March 26, 2010

Naseeruddin Shah: Actors have huge egos

"When I first dreamt of becoming a movie star," says one of India's least starry but most respected actors, "I wanted to be a Gary Cooper, I wanted to be rich and famous, living in palaces and wearing dark glasses and white suits."

He looks around, curls his lip slightly. "I didn't want to be an arty type of guy trudging up hills and through streams!"

Coming from Naseeruddin Shah, these are words that need a garnishing of salt. We're at a location shooting for a low-budget film in the hill town of Vagamon in Kerala, where traipsing up and down rough mountain roads is very much part of the deal. So are long periods of waiting while heavy equipment is lugged around.

Many scenes feature animals that tend not to be considerate of the best-laid shooting schedules of humans. Besides, the long Rastafarian braids that Shah has had stitched on to his own hair are heavy and uncomfortable in the heat, and he's stuck with them till the month-long shoot is over.

The actor's mood ebbs and flows. One minute he's the picture of joviality, talking about how he finds it stimulating to work with less experienced directors; the next he's feeling depressed about the haphazardness of the shot division.

He maintains that the long climbs don't tire him out -- "I welcome it, one doesn't get to walk in Mumbai" -- but the fatigue shows at times. "I'm the world champion of thumb-twiddling now," he says glumly, at the end of a long day that began badly because of a miscommunication (he was up and ready by 7.30 am though he was only required four hours later).

And yet, here he is, far from those notional palaces and white suits, working on a non-Bollywood project made with a paltry Rs 40 lakh.

When writer-director Anup Kurian -- whose first feature, the gentle Manasarovar, won praise on the festival circuit a few years ago without ever reaching a large audience -- approached him for The Hunt, Shah agreed immediately.

In a sense, it was a continuation of what he was doing 30 years ago, as the leading light of Hindi cinema's 'parallel star system', encouraging small movies, saying yes to resource-strapped directors who came to him with offbeat scripts.

Now in his sixtieth year, Naseeruddin Shah has been a thoroughly honourable performer, working in both non-mainstream and mainstream cinema for over three decades.

He has excelled in stark dramas made by Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen, and he has been just as convincing -- given the token suspension of disbelief -- in masala-movie setpieces such as the Tirchi Topiwale song in Tridev.

Even when he started working three shifts a day in assembly-line commercial films (which he did to line his bank balance, he freely admits, making the finger-flicking gesture that is somehow permanently associated with the word rokda in Bollywood), he found the time for 'small' movies. Such as this one.

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