Speaking for its place in my life, Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (Night’s End, 1975) could not have been more significant. “It’s the end,” I announced to my mother. “I cannot watch any more foolish cinema after this.”
Of course I did and still do watch foolish cinema, but at 15, I was overwhelmed. My mother was relieved to see the end of several kilogrammes of magazines and film star pictures being tossed away. As far as she was concerned, Nishant was an occupational therapy kit for a fanciful teenager specialising in mindlessness.
For long afterwards, I wondered what it was about Nishant that had hit me the hardest. Was it the feudal context and the gut-rattling story? Was it the treatment, so focused and devoid of superficial trappings? Was it the costumes and dialogue that made the characters part of a life I had vaguely read of ? Or was it the depiction of these characters by the most outstanding actors I had ever seen in Hindi cinema?
Naseeruddin Shah, the new actor with the long nose and long name, had made me realise how strong an actor must be if he is to play a weak character. Forty-odd years later I still see him, oiled head bent, mouth loose and helpless, fingers twitching at his dhoti as he looks at the half open door of a granary. There his inebriated, lascivious brothers had raped a schoolteacher’s wife, Sushila (Shabana Azmi) now caged for further amusement. Vishwam (Shah) is the youngest and much bullied scion of a zamindar family, locked in a possibly unconsummated marriage with Rukmini (Smita Patil). Desirous of Sushila, a woman he cannot defend nor bring himself to hurt or further disgrace, Vishwam’s struggle with himself ends as Sushila becomes his own special pet. Vishwam stops mumbling. He looks up when he is spoken to. At the violent climax of the story, Vishwam knows whom he must save.
Morphing into the feral Bhola in Benegal’s Manthan (1976), Shah gave me another insight into understanding performance: human indelicacies need not be excluded in the portrayal of characters on screen. Itching at clothes too tight, picking at his nails, ears and long nose, scruffy, loud mouthed Bhola is everything that the scrubbed and starched Vishwam is not. But it was Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980), in which Shah plays Bhaskar, an idealistic, defeated lawyer, that settled the case for me. A lifetime of Shah gazing had begun.
“The eyes have it,” I would summarise, using the title of Ruskin Bond’s short story. “Naseeruddin Shah’s characters are all about the way he looks at everyone – at everything around him.”
I still believe it is Shah’s eyes that make him such a captivating actor. For audiences, the half-wit Tungruz (Mandi, 1983) may be amusing, but Shah portrays him with eyes that are often dull pools of bewilderment and incomprehension. The insincere glint of the pretentious lover in Bhumika (1977) vanishes when Shah plays the earnest, honest to goodness boy next door in Katha (1983). And when, with a sinking heart, he confesses his adultery to his wife in Masoom (1984), Shah’s expression of guilt and remorse is unforgettable.
The voice has it too. Shah’s characters sound as different as they look. A favourite moment is the tangled telephone scene of Kundan Shah’s riotous satire, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), in which Shah, dressed in jackdaw black hat, coat and goggles hoarsely whispers codes and secrets. A triumphant, inimitable laugh brings the sequence to a raucous finish.
Later in the film, clad in a chest guard and silk dhoti, Shah strides onto the set of a play hilariously gone wrong. His moustache, crown and mace give him a ridiculous look, but it is the chanting of ad lib lines that brings the house down. But when Shah plays the eye-rolling subedar in Mirch Masala (1987), his laughter does not sound the same. It is manic and dangerously unfunny.
Shah takes deeper breaths and longer pauses as he plays senior and influential characters. In different contexts, on different sides of the law, Shah makes them sound different. Bhaisaab in Omkara (2006) is a bald-pated ganglord whose word is final, while the words of white-bearded Maulana Wali in Khuda Kay Liye (2007) hush a courtroom. On the other hand, even when he plays similarly sly old charmers (7 Khoon Maaf, 2011; Dedh Ishquiya, 2014), Shah never allows them to sound alike.
Since the body-building boom, audiences have seen less flab and more rippling muscles but not the suppleness of movement that Shah brings to the screen. Images of Naurangia in Paar (1984), stripped to the waist and fighting a raging river, are as indelible as those of Tungruz, squatting, crouching, climbing and coping with the monkey on his shoulder. Sparsh (1980) provides Shah with scope for finer movements as Anirudh, a blind schoolmaster who is unable to face up to a marriage with the woman he loves. Watching him wrestle with disability and insecurity reaffirms that the draw of a Naseeruddin Shah performance is that it never feels like one.