And Then One Day – Naseeruddin Shah’s Autobiography

Finished reading Naseeruddin Shah’s autobiography recently and it has been a captivating reading indeed! One is usually curious about film stars of his stature and like to know how did they grow up and how did their career shape in the film industry.

Naseer’s autobiography is quite interesting and just like his films, he selectively discusses details that he wants to share about his life. Some of the films, people and events are discussed in great details while few other films, people and events are either ignored or mentioned just briefly making you wonder what he thinks about them. Anyway!

He spends quite some time discussing his childhood, his Baba & Ammi, bother brothers (mostly referred as both Z’s – Lt. General and now VC AMU, Zameer and IITian Zaheer) , his flamboyant maamu‘s (maternal uncles), his schooling in St. Joseph, Nainital (Sem) and St. Anselm’s Ajmer and his not-so-comfortable equation with his father. He mentions feeling rather inferior and withdrawn during almost all his childhood as compared to his studious and heroic brothers, while his grades continued to be dismal and eventually failing the 9th standard in St. Joseph, Nainital. He repeated his 9th in St. Anselm, Ajmer, and in this school he started discovering his passion for acting, though he loved watching films since his early childhood in St. Joseph. He also talks about his awe for Shakespeare Wallah, Mr. Geoffrey Kendal and his exemplary work of making Shakespeare popular in India though his plays which paid him little but gave him immense satisfaction of doing what he loved. It seems Jennifer Kendal-Kapoor carried this love for theatre form her father and it is now flowing through her daughter Sanjana Kapoor and their Prithvi Theatre.

He talks about his explorations, experiments and sexual adventures while in school and then running away to Mumbai even before he started his college, eventually to be sent back home by Dilip Kumar’s elder sister Sakina apa who was a family acquaintance. He was later allowed to join arts in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and he really blossomed there with dramatics with his progressive teacher Zahida apa first and later by thoroughly well-read and educated Purveen, who became his first wife later despite being 14 years older than Naseer. It is intriguing to see how he became confident, then arrogant, then a bit narcissist, and eventually self-absorbed enough to completely ignore his wife and first born Heeba as he got admitted to NSD and got into relationship with R there. It is also a bit shocking to know that he didn’t see his wife or daughter Heeba for months and later for year together, stretching it for 12 long years in the case of the later. Though his honesty is praiseworthy, this piece about his daughter was quite disturbing for me, especially when he complains that his father seldom understood him –

“My adolescent virility had convinced me that  true men had sons. My fiends would mock and sure enough, led by JR, later did. A daughter? How would I deal with this??


My indifference to Heeba can only be explained, though not condoned, by the fact that I myself was then an insecure, ill-adjusted twenty-one-year-old with absolutely no conception of what it took to rear a newborn, and I completely shirked my share of the duties, while idiotically attempting at the same time to assert my rights as a husband.


I have no idea in what sort of light I will appear if I say that for an unconscionably long time I felt nothing whatsoever for the child Heeba, but it is necessary that I confess it. She didn’t figure at all, it was almost as if she didn’t even exist.”

I somehow recalled Kaifi and I: A Memoir written by Shaukat Azmi, Kaifi Azmi’s wife, and it is really a wonderful book that helped me understand this poet I loved so much as a human! Kaifi , born in 1919 is 30 years older than Naseer (born in 1949) and as such he belongs to an earlier generation. But his communist/socialist perspective with broad-minded, progressive thinking is evident throughout his life, in this wonderful book written by his wife (a must read, I’d day!), and also amply exemplified in the way their daughter Shabana Azmi has been brought up and who she is today. No matter what other objections one has about the leftist, one should be grateful for the liberal and progressive thinking legacy the have left behind! Obviously, they are two different individuals with different personalities and it would be difficult to say if either of them is representative of their respective generation, however I must admit that I had not imagined Naseer in this light earlier given that he is an iconoclast himself. Anyway!

Naseer went on to complete the NSD course and has written a lot about his life and drama under Alkazi there and his friend Jaspal, who as it turned out, suffered from mental disorder and went on to actually backstab (literally) Naseer later while they were working in the films. Naseer also mentions about his complexes about his looks, his inability to sing, his voice, diction and so on. He talks about his realization and his own gut feeling about his acting, being there on stage and how he felt compared to his peers there and so on. After NSD, he actually went on to study acting again in FTII, Pune and then got involved in the infamous strike by acting students of FTII about their roles in diploma films by the direction students. Again, his reflections on his own acting and different ways of teaching, acting are wonderful to read. He also narrates his experiences of drug consumption, being stoned and being a carefree student there while straining his relations with his father and how he was helped financially by both Z’s, his elder brothers.

He also discusses in details his experiences of his first film by Shaym BenegalNishant and then also discusses his other films like ManthanBhumka with the same director. During this time he met Ratna Pathak, who became his second wife later and proved to be the pivotal anchor in his life. He discusses his early days with her, her parent’s reluctance to accept him as a son-in-law and his own experiments in the theatre with other senior thespians and later on his own with Benjamin Gilani. You can sense that though he loved acting wholeheartedly, he had this creative dissatisfaction with his own work almost throughout his career in films and he also maintains that he was neither cut-out for a typical Bollywood film nor did they accept his easily in the mainstream films. He talks more about he not becoming stupendously successful, but managed to get what he wanted.

He also talks fondly about some of his films that he loved, such as Sparsh and his interactions with wonderful Mr. Mittal, who was a blind himself. He also mentions Masoom fondly and Sunaina not so fondly! However, he doesn’t talk at all about Ijaazat, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and such legends which were loved so much and have attained cult status in their own way! Films like Katha, Chakra, Bazaar only find a passing mention as “somewhat unsatisfying”. He doesn’t mention Tridev, Karma either! In fact, the last few pages of this book seem to be a bit rushed, one keeps looking forward to reading more about his family life after marriage, his sons Imaad and Vivaan, his directorial debut but he has chosen not to write about these things in this book. In fact, he hasn’t really written much about his close friend Om Puri since NSD days, though he mentions that Om learnt a lot in NSD and improved tremendously as an actor, whereas in his own opinion, he did not! He also talks about his realization of Om’s potential in his memorable performance in a Japanese play Ibaragi during their NSD days. Om Puri is mentioned otherwise as well with respect to other films, but I expected a lot more on their interaction with each other as intelligent, thinking actors! His another close friend Ravi Baswani finds just one single passing mention. Naseer is very open, honest and at times even harsh about his own work, in fact this genuineness is evident throughout this book as he looks contemplatively at his own explorations, experiments, mistakes, blunders, recklessness and foolhardy attitude.

One can’t help appreciating the rich language of the book and Naseer’s irreverent, sharp sense of humour! The language of the book deserves a special mention here, he uses longish, slightly convoluted but insightful sentences, his choice of verbs is perfect and delightful, and so is his wit! No matter how much he hated his Sem school at Nainital, his ‘proper’ English education is amply evident here. He conveys exactly what he wants to and he is a wonderful writer as well. His politically incorrect, irreverent and insightful comments about his fellow actors or film makers are refreshing to read among all those diplomatic texts written by others. He doesn’t even spare Dilip Kumar (‘when he allowed himself to be directed’) or Amitabh Bachchan (for his ‘choice of projects’) and one has to agree with him, for he speaks the truth. He even criticizes his teachers Alkazi and Dubeyji for their own limitations and somewhat rigid thinking & approaches. He is often condescending of the Hindi film industry, but not without a reason as he explains in this book! At the same time, he realizes how great actors like Shriram Lagoo and Nilu Phule were wasted in films. He also mentions that some of the best performances he has ever seen on stage are Chandrakant Kale in Begum Barve (I need to give it a second chance, I confess I couldn’t understand it much), Mohan Agahe in Ghashiram Kotwal, Shriram Lagoo in Adhe Ahure, Bhakti Barve in Ajab Nyay Vartulacha and so on, but most of this is simply put as a brief text below their photos. You just wish he had given some more details about his interactions with these great actors, film makers and some of his other contemporaries such as Farooq Sheikh, Dipti Naval etc. I was dying to know stories about Ijaazat or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro here. Anyway!

The most beautiful part and in my opinion the essence of this book is his own discovery, exploration and conviction about his love for acting and quite a few insightful reflections/questions on the process of acting. He is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent & thinking actors we have today and his choice of (most of his) films demonstrate his views on the kind of cinema he wanted to get associated with. Though he was full of inferiority complex, self-doubt as a kid and teenager, it is wonderful to see how he developed conviction to say that if my brothers can decide about their life and joining NDA, IIT at the age of 16-17, why can’t I? It is amazing to see that how his loneliness and being withdrawn helped him in developing as an actor and how he blossomed with confidence when he had teachers and friends to encourage him in his own pursuits. His inevitable combination of self-doubt and arrogance is also understandable as he narrates his growing up and strained relationship with his father. He loved acting and wanted to do that all his life, and was thrilled to know that at NSD he could not only pursue this but would also get Rs. 200 per month for doing that. Yet, as he got into NSD first, FTII later and then during his acting days, his dissatisfaction and ultimately questioning the methods of acting or the acting process itself make wonderful reading. He has brilliant insights and knowledge about his own acting, and even in some critically acclaimed films, he knows exactly what he has done wrong. Moreover, even while things were going smoothly and he was more or less happy with the kind of films he was doing, with a precision of a surgeon he incisively describes the cause of his dissatisfaction. You find such reflections spread throughout the book, and some of them go like this –

This for me was a very early lesson in how undesirable it is for this to happen, and exposed the first of the many limitations naturalistic acting, in which I had devoutly believed so far, suffers from. (During Manthan, noticeably his second film)

So in both Manthan and Junoon, despite Shyam’s injunction not to play the role ‘as you see it in your head but as it is written’, I did precisely what I should not have done, but didn’t manage to completely ruin either film with my misguided energy. That is why both these performances, despite generating more work for me and bringing me continued acclaim, are not among my personal favourites. (Again during Manthan)

Then in a passage on actor-training, I came upon a statement that created paradigm shift in my ideas on learning how to act.
I knew this training was what I needed if I wished to grow. There was no one around me who would even understand what I was talking about, let alone help with it. (While reading Jerzy Grotowski‘s book Towards a Poor Theatre while he was doing well with his films)

And he did not only reflect and contemplate about learning acting all the time, he in fact found a chance to meet
Grotowski himself and travelled all the way to Poland to attend his workshop, which, as Naseer himself elaborates in some details, was quite enigmatic and most of it, did not make any sense whatsoever! He was completely disappointed and disillusioned by it and quit the workshop after 20 days!

It is heartening to read that he questions people, their approaches and methods even though they were renowned masters of the craft and he was, in a way, awestruck by them and wanted to learn from them. Not only that, he had guts to quit when it did not make any sense to him. In his own words from the book –

Whatever it was they were trying to impart to us in that forest, I knew it was of absolutely no use to me. After achieving the primal state, what? Does one then try to cohabit with bears in the jungle?

I admire his love and quest for his craft, I love his irreverence because he is genuine! He doesn’t mind praising even an unknown actor, and at the same time doesn’t mind criticizing Grotowski or his disciple Peter Brook when things didn’t make sense to him. I wish he would come up with the sequel of this book and writes about films, events and people about whom he didn’t write much in this book. I hope he takes his writing seriously, he is an eloquent writer as well!

I believe this autobiography would be quite a useful book for anyone seriously interested in pursuing acting in theatre or in films. Moreover, for the rest of us, I think this memoir is a great document of a person who has discovered his own passion/purpose and have chosen to work accordingly. He knows limitations of the available opportunities, understanding his own stagnation, contemplating about all this and constantly seeking learning for his own personal growth. I think you can go beyond the details about the films, acting and appreciate this man’s inspiring journey to pursue what he truly loved and believed in, and in the process delighting many of us with his work all these years!


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