Bollywood’s most vocal polemicist Naseeruddin Shah: hate him love him you can’t ignore him

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Naseeruddin Shah ko gussa kyun aata hai? Lots of reasons. In no particular order, its pet peeves include the hypocrisy of parallel cinema, the mediocrity of Hindi films, Bollywood’s sycophancy towards the powers that be, a tense community climate, the rise of the Taliban, Anupam Kher and Virat Kohli. Shah, who was hospitalized with a pneumonia attack earlier this year, certainly knows how to whip up a storm.

In a better mood now, the 71-year-old comedian has struggled to reflect on the central issues of the hour, both to his own industry and to the nation as a whole. In a recent controversial interview that made headlines for all the wrong reasons, he suggested – in typical Naseer fashion – that the three Khans are afraid to speak on social and political issues perhaps because “they have a lot to lose” and have gone so far as to say that some filmmakers are encouraged by the ruling establishment to make pro-government films. This follows his viral video warning his fellow Indian Muslims about the grave dangers of celebrating the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Before that, in these same pages, he declared to the chagrin of mourning of the faithful of Dilip Kumar that the Bollywood legend “left no meaningful lesson for future actors”.

Silver hair and deep voice in addition, Naseeruddin Shah is used to adopting a provocative stance. He dubbed old pal Anupam Kher a “clown” (it was unwarranted) and much younger Kangana Ranaut “half-educated starlet”, while later specifying that he had not named her. He mocked Rajesh Khanna as a “limited actor”, only to express his regret for saying so and called Farhan Akhtar’s performance in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag “false”. Last year, he admitted in an India Today conclave that he admired Vijay Anand “more than I admire Guru Dutt”. Even the venerable parallel cinema which gave Shah a break and supported him has not been spared its searing controversies.

“The record of these filmmakers speaks for itself,” he told The Quint. “You can go back and study the work of several filmmakers who started in the early 1970s. There are very few exceptions, Mrinal Sen being one of them, Shyam Benegal being another. I find it hard to think of a third name. With all due respect Shah, what about the long list of notables such as Govind Nihalani, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Gulzar, Sai Paranjape, Mani Kaul, Ketan Mehta? Many would have an argument with this in the sense that by snubbing the giants of parallel cinema Shah, who was started by movement mascot Shyam Benegal in Nishant in 1975, could be biting the very hand that fed him. By now we know that this wise man of cinema (or the stage, according to his own preferences) loves nothing more than to speak his mind and unabashedly stay true to who he is – even if at occasionally, his political statements end up costing him a few friends or making him unpopular. Love it, hate it, ignore it. But no one can deny it: Shah never lacked courage.

A lonely voice

Since the rise of the BJP government, intellectual discourse has been caught in the clutches of division. Culture wars escalated with so-called liberal voices like Naseeruddin Shah finding themselves at best in the minority and at worst vilified. After years of ascension, this must sound like an affront to the left and a Pyrrhic victory to the right, although it may be helpful to point out that Shah never identified himself as being on the left.

He has strong opinions, like any typical AMU-trained elite or any FTII-NSD idiot, and he’s not afraid to voice it. It would have been easy to dismiss Shah’s loud protests like the mumbles of an old crank if only he hadn’t been among the most admired actors in Hindi cinema – probably from India – with over 200 titles to his name. filmography. What makes him a voice of reason in a sea of ​​celebrity outrage is that he owes no allegiance to any political party or ideology. At the age of Kangana Ranaut and Swara Bhasker who made a mark by being a brand, Shah stands out with his distinctive interventions without appearing to be overdoing it.

Take Ranaut’s shock with the top and the mighty of Bollywood. The Queen star was first hailed as an outsider taking on the exploitative and nepotistic industry. But soon, his cheeky courage that had given him the confidence to be so outspoken politically began to show itself as mere propaganda. Although his periodic statements still gain media attention, the public has likely lost confidence in his ability to be completely apolitical. Unlike some of his colleagues, Shah is a devil with no agenda. He is not an activist. You don’t see him sitting in dharnas or leading steps. In other words, he seems to have no political ambition. This is why his timing for making these comments cannot be questioned, as he also does not promote a movie or seek favor with a political office.

And he’s not your friendly, professional talking head, either. What it appears to be is a lonely voice, supported by no one except perhaps their own conscience. If celebrities like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Jaya Bachchan, Anupam Kher, Hema Malini, Swara Bhasker and Urmila Matondkar show solidarity with a particular social or humanitarian cause, there is always the risk that people will think it has. a political end. This is not the case with Shah. He has stayed away from politics, which makes him a non-partisan actor. I wish he could be fondly called an “older statesman” in the entertainment industry, but that would be pushing him because it’s a nickname he himself could reject outright.

Naseeruddin Shah has strong opinions and he is not afraid to express them. (Photo: Express Archives)

The meaningful man of cinema

Political consciousness is not new to Shah. Political and social engagement influenced his best works, especially his masterpieces of the parallel cinema movement. These films were animated by a powerful message about equality, socialism and freedom of expression. Indeed, one of the reasons you might expect someone of Shah’s stature to speak out on the political issues of his age is because of his association with the kind of socially meaningful cinema that he and his cohorts have. defended in the 1970s and 1980s. Infused with grainy realism and well-meaning fervor, parallel cinema was imbued with a poetic hope that one day the world might be a better place to live. Unlike big Bollywood budgets, he had big ambitions and a big heart. If we take Shah seriously today, perhaps it is because of his much-loved work relating to this golden period of Hindi cinema. These include Sparsh, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, Ijaazat, Junoon, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Mandi, Paar, Mirch Masala and many more.

Jaane-Bhi-Do-Yaaro-1983 Naseeruddin Shah in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. (Photo: Express Archives)

Having said that, no one would have any qualms about saying that Shah’s career has not been entirely flawless. Even his most die-hard fans would agree that over the past decade his Hindi movie releases have been largely uneventful and far from the class of his previous hits. For one thing, he’s won brownie points on occasion in Finding Fanny and Iqbal here and A Wednesday and Ishqiya there. On the other, you see it in movies like Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi where this most garlanded actor has been reduced to a garland photo frame and The Tashkent Files which makes you wonder if Naseeruddin Shah has lost faith in cinema. . It was the inimitable Shabana Azmi who lambasted him, saying (this was in retaliation for Shah’s taunts against Farhan Akhtar’s acting prowess in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag): “Naseer should focus on the quality of his sound. own work. After having done Jackpot, he is not in a position to pass judgment on a film… ”

In his entertaining and candid memoir, And Then One Day, Shah admits he was born to act. Given his recent war of words, guess “born to react” would do just fine!

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