Monday, November 16, 2015
Reading Indian biographies is not exactly a soul-lifting experience because most of our autobiographers tell us how good they were. Naseeruddin Shah tells us how bad he was -- how conceited, arrogant and selfish, how easily given to drugs and women, how awful to look at. When his brothers went to IIT and the Defence Academy, he became a drifter, watching movies and plays. He couldn't get along with his father any more than he could get along with his first daughter. It is this brazen candour that makes And Then One Day: A Memoir a good read.
But he leaves the reader in no doubt about his natural fascination for acting and for memorising classical passages. While still in school he considered the possibility of becoming a professional actor "in spite of the face I had". A school teacher told him to read Macbeth and Hamlet because most people couldn't tell one from the other. He was quite impressive at school debates. "My speeches, peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, were well memorised, thoroughly rehearsed.... I invariably blustered my way to some prize but seldom did I know what I was talking about".
The beaten track is comforting. The ambition of middle class parents to see their wards becoming doctors and engineers is rooted in the traditional concepts of security and safety. When someone breaks the mould and strays into unpredictable areas like acting, fear grips the elders. The stage gripped Naseeruddin when he was still a school boy ( "it was the only place apart from the cricket field where I felt happy in my skin"). Everything that happened in his life was in one way or another shaped by this early fascination.
Despite his memorising capabilities, NS was a flop in school. He was used to being 50th in a class of 50 and left school in shame, having failed in Class 9. But he was never upset by such things because he had developed a capacity to imagine that he was someone else. There is philosophical substance in his observation that pretending to be someone else could be a source of great solace for actors. "It does seem like an aberration of behaviour to want to be someone else all the time, and I think it happens to people who, like me, can find no self-worth early in life and thus find fulfilment in hiding behind make-believe".
NS was surprised when he accidentally heard about a shool that taught drama. He managed to get into the National School of Drama in its heyday under Ebrahim Alkazi. Then he came to hear about the Film and Television Institute in Pune and he managed to get admission there when Girish Karnad was its director. He has interesting comments to make about the two schools, the gist of it being that it was at the FTII that he learned the basics of acting and also received opportunities to break into films.
NS has a way with words. He needs only a sentence, sometimes just a few words, to sum up personalities and situations. Here's his portrait of his school Director: "Girish Karnad, Rhodes scholar, towering intellectual, pioneer of the art film movement in Karnataka, committed theatre worker, the author of two authentic contemporary Indian theatre masterpieces, Tughlak and Hayavadana, and all-round Cool Cat more known for his writing than his acting". If that is too long, consider this self-assessment. "I kept to myself, and stumbled upon that part of me which revels in being alone". Or this conclusion: "The utter fearlessness, the astounding physical and emotional agility with which he performed is a quality Shammi Kapoor shared with Hindi cinema's certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar". You also come across throwaway phrases like "beautiful waterfall of a voice".
NS studied at Aligarh Muslim University because he couldn't get admission anywhere else. A chapter is titled "The Aligarh University absurdities". He describes the University as "a hotbed of communal conservatism if not downright fundamentalism". When he arrived at his hostel, even as he was unpacking, senior students called him for namaaz. He notes: "I felt miffed at being compelled to pray when at the moment I had nothing to pray for".
This is the man Shiv Sena fanatics criticised in the name of religion for attending the function at which Sudheendra Kulkarni was black-inked. Naseeruddin later said it was the first time he became aware of his religious identity. The compartmentalisation of India gives no chance for non-religious individuals to be non-religious.