Author: Naseeruddin Shah
One of the key dilemma that i have about reading a memoir or an autobiography is whether my perception about the person would change after reading the book or not. Whether the artist would gain respect or loose it in my mind. It is a difficult question because i want to preserve the image for some reason. Yet, in the case of Naseeruddin Shah, the curiosity to know more about him overtook this dilemma.
The book starts with Shah's school days. He chronicles his life growing in a fairly conservative muslim family, attending a convent school, seeing and being influenced by Shakespeare plays, his life through college, first marriage, National School of drama, Film and Television institute in Pune and his struggles as he manages to find a place to stand in this intricate Bollywood industry.
One of the fascinating aspects of this book is how honest Naseer is as he describes his journey. Naseer bares himself, as an adolescent with his sexual travails during his late school days, as a young man in a hurry and fool-hardiness during his college days. He admits his arrogance on the art of acting at NSD and you can see a transformation in his sensibilities as he enters FTII Pune. Later, he talks on how luck played such a big role in him landing roles in Shyam Benegal's movies, giving no credit to his talent. As someone who has seen his early movies, it is difficult to put two and two together because the man on screen does not match his description which makes me agree to Girish Karnad's assessment that this book is nothing but Naseer's account of overcoming the handicap of being an exceptionally gifted actor that he really is.
Naseer as an actor excites me because as an actor, he is an idealist and a successful idealist, in its own way. The successful part comes because of his pragmatic nature, he has done commercial films as well. In the book, he talks about the student strike at FTII where actors demanded that the student directors should cast student actors as opposed to outside students leading to a big stand-off between the two factions. Here is an example where Naseer exemplifies idealism and ends up on the loosing side, but the experience shapes him to understand the realities of life.
It is only in the last chapter that Naseer opines on the state of Bollywood industry. In a fairly substantiated rant, and also a very well articulated one, he writes -
Let's not drag out the long-exhausted argument that the common man needs these films to get away from his own drudgery etc.; what i find terrifying is the degree of dumbing down of the audience that these films have managed to achieve, I daresay intentionally. A habit for consuming junk has over the years been created in the audience. They are now irrevocably hooked on that taste, they crave it so they swallow anything that comes thus packaged, and ironically they are blamed for having pandered to. The films we make reflect no one's inherent taste but our own. Every few months when some nonsensical multi-starrer flops, everybody assumes the audience has finally come of age but very soon they flock right back to something else equally shallow. It's impossible to explain.
The other interesting layer is the role played by his family, his parents in the early years and his brothers in later years. Sometimes supportive, sometimes practical, having Naseer as a son would not have been an easy job. How do you explain a son's ambition to pursue yet another acting course after graduating from NSD after studying acting for 3 years. Naseer's first marriage is something that i find it very difficult to grasp. It does not make any sense, yet it happened, it helped him but it has a male bias that makes it little uncomfortable to read and acknowledge.
Naseer's quest to learn and master the art of acting plays a very fundamental role in shaping up the actor he has been. His transformation from arrogance to know-nothing is something that is beautiful to read. And then once he is fairly established, he challenges himself to fringe schools. His expedition to Vienna to study under Grotowski and then coming back disillusioned, yet grateful, is an experience that few would dare to venture out.
Naseer is a special man, a lucky, gifted man. Sometimes society needs such men to pave a path for others. As a generation, we are grateful that he exists otherwise, without him Bollywood would be in some other darker age than it is right now. And then one day, read in Naseer's voice will stay with you for time to come. The book achieves a feat of not influencing my perception about him a bit. It is this feeling which makes me believe that it is true.