the language. And to translate that, you need another Shakespeare, which is a bit difficult to find,” he smiles.

Success is a bonus
His previous play, Einstein, was a huge hit running up to 22 shows out of which eight were at NCPA’s Tata Theatre and each was houseful. “I do plays I feel like doing. I do the kind of theatre I do because it gives me immense pleasure. It doesn’t matter to me if people turn up for the play or not. We are lucky that lots of people come to see our plays. I didn’t expect Einstein to do so well. The fact that the play was so successful is a bonus. Another bonus is that I got to know a bit about Einstein as a person. And that is one thing that makes theatre so dear to me. Here, each day I learn new things, read up books I wouldn’t have otherwise. Theatre has given me the confidence to deal with life. I can never give up theatre. If, someday, for health issues, I can’t continue I will feel a big vacuum. It means too much to me.”

Silver lining
Although, Shah agrees that today watching a play has become more of a status symbol and in many cases the most expensive seats, even in a houseful show, go empty as the people are more interested in showing off the tickets than watch the play, he says such people are merely five per cent of the total number of the audience.

He is not too unhappy with the current state of affairs and says, “It is very encouraging to see a lot of young faces in the audience. There is good amount of talent that is coming in the form of actors and directors as well.”

Shah is optimistic about the future of the film industry as well and according to him, the actors today are a confident lot. “Actors such as Nawazzuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan, Arshad Warsi, Manoj Bajpai, Kay Kay Menon are just wonderful. They are more aware than any of us were at their age. All of them had had a long struggle and hence have not lost touch with the real world, and that’s the best thing. I don’t care much for the popular stars, but these are the actors whose future I am watching with great interest,” he says. But he bemoans the fact that most of these actors have left theatre for movies and feels it is as much a loss to the stage as it is to them.

Do not become the character
Although he is armed with not one but two acting degrees — one from National School of Drama (NSD) and the other from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) he believes acting cannot be taught. “You have to train yourself. Even if you enroll in an acting school, they can just show you the way. You have to walk the walk.In my batch at the film institute there were 22 students. Among them only two survived — Shakti Kapoor and I. The other 20 have disappeared. He trained himself for what he needed to do and I for what I needed to do,” says Shah.

He is not a big fan of the popular concepts of Method Acting either and says, “I don’t believe that an actor can become a character. If you become the character, you are of no use. In fact, it will be dangerous if the actors start becoming the character. Imagine Robert De Niro becoming Travis Bickle during the shooting of Taxi Driver? He would have shot everyone on the sets!” Shah breaks into a hearty laugh.

Then on a rather serious note adds: “You cannot and should not become the character. Know the character well. But, by that, I don’t mean you need to psychoanalyse him. The script gives you enough material and all you have to do is read it carefully.”

He reveals that when he did Mirza Ghalib (a television series written and directed by Gulzar) all he did was to follow the script and listen to whatever the director had to say about the character. “My job was to embody Gulzarbhai’s vision,” he says pointing out that not only is an actor as good as the script, he can never be better than the director.

Follow your heart
Choosing a script must be crucial. How does he go about with it? The question is greeted with a bout of laughter. “Not at all. And that is why sometimes you make mistakes! I pick up the scripts I feel like. That is how I did a film like Jackpot (Kaizad Gustad’s 2013 film starring Shah and Sunny Leone). I don’t blame Kaizad. I just felt like doing it. It’s a different thing that I haven’t watched it and I don’t even want to!” he guffaws.

And how does he feel when he now sees himself dancing to a song like Tirchi Topiwale we wonder. The reference to the Tridev (1989) song still makes the man a tad uncomfortable. “I tried to enjoy those movies. In fact, I tried too hard. I can’t take myself seriously as a Hindi film hero. Although I have played those roles I don’t think I was any good. But I can satirise such characters and that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed doing Dirty Picture,” says Shah with an honesty seldom found in
the industry.

The kids are all right
His is one unique family where all the members are involved with theatre in some way or the other. While he has been collaborating with his wife Ratna Pathak Shah, a brilliant actor herself, recently, his children, Heba, Imaad and Vivaan have also joined him on stage, making him a proud dad.

“It is great working with them. They know exactly what I want,” says Shah, adding that unlike him, they also have other interests and have not taken up theatre full-time. “Heba is in Bengaluru for a one-year course in dance. Imaad is more into music. He had done one song in Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (Calcutta Kiss) and has composed the music for Gadh-ha aur Gadd-Ha. He is also coming up with an album. Vivaan is more into writing these days. He is rather disappointed with Bombay Velvet but he is living with that. He is preparing something on his own. It will be a storytelling based on a piece he has written.” However, Shah insists there are more topics to discuss at the dinner table than theatre, which has a palpable presence in the house.

As we wrap up news arrives that Imaad’s off-beat movie M Cream, which was one of the entries in the St Tropez International Film Festival, has got him the best actor’s award. Well, we are hardly surprised. Blame it on his genes!


Shah directs and acts in this play written by Gabriel Emmanuel, which is a 'line drawing' of the lovable Nobel Laureate. It is one of Shah’s most successful plays and in his own words, “I didn’t expect it to do so well. Never have our plays been houseful at NCPA for more than two shows.”

Walk in the Woods

Walk in the Woods
Two diplomats decide to go on a brief private walk in the middle of peace talks. Will their good intentions succeed where official channels have failed? An adaptation of Lee Blessing's 1988 play by the same name, it is directed by Ratna Pathak Shah and pits Rajit Kapoor opposite Shah

Dear Liar

Dear Liar
Written by American writer Jerome Kilty and directed by Satyadev Dubey, it is  based on the written correspondence between George Bernard Shaw (Naseeruddin Shah) and Mrs Patrick Campbell (Ratna Pathak Shah), a popular English stage actress of the 1900s

Ismat Apa Ke Naam

Ismat Apa Ke Naam
In Motley's tribute to Ismat Khanum Chughtai. Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah are joined by their daughter Heeba as they enact three stories, Chhui Muee, Mughal Bachcha and Gharwali, by the famously provocative and irreverent Urdu writer. The play is also directed by the thespian

Up close

Sanjna Kapoor

Sanjna Kapoor,
Co-founder of Junoon and granddaughter of Geoffrey Kendal
Naseer is one of the most amazing actors and what I love the most about him is that he always surprises me. Not in a shocking overstated way but in the magnificent small things he does — both on stage and in films. He is a sheer delight to watch and is sublimely effortless

Akash Khurana

Akash Khurana,
co-actor (Waiting for Godot) and founder of Akvarious Productions
He has distilled and imbibed the best from his gurus Elkazi and Satyadev Dubey and evolved his own unique sensibility. He has set unattainably high standards for the next generation of actors to follow; but hopefully that will turn out to be inspirational rather than daunting

Rajit Kapoor, co-actor (Walk in the Woods)

Rajit Kapoor,
co-actor (Walk in the Woods)
He is one actor whose tireless discipline and dedication towards theatre make him an exemplary icon and an insipiration for others to follow. He understands the need for an actor to grow by continuously working on stage

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