Saturday, March 7, 2015

And Then One Day - Naseeruddin Shah

This is one of the few hard cover books I bought. They are expensive. I did hear good things about the book and also had an ulterior motive which never worked out. But I felt compelled to read it after I bought it which is a good sign for any book.
Penguin, 316 p, Rs. 699
'And Then One Day' is a memoir, so one gets a glimpse into Naseeruddin Shah's life, as it went along slightly parallel to our growing up days, always connecting with him in his efforts, and always loving his self-effacing mannerisms. So this was what happened during 'Masoom', or during N'ishant' or 'Sparsh'. The memoir is perhaps as honest as it can get and one only hopes that there are no regrets for having said what he felt about people and their work. I don't think I'd have said half the things he did if I ever wrote a memoir and perhaps that's one reason why this book scores.

With some people you get a feeling that they are from a certain place. I always identified him with Delhi (Chasme Buddoor?) but also thought he had some Parsi background (looks like one). So it was a bit of a surprise that he comes from a well-off family with a large estate where hunting etc was practiced (he was pretty good at skinning the birds and animals he says). He went to fine convent schools and was exposed to theatre and cinema there, and somehow found his calling. He did badly at academics and had issues regarding that with his father. Plays etc apart he ran away to Mumbai when he was 16, was 'rescued' by a relative of Dilip Kumar, lived in the great man's house for a week, and was shunted back to his hometown. From there to Aligarh Muslim University, NSD, FTII and so on.

Naseeruddin Shah was pretty popular with the girls and wore his heart on his sleeve. He got married very early to a lady of Pakistani roots and has a child from her who now lives with him. But then he moved on quickly from there, to others. He is particularly severe on himself in these periods when he saw less and less of his wife and child and more of other women. .

What interested me most was his approach to his work, something that comes up in his NSD days. The feeling that he was weak on diction made him work on his habit of speaking nasally. He talks about how only failures in the profession came to teach at the NSD and they had nothing to teach simply because they did not know their job (the importance of a good teacher!). He talks of how the belief that 'some can act and others can't', held sway at the NSD then (a mindset issue). And that 'great acting just happens'. He laments the fact that there was no structure and words like 'talent', 'inspiration', 'involvement' were tossed about without actual stuff being shown or taught on how to deliver through proper preparation.

The inflection point comes at NSD in the final year, when he watches his friend Om Puri, someone who puts in a lot of effort to prepare for his performances, pull off a role in a Kabuki play with consummate ease. Naseeruddin Shah is disappointed at not getting the role but he also admits that as he watched Om Puri perform, he realised that he could not have pulled it off the way Om Puri did. He observes how Om Puri had 'quietly persevered in self-improvement through the time he had been at the NSD'. Naseer realises when he watches the performance that there 'was no magic formula involved'. He had been 'so astoundingly good because he had gone for broke and expended every ounce of his energy in his preparation'. Great words on the virtues of preparation.

In another play directed by Srilata Swaminathan Naseer recounts how he had 'contributed nothing but has also mistrusted the faith she had in him and messed up an opportunity to explore a new and exciting way to approach acting'. 

To quote him as he prepared for a big play - 'I had by this time been converted to Om's approach and way of working, or rather I was compelled to adopt both, considering the nature of the role in The Lesson. Without burning the midnight oil I could see that this time I wouldn't be able to even memorise the lines, there were so many. So for the first time in my life I found myself walking early without being compelled to and doing what was expected of me The results that this kind of application produce were not long in coming. Most exhilaratingly of all, for the first time, I felt I was in complete control of what I was doing onstage.'

On learning the craft.
'The tumid conviction when I entered NSD that I knew it all and was going there to finally start plying my trade had deflated completely towards the end of my stay. My first attempt at working hard had yielded results. I began to suspect there was something more to this acting business that I knew, but hadn't a clue what it was, nor where or how to learn it. The stint at drama school gave me immense confidence in strutting the stage but had not really taught me the nuts and bolts of the job and I could see it was high time I tried coming to grips with those.' 

But the nagging suspicion that I had been kidding myself was fuelled by watching Om's steady growth from being a modest insecure wallflower into an actor and person of considerable assurance. I, though, was exactly the same arrogant loudmouth I had been when I joined NSD, had found nothing new, had learnt nothing in three years...I being incapable of that kind of genuine humility (as Om had) had frittered away the time... If I wanted to survive as an actor I had to bring more than just competence and cleverness to the table and I suspected that I didn't have very much than those. It was time to learn the job.'

The aspect of how to improvise, to respond to stimulus spontaneously as shown through the class of Roshan Taneja hits home. In FTII he had to throw characterisation out of the window. In a scene they had to know where they were coming from and going where. He remembers how Roshan Taneja looked at him and said - some of you have a lot to unlearn. 'The elusive word 'method' was beginning to reveal itself at last. The thought that the craft can be deconstructed, the process uncovered and replicated instead of waiting for a 'good day' or for 'luck' was something that Stanislavsky tried to bring. Now, for me this was exhilarating stuff because this is stuff that they discuss in the Mindset by Carol Dweck, in the route to becoming an expert and all such important documents. It makes as much or more sense to the artists.

His growth as an actor soon showed up in opportunities that came by his way. Nishant was his first film. He says he received the most valuable piece of advise regarding film acting he has ever received from Shyam Benegal - "The camera is the eye of everyone watching the film". But success did not follow him instantly. He was rejected as a newsreader for Doordarshan.

I liked his approach to looking for work. 'I knew that the only way work would generate itself would be if I grabbed every opportunity I got and wrung it out till it screamed for mercy. Work would come only if I could demonstrably deliver the goods.' 

His friendship that soured with Jaspal, his relationship with Om Puri (that episode with Anupam Kher is one of the best I have seen on TV), experiments with drugs, his dalliances at Falkland Road, his love and marriage with Ratna Pathak, Kulbushan Karbanda's snoring, his not-so-complimentary views on Sholay, and his adaptation to the Hindi film industry complete the story.

His search to get his craft right comes through as the greatest part of the story to me, and I think I was looking for that only. Thankfully he has dealt with it in great detail and honesty. His relationship with his father, his family, his romances etc are all written honestly and wittily and show many dimensions of a man whom I would always relate to as the character in Chashme Buddoor. Then you realise that those were mere roles and that this person has his own story, his strong likes and dislikes and one gets a bit wary of the construct we have created. Naseeruddin Shah is unforgiving, ruthlessly honest and believes that what he has embarked on is right. Of course, many times he has in retrospect said that he had been wrong. But the intensity of his conviction on where he stands, his views on people, relationships etc dulled the sheen off my illusion of him. However, it did deepen my respect for him as a person.

I cannot help thinking what I would have done if I'd read this book when I was twenty. I think I'd have approached both women and drugs differently. But in retrospect, maybe the timing of the book is better for me. Would I recommend it. Emphatically yes. Specially for all learners, whatever they are doing.


Rajendra said...

a book worth reading.

Harimohan said...

Yes Raja. More so for us who can relate to those periods through movies we saw. Its kind of funny but interesting.