By Sonya Rehman
Closing his car door shut, he swiftly walks to the gate of the residence (where he’s currently staying in Lahore) and lifts the latch, pushing the gate open. On a dark, dimly lit street he could be anyone. But then as he begins walking towards me, lightly smiling, I see his face clearly as it catches the swift glare from a whizzing little contraption’s headlights as it speeds down the street behind us.
The Bollywood luminary still has it. Naseeruddin Shah is an unconventionally handsome man, with one of those open-book, empathetic faces. Dressed in dark jeans and a rust coloured button down shirt, his hair and moustache are dyed a faint orange – perhaps for his role in ‘Zinda Bhaag’ – Shah’s second Pakistani movie for which he is in Lahore for.
Seated on an old, homey, cream-coloured couch, the actor is anything but aloof and reticent. Infact, he’s rather chatty, lightly joking here and there – throughout the interview – in an understatedly charming way.
Could you tell me a little about the movie you’re working on?
The movie’s called ‘Zinda Bhaag’ – it’s directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, a pair of Directors. Mazhar Zaidi [the Producer] got in touch with me about six months ago and asked me if I was interested in doing a Pakistani movie. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, frankly, to come back and work here. The experience of ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ was wonderful, I could not do ‘Bol’ because I had other commitments, but I really felt very happy at the success of the film. So I just wanted an excuse to come back [Laughs].
What’s your role all about in ‘Zinda Bhaag?’
I’m playing a sleaze ball called ‘Pehalwan’ who is an agent, who helps kids immigrate illegally and runs a gambling den…very mean and evil – I love playing characters like that.
I heard the movie is in Punjabi – was there a language barrier for you?
Well I don’t speak Punjabi but I’ve heard it a great deal, having lived in Delhi and having a number of Punjabi friends – so it wasn’t as difficult as I’d feared. When Mazhar first gave me one scene to read, I thought it was only one scene, so I happily said yes [Chuckles], and then I realized there were a number of scenes, but I didn’t have too much difficulty with it. I also spent a great deal of time practicing before I came here.
So far what has your experience been like working with the team?
Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. It’s very heartening that there are a number of young people who don’t want to conform and who want to make movies which are meaningful. I don’t subscribe to the notion of movies as ‘art,’ – I don’t think they’re art – but what’s important is that there are a number of people in Pakistan today who want to make movies about the state of the country as it is, and that is something that can only be done via movies. To capture life exactly as it is. And that’s why I felt it was my responsibility to be a part of this film and help get things moving around here because the movie industry is in the doldrums – and whatever there was by way of an industry is kind of petering out – the Punjabi revenge dramas…
Do you still think there is potential vis-à-vis this new crop of Directors?
Absolutely, absolutely. If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t be here. I have great hope. Infact I would go so far as to saying that great movies will emerge from Pakistan in the future.
This is your second Pakistani movie that you’re acting in, what spoke to you about the story of this movie – what compelled you to take upon this role?
I didn’t actually know what the role was or what the film was, but Mazhar gave me a brief – a synopsis, and the fact that the movie was being made by a bunch of young enthusiasts on a shoe-string budget, in very difficult circumstances, made me feel that this was the kind of project I should extend a helping hand to. And thus I became part of it [Pauses], even if on later reading the script I had been disappointed, I still would have done it – though I wasn’t. I loved the script when I read the final script and I felt that I’d love to be a part of this movie. It was just up my alley, this kind of film.
Maybe this was a rumour, but I heard you came to Pakistan, originally, to give a workshop to the actors in this movie. Is that correct?
So how did you get roped in?
Oh the actors – that were chosen by Meenu and Farjad – were already committed to act in the film. Three of them, haven’t acted before – one of the gentlemen whose done acting for Ajoka and a young girl who’s a famous model apparently (Amna). So I did a session with them for about a week. I hope it had some benefit, but it was basically (particularly these three boys who are playing the central characters) to make them lose their inhibitions and not feel so utterly terrified at the prospect of performing infront of a camera. And I needed that time myself to absorb the sound of the language spoken here and to be able to speak like that.
As an artist from India, what’s your take on this entire cross-cultural exchange of artists between India and Pakistan?
It has to increase. It has to go on. And it can only happen on an inter-personal level, it’s too much to expect joint ventures and collaborative efforts and so on…that’s not going to happen because that depends on the political climate. But on a one to one level I know for a fact that people in India are dieing to be in contact with the people in Pakistan, and coming here, I realize that it’s the same thing here. It’s just politics that’s keeping us apart and therefore I don’t want to start a movement – all I’m doing is hopefully setting an example by coming here myself and working in projects like this. I hope it encourages people from Pakistan to come to India, not with the dream of Bollywood in their eyes! You know, but with the desire to open up frontiers a bit.
Your peers back in Bollywood, what was their reaction to your role in ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ and the fact that you’re doing your second Pakistani movie?
I don’t really give much importance to that. They appreciated ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ – ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ was appreciated more than I expected it to be in India, and not only by the Muslims, by all sorts of people. They all appreciated that I’d done that part – I did get a couple of letters saying that I was talking nonsense and so on, which I didn’t attach any importance to. But about my coming for this film, I don’t think anybody knows about it, even in Pakistan we’ve tried to not make news because I wanted to get the work over with – I didn’t want to be giving interviews in the middle of work.
For the public the first question that arises would be, and I’m just saying this sincerely because I’m intrigued, but an artist of your caliber – why do you feel compelled to help the Pakistani film industry?
I don’t consider it to be helping the Pakistani film industry [Chuckles], I wouldn’t like to pose as being that magnanimous, it’s just a question of participating in projects which you feel compelled to do. I feel very strongly…I have nothing against cinema, I don’t watch it – particularly the Hindi movies – but I know that lots of people do and they love it and so that’s fine where it is. I also make use of it whenever it’s convenient for me, I do one of those kinds of films a year and stock up my bank balance so the rest of the year I can do what I feel like doing. Hindi movies I can’t stand…
…Is that off the record?
No it’s not off the record, it’s on the record. I’m exploiting them. I’m very proud of saying that [Laughs]. So the reason I feel compelled to do this is not because I’m offered challenging roles, or because I don’t like money or anything of the sort – it’s because I feel it’s our responsibility as serious-minded people to make films which truthfully reflect the times.
In your opinion can cinema and movies, can artists, can actors, really change a society’s mindset?
No we can’t. We’re over-estimating our importance by saying that. I don’t think it can. Cinema is not a medium of change; documentaries perhaps can effect people’s conscience, feature films – no. Its important function is as a record of the times because it’s only cinema which can do that. Writing can’t do it, music can’t do it, photography can’t do it, painting can’t do it, choreography can’t do it…because sooner or later they have to resort to abstraction to make their point. Theatre can’t do it. Cinema can do it. It can capture life as it is.
You’ve visited Pakistan quite often; this is your fifth visit. What’s it been like? Have you had a chance to tour Lahore?
This time I was able to go around a little bit. I went to Taxila and Islamabad and we went to a couple of rural areas around Lahore which was quite fascinating…
What about the people…
They’re just gorgeous. Just gorgeous. They still have an innocence which we’ve lost, in India. And I see it all over the place – it’s very endearing, very charming, and the amount of appreciation and affection I’ve received here, it really touches me. I receive a lot of prayers from people here.