Naseeruddin- an artist full of humanness!

The prestigious Tanveer Sanman Award 2019 will be given to Naseeruddin Shah

Photo Courtesy: indiatvnews

Roopwedh Pratishthan, established by Dr. Shriram Lagoo and Deepa Lagoo, since 2004, brings into light, every year, a senior and deserving person who has given an immense contribution to Indian theatre at National level. The person is honored with the ‘Tanveer Sanman Award’, which was first presented to the veteran theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi who has served as the first director of National School of Drama and is known for his innovative experiments throughout the nation creating more than two-third of today's best theatre artists of India. This year, on 9th December, this award shall be presented to one of the dedicated students of Ebrahim Alkazi - Naseeruddin Shah.
Keeping this occasion in mind, we were grateful to have a dialogue with Naseeruddin Shah's batch-mate from the National School of Drama (NSD), a good friend and a veteran Marathi actress and theatre artist Jyoti Subhash.
We all have experienced Naseeruddin Shah’s powerful acting in different theatre plays and Cinemas. But, how is the same Naseeruddin Shah as a human being? What is the story behind the way what he is today? Let us read what Jyoti Subhash has to share…

Q: You and Naseeruddin Shah have been known to each other for nearly 50 years now! What would you like to share about him at the beginning of this interview? Where did you both meet first?

A: Naseer… I am going to very respectfully call him by that name throughout this interview…

We met each other for the first time in 1970 at the National School of Drama (NSD). When I saw him for the first time I was not really aware that he was such a preeminent actor or how he is as a human. I have been gradually introduced to Naseer’s qualities one by one. From the beginning itself, I had this strong feeling of surprise about what all is this man born with! His sensitivity, his intelligence, his capacity to understand and accept, the softness of his heart; his emotions, thoughts, actions and the immense efforts to maintain the congruence between them… such important things!

Q: As batchmates in NSD you might have a bundle of memories of that time. Which ones would you like to share with us?

A: Our NSD days were a time when people did theatre experiments on their own at village, city, and country-level but very little information was available about this. One day, I read a news article in The Times of India about Ebrahim Alkazi, who was mentioned to be well-studied about the field of drama & theatre worldwide. His innovative experiments in Theatre involving different experts from the world, his firmness on providing good quality education to a limited number of students, made the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appoint him as the director of the National School of Drama with immense freedom given to him. 

I strongly feel that Ebrahim Alkazi used this freedom very responsibly. He was rationally modern to the extent that in the time where girls and boys were not even allowed to sit on a single bench in the classroom, Alkazi introduced the concept of co-hostel for the students of NSD. This was such a beautiful opportunity to understand each other as a human being and also to deeply understand the subject that we were there for. What is a drama after all? It is the study of human beings.

Our class had me, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, B Jayashree and other 8 to 10 limited students only.

Along with the acting class, we also had other subjects like music, singing, dance, drama literature, direction, etc. We practiced different improvisations in the classroom along with activities like performing on a given situation etc. I had observed, from the beginning itself, that Naseer used to think very differently from what other students did. He was different also in the context of - his education in English medium, the fluency of English language, his knowledge about English writers like Shakespeare, his earlier experience of performing English plays etc. He was never worried about the exams or his marks but at the same time, he responsibly was aware of what was going on in the classroom.

Our participation in different classroom activities and the co-hostel days allowed me to experience Naseer’s qualities closely. By that time, I had understood that Naseer is a person with tremendous intelligence and a fantastic sense of humor! However, he was found lost in himself many a times. Remembering him that way today, I feel, he must be in some kind of a search within himself… and he never limited this to himself. He was also aware of what others were doing.

I remember, it was the day when we were sitting in the music classroom, not even introduced to each other. We had an assignment where each one of us had to sing a song where I ended up saying a song from the film ‘Adalat’ – ‘Yun hasraton ke daag mohabbat mein dho liye’… Naseer was sitting exactly in front of me looking down at the floor. As soon as I finished singing he plainly said, “Achcha gaati ho.’ There were no over-emotions, no exaggeration and no use of any kind of adjective; just a plain reply as if this is a subject of study. I said “OK” and this was our first conversation. From that incident Naseer, for me, became an example of ‘living in the present moment’.

Later we all understood that, this silent man when one starts talking he can talk endlessly! He could speak anything about almost anyone, from teachers to the students, in any format their face and uncensored! This fearlessness is a part of his personality from the beginning itself.

I have also observed this one deep desire inside Naseer. He wanted good things to happen with the people around him who were promising. This genuine desire to help others made him speak bluntly with many people because of which sometimes, people thought of him as arrogant. But believe me, behind his actions or his words was this innocent solicitude for people around him.

Q: You both are really passionate about Theatre from the beginning and got to learn this subject together in NSD. Would you like to share some experiences about this ‘studying theatre’ process?

A: NSD was a place where during our learning days we were also simultaneously, presenting some plays at the experimental level. We performed some international plays also, for example – ‘Threepenny opera’ in Hindi. We have experienced the direction of different International directors while performing these International plays. This was enriching know-how for all of us.

I feel, we all are born with many qualities in us… but what makes Naseer different is that he learned to polish these qualities, nurture them by practice and kept using them in his work.

We used to perform the one-act play named as ‘The Lesson’ by Eugene Ionesco. To describe the gist of this play in short - it talks about the education system which still uses rote methods of dumping things in the minds of the students, further putting light upon the painful truth of how we ourselves have become ignorant about this fact. It had three characters - a forty years old professor, a school going girl and the professor's maid. Actually, this play was our classroom production but just because it was Naseer and his brilliant acting that we could perform it efficiently even out of the classroom. Important newspapers from Delhi had covered the news of our play at that time with an appreciation of our acting.

The reason to share this is, at the time of this play we all were young yet, Naseer had efficiently portrayed a middle-aged, somewhat unreasonable, stubborn and at the end turning cruel kind of a character of the professor! He could do this because he studies human beings very well.

Such different kinds of experimental performances with Naseer gave me an opportunity to closely experience him as an actor. Further, after graduating from NSD he immediately joined Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

Q: How do you see Naseeruddin Shah's journey as an actor today?

A: Difficult question to answer in less time! There is so much to share… but I feel, except for one or two roles in Hindi cinema that I have felt him as a misfit, I really like the way he has performed in his career as a whole. This is my personal perception.

Moreover, I really appreciate the work he is doing today. He and Ratna Pathak Shah both have been determinedly working for the last 40 years in the field of theatre through their ‘Motley productions’! You must see the work of Motley. What a variety of work with variety of formats! They have provided a stage to 42 different plays in the last 40 years! Waiting for Godot, Einstein, The Lesson, Zoo Story, Julius Caesar, Dear Liar, The Prophet, Father, Ismat Appa ke naam etc. are some of the names. Naseer performs in different languages like English, Hindi and Urdu. I love his performances in the play ‘Einstein’ and of course the play ‘Father’ where he portrays a man with Alzheimer.

Q: How would you describe Naseeruddin Shah as a friend?

A: To be very honest, we don't meet frequently. Not for years at times… but still, we are aware of what's going on in each other’s lives and work. After a few years of my marriage, I was really not doing anything else than taking care of my home and children. One day while traveling from Mahim area with some of our friends from NSD, we crossed a huge residence. Naseer immediately looked at me and said, “Do you know who stays here? A very famous Marathi actress - Sulabha Deshpande! ...and what are you doing?” 

That day I could sense so many mixed feelings behind his words – care, worry, anger, sadness, and hope for a friend to grow... Later when I once again started working he was happy. Also, he really feels proud of what Amruta does today. ‘Dosti kya chij hoti hai?’ I have learned from Naseer.

Q: You previously shared about his fearlessness as well as his awareness about his surroundings which makes him talk about it straight forward, even today! What would you like to say about this?

A: Naseer has this quality of diligence yet he never feels nor behaves as if he knows everything. Even if he is an avid reader, wonderful writer himself and a Theater expert he still feels and believes that one needs to have a longing to keep growing and keep learning to make one's own life fruitful and useful... I would really recommend that you read his autobiography.

Naseer has this fearlessness as a part of his personality but at the same time, his fearlessness does not mean carelessness for him.

So, does this mean that Naseeruddin Shah is a flawless person? No. This is not true of anyone. It is just that, like some others, Naseer is self-aware and keeps moving towards understanding his own self better.

There have been instances where Naseer has returned with the realization of his mistakes and once a person learns from his own mistake it somehow becomes a little easy to let go of any guilt associated with it. I think this is what must be helping Naseer to grow and look around with empathy and compassion.

The scope of cinema and drama is so vast that one needs to have immense clarity about - what one wants to do in it, to what extent, in what ways, and the most important - what one never wants to do? People like Naseer work in this field, keeping in mind that the scope of this field is far beyond entertainment only! Cinema or Theatre has the power to make changes at different levels from a single human being up to society! It is exceptional on Naseer's part to create his own places - Cinema and theater; and that too in a huge country like India! But, if you look at the graph of Naseeruddin Shah’s career or his Life overall, you would observe that he has never ever immersed in this thing called ‘being a celebrity’.

During the documentary project on ‘Hamid Dalwai: the unsung humanist!’ I had called Naseer. I shared some basic information and also a novel written by Hamid Dalwai originally named as ‘Indhan’ in Marathi and translated by Dilip Chitre as ‘Fuel’ in English. After taking a quick glimpse of the book Naseer called me immediately to confirm his interest in this project. The point that I want to share here is that, there are so many actors and artists in a country like India who work hard, perform remarkably, are famous, earn a lot… still, they are somewhere disconnected with the society around them. Quite the opposite, Naseer is absolutely connected to human beings from different parts of the society. The awareness that you owe something to your surroundings is very sharp in him and that is the reason that he could agree immediately to work for the project on Hamid Dalwai.

Along with this Naseer has this quality of deep gratitude. Be it NSD, FTII or at his own level, Naseer has been conducting Theatre workshops for years! His desire and dedicated work to pass on good quality education about theatre and facilitation of different experiments to anyone who deserves it is very appreciable. He does this as his duty and responsibility towards the field of his beloved subject – Theatre!

This is what Naseer is for me- an artist filled with complete Humanness!

(Interview by Deepali Yamu-Ramesh Awkale)

हेही वाचा : माणूसपणाने भरलेला नट

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