India's top actor Naseeruddin Shah baulks at stereotypes

Naseeruddin Shah, in town for a one-night staging of play, says Indian cinema has light years to go

Rajit Kapoor (left) and Naseeruddin Shah are in Singapore for a one-night staging of A Walk In The Woods. -- PHOTO: DE IDEAZ
Rajit Kapoor (left) and Naseeruddin Shah are in Singapore for a one-night staging of A Walk In The Woods. -- PHOTO: DE IDEAZ

One of India's most recognisable names, actor Naseeruddin Shah is known for his cinematic outings but it is a play which brings him to Singapore tonight.

Shah is known for his riveting, realistic portrayals and has starred in films in the West such as 2003's The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen opposite Sean Connery.

What is less well known is that Shah began his acting career in English-language theatre before becoming a force in India's new wave cinema.

He is here together with fellow actor Rajit Kapoor for a one-night-only staging of A Walk In The Woods at the University Cultural Centre. It is based on the play by American playwright Lee Blessing, centred on the relationship between an American arms negotiator and his Russian counterpart at the height of the Cold War.

The Indian adaptation revolves around the tense ties between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbours perennially on the brink of war. The two characters, played by Shah and Kapoor, are diplomats from the two countries.

In an e-mail response from Mumbai, Shah tells Life! that "it was no point doing the original", and that the India-Pakistan setting "made for engrossing and meaningful drama".

Initially, the men credited for the adaptation - actors Faisal Rashid and Randeep Hooda - were to play the two roles and Shah was to direct the play.

"Both of them proved much too young. My wife Ratna Pathak Shah took over the direction and I played the Pakistani character and asked Rajit to play the Indian.

"We feel that the issues in this play, namely friendship and peaceful co-existence, are important. It offered a possibility to study these well-meaning people with references to the problems that exist between the two countries," says Shah.

He adds that the play is free of Bollywood stereotypes and that this was important.

"I refuse to see any jingoistic Indian film, but it is futile to blame commercial cinema for pandering to the basest possible instincts - that is its function."

As an actor, he feels "the way to exorcise this visceral hatred for the other is to try and make a friend on the other side. We hope we are contributing to this cause by presenting the Pakistani character as a sensitive though gregarious person who talks sense, instead of the bumbling idiot he is always presented as in Hindi cinema".

Shah's own association with that cinema remains strong. At 63, he continues to play the leading man.

In his latest cinematic outing, the romantic thriller Dedh Ishiqya, he starred alongside the much younger Madhuri Dixit, 46. He plays one of two thieves, who are on the run after double-crossing their boss.

He says acting in that film "compensated greatly for some of the junk I have been in lately. I have always been a Madhuri fan, so working with her was a breeze. I would be delighted to work with her again".

Another recent film Zinda Bhaag (Run For Your Life), which premiered in Singapore late last month as part of the inaugural Pakistani Film Festival, saw him conducting workshops for the many first-time actors in the film, including Khurram Patras.

He said yes to this indie film about three young men trying to escape everyday life in Lahore as he was moved by the efforts of film-makers Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi. The film, made on a budget of US$320,000 (S$399,000), has been credited for helping to stoke wider interest in Pakistani cinema.

"It was courageous to make that film against all odds. I am very proud of that film. I had never worked with raw actors before, so I wanted to try workshopping with them. I do not know how much they got out of it but I got plenty," he adds.

The actor extraordinaire has been active in Indian cinema since the 1970s, with more than 100 new wave and commercial films to his name. He has won multiple awards, including India's civilian honours the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. His many film credits include the critically and commercially successful The Dirty Picture (2012), the satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Just Let It Go, Friends, 1983), Mirch Masala (Chilli And Spice, 1986) and the thriller, A Wednesday (2008).

Having watched Indian cinema since the 1970s, he is openly critical of it. He says: "As far as quality and substance in our cinema is concerned, we have light years to go. There are the occasional glimpses of hope but too few and far between. Our audiences are too easily satisfied. I wish they demanded more.

"Until that happens, we will go on churning out the same brain-dead stuff we have been churning out the last 100 years."

When asked to choose between film and theatre - since he is active in both - he says: "Theatre and cinema have their individual charms and are equally tiring. But having enjoyed both equally for 40 years, I am beginning to tire equally of both."

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