Naseeruddin Shah, now 64 or 65 (he isn’t sure), commands awe. He does not elicit the frenzy that accompanies stars and their movie-crazy fans. But, he makes a lot of heads turn. As we wait at a posh bar in Gurgaon, we’re informed that Shah has been held up by an eager crowd that formed around him at Delhi airport. He was not mobbed, but there were people itching to get his autograph and take photographs of him on their phones, which is enough to make him uncomfortable.
He is not horridly late as some spoilt superstars are. Yet, a hush falls as he ambles in. He is artfully careless in a pale green T-shirt with a light shirt thrown over it. He walks in small steps, his silver mane and beard making one think of King Lear. He offers a quick handshake and turns a little impatient and snappy when asked to pose for the camera. Is it the same as the first time he was photographed, as a boy? “Yeah, pretty much. You can read more in that,” he says gruffly, pointing to a book before dropping his chin and fixing the camera with an intent glare.
The book is Shah’s riveting memoir, And Then One Day. It is an autobiography unlike all past attempts at charting the lives of Indian movie stars, which have tended to be boring musings, selective recollections or hagiographies. This book is searing in its honesty, brutal in its author’s self-criticism, unsparing in its minutiae and charming in its humour. And, it is certainly not ghostwritten. Even when Shah drops terms such as semaphoric, peripatetic and pusillanimous, you indulge him. And Then One Day is worth reading for the sheer details and candour in Shah’s narrative. And, don’t miss the collection of photographs that accompany the book, especially Shah’s comic doodles.
In the book, Shah is present in emotional states we are familiar with seeing him in on screen: angry, befuddled, hurt, tender, passionate, wicked. Shah never loses the mocking tone he reserves for the world around him and himself. It is tempting to ask why he chose to write his story himself instead of asking a biographer to do it. He chuckles. Twelve years ago, he gifted himself a laptop, he says, and began writing short bits about his life’s events. “It was like an exercise in memory and it was something to do when I was bored on weekends.” He showed his initial writings to friend Ramachandra Guha, the historian, who encouraged him to write further.
The result is a book whose candidness is unprecedented in Bollywood. Seriously, we have never heard an Indian movie star call himself a “crabby bitch”, “arrogant”, “temperamental”, “hot-tempered”, “selfish” or “showy”. Shah solemnly admits to smoking ganja, dropping acid and trying Mandrax. He even describes his hallucinations. It is refreshing openness in an age when holier-than-thou film stars deny doing anything more than drinking protein shakes. But, does Shah still experiment with hallucinogens? Po-faced, he says only his “love for Idukki gold [a variety of marijuana]” remains steadfast today.
When Shah writes about sex, it is not for titillation, but a natural part of the story. Shah cannot understand why Indian movie stars act as though their sexual impulses have been locked away in cryostats. “Sex is such an important part of self-discovery. Why hide it?” he says. He details his first sexual experience — with a gypsy dancer in a tent when he was 15 — and talks about buying sex in Kamathipura, in Mumbai, for Rs 2. “Even now I can recollect her smell, and the experience is embedded in here,” he says, tapping his temple. However, we do not hear of any flings Shah had once he made it as an actor. Apart from some cheeky recollections of “doing sexy things” to the “dignified lady” (Hema Malini) on camera for a film, Shah denies dipping the proverbial nib in the working inkpot. “Besides, I was in love”, he says, referring to his gushing affection for his wife, Ratna Pathak Shah.
Shah shows courage in writing about his failed first marriage, to Parveen Murad, who was 15 years older than him, and about becoming a father at 19. He admits he cringes when he thinks about the selfishness with which he acted after his first daughter, Heeba, was born. Shah did not see Heeba for the first 12 years of her life. She now shares his passion for theatre.
And Then One Day deals in length with the daddy issues Shah seems to have had as a child. He writes about his painful lack of communication and acerbic relationship with his father and his feeling of having never had his father’s approval. He recollects how having missed his father’s funeral, he sat by his grave and poured his heart out to “the mound of earth”. Those bits of writing were the hardest, he says. His stern schoolmasters made sure he could not seek a father figure elsewhere.
The young Shah found solace in theatre and film. Geoffrey Kendal, Shyam Benegal and Ebrahim Alkazi were his idols. He says he has loved theatre since his earliest memory. He can remember being in a kindergarten play and feeling a rush of excitement before the curtains opened. He is particularly enamoured of late Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre” concept. Perhaps his second book could be on theatre, he says, almost speaking to himself. “Rehearsing is important. Not for learning the lines, but for exploring.” He wags a finger as his eyes round in conviction.
It would be reductive to read And Then One Day as just a personal memoir. Through Shah’s story, one also understands a lot about Indian cinema and the struggles a trained actor goes through in Bollywood. The politics that accompanied his days at the National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) is interesting to read. “Usually, the guys who turned up at NSD were all ill-adjusted and there against their families’ will.” Shah understands the angst actors such as Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who have come from the same milieu as him, have. However, he does not identify with just those actors who have had a similar journey to his. He also enjoys the creative company of Arshad Warsi, whom he acted alongside in Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya, and is all praise for Deepika Padukone, his co-star in the recently released Finding Fanny.
Despite Shah’s prickly nature, he tends to make friends for life. The two people who emerge smelling of roses from his book are his wife, Ratna, and his long-time friend Om Puri. Shah mocks the sincerity Puri had in the early days, when they were stoned and broke. Puri has had consistent success in international films, something Shah has not managed — there were no more Hollywood offers after The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, there isn’t an ounce of jealousy in Shah. “He [Puri] is my oldest friend, the salt of the earth, and I love him deeply. I feel I am sharing his successes internationally and here in Hindi cinema today.”
And Then One Day, dedicated to Shah’s sons, Imaad and Vivaan, ends in Hindi masala-film style, with Shah’s wedding to the love of his life, Ratna, in 1982. “The narrative stops there. There is not much after that. The success story can become dreary,” shrugs Shah. He walks out of the cool bar where we are chatting to the terrace, ignoring the north Indian heat and mugginess. “I can smoke as we speak,” he says lighting up. He eyes a pink cocktail in a ball-like glass placed before him. He struggles to find the straw’s mouth amid a variety of stirrers, fancy straws and discs of cucumber sticking out of the drink. Shah has never been a fan of the fancy. His memoir does not include anecdotes of debaucher or maudlin romances and friendships. It gets as real as it can. Ergo, no one emerges shining, face-paint intact. Dilip Kumar — a distant relative who offered him shelter in Bombay during his dilettante days — and Amitabh Bachchan are classified as actors who can convincingly “carry off” the kind of acting required in Hindi films. Sholay is called a “shallow film”, Sanjeev Kumar a “self-congratulatory ” actor, and Shabana Azmi is revealed as being somewhat obsessed with herself. He probably will not have too many friends in Bollywood’s world of fragile egos once his book releases. “I don’t care. I didn’t write the book for them,” he smiles, dropping the words into his chin. “The only magic that happens is on stage, when the actor and audience exchange energies.” For Shah, that is all that matters.