Shivaji, Gandhi, Ghalib and, if Argentinian filmmaker Pablo Cesar has his way, Tagore. Naseeruddin Shah has played a host of history-making heavyweights, and if he likes what Cesar has to offer, the thespian might play Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in a biopic that Cesar will make in 2016.
“The film is set in 1924 when Tagore is 63 and will be shot in Shanti Niketan and Argentina next summer,” Cesar said, revealing that the film, called Thinking of Him, will examine Tagore’s rumoured platonic relationship with Argentinian writer Victoria Ocamp. Cesar believes that only Shah can bring the poet alive and considers himself a fan of Shah’s work in such films as Junoon, Bhumika, Sparsh, Nishant and Manthan.
Shah has chased roles of historical personalities such as Mirza Ghalib and Mahatma Gandhi that he felt he could portray better than anybody else. Shah’s confidence was dashed in 1982, when he travelled to London to audition for the role of Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s biopic, but he didn’t get the part.
Reports in the Indian media claimed that Shah had been chosen to play Gandhi. “I later deducted that Ben [Kingsley] had in fact already been cast as Gandhi and this whole process of tom-tomming all of us being tested and sneaking the news to the press in India that I had been chosen was a masquerade conducted to pre-empt objections that inevitably would have arisen if a white actor were announced straightway,” Shah said in his memoir And Then One Day.
Shah also admitted he was “not enough skilled at that time as Ben Kingsley to have pulled it off the way he did”.
However, Shah’s dream became a reality in 2000 when he played the freedom fighter in Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram. It is a brief role, but one in which Shah gets the accent and the gait and comes a close second to Kingsley.
Shah has played several historical personages. In 2000, he portrayed the sixteenth-century painter Leonardo Da Vinci in Gajagamini without any reference from the painter-turned-director Maqbool Fida Hussain. “I could not comprehend or frame that film,” Shah said, adding that he wouldn’t recommend it to anyone to watch.
Another role that Shah passionately sought was the part of poet Mirza Ghalib, which Gulzar was originally planning with actor Sanjeev Kumar in the late 1970s. Shah recounts, “I had seen the 1954 movie on Ghalib with Mr Bharat Bhushan as Mirza Ghalib and then I heard in the 1970s that Gulzar Bhai was planning to make a movie on Ghalib and that he had cast Sanjeev Kumar in the lead and I wrote him a registered letter to say that he couldn’t do that. Anyone who has seen Satyajit Ray’s movie Shatranj ke Khilari (1977) will attest to that. Sanjeev Kumar was all wrong for that role, I mean he was a Gujarati, how can you cast him for a role like that? I should have been in that role. So I wrote to Gulzar Bhai saying he couldn’t cast Sanjeev Kumar for that role, he needed to cast me and of course I never heard back, this was when I was still a relative unknown and later Gulzar Bhai told me he never got the letter which was probably just as well.” Shah finally got the role in the television serial Mirza Ghalib (1988) that Gulzar directed for Doordarshan.
In Shyam Benegal’s television series Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, Shah played the seventeenth-century Maratha warrior king Shivaji without any impediment.