Naseeruddin Shah doesn’t believe in mincing words; much like the eccentric, oddball characters that he portrays on the silver screen.
Some may perceive this as a dangerous trait to wear as a chip on the shoulder in the fickle world of Indian cinema, but Shah is not one to cower away from calling a spade by its given name; even getting in a few digs as he yields it with aplomb.
The actor, who is currently in Dubai for the premiere of his Pakistani film ‘Zinda Bhaag’ and a three-day theatre fiesta alongside wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heba Shah, professes satisfaction over the success of his latest Bollywood film ‘Dedh Ishqiya’, but doesn’t shy away from slamming the Bollywood cartels that are running this success down to the ground.
Speaking to Emirates 24|7 in a candid chat, Shah said: “’Dedh Ishqiya’ is not pure Bollywood. In fact, Bollywood has been quick to knock it down because the film does not conform to its nonsensical formula that dumb down the audience.”
The film, which is currently playing in UAE cinemas and has received the thumbs up from critics, is being “run down” by the Bollywood circle, with Shah saying in his own words: “‘Dedh Ishqiya’ is a film that does not demean the audience or its intelligence, while being thoroughly entertaining at the same time.
“No regular Bollywood film has explored relationships in this way. And the majority of Bollywood is resentful of the success of this film and take every opportunity to run it down by saying it is not good as the first one or hasn’t earned as much money.
“I say it’s better than the first one; a cut above the Bollywood poison.”
‘Zinda Bhaag’, which is the latest offering by Shah, is a Punjabi-Urdu language, Pakistani film, which was first showcased at last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October.
Talking further about the “Bollywood poison” that has infiltrated Indian cinema, Shah said he has been consciously choosing scripts that move away from such propaganda.
“By Bollywood poison, I mean the jingoistic nonsense regarding Pakistan that Bollywood films propagate,” he professed. “In turn, Pakistan is now retaliating by making a film like ‘Waar’.”
Another film that was showcased in Dubai with a special premiere, Shah slammed the Pakistani venture by calling it “a rubbish film.”
He continued: “Just because a film has good photography does not make it good one. Take ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. It was totally a false film, ultimately fake in every way and resorts to Pakistani bashing in the end.
“I don’t think even the audience realise how insidious this kind of thing is.”
Explaining his stance against a movie that has won its lead actor, Farhan Akhtar a Best Actor trophy at the recent film awards, Shah said: “What was the need to bring in a Pakistani runner who Milkha Singh (the real-life sports personality the film is based on) defeats in the end? Is that what the film is about? No. It’s about Milkha coming fourth in the Olympics. It should have been a psychological study of the man. Instead it was turned into a potboiler.”
‘I have 35 films that never released’
Shah admits that ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ is the latest “song and dance” film he has walked out of, while lauding the efforts of movies such as ‘The Lunchbox’ and ‘Ship of Thesus’.
So where does Indian cinema fail in his eyes?
The 63-year-old actor is quick to respond, saying: “The problem lies in using tried and tested formulas without any compunction. It continues to churn out mindless stuff while blaming the audience for wanting it. I think the audience is fed up of it. They want and are ready for films like ‘The Lunchbox’ and ‘Ship of Thesus’.
“But producers cannot supply such films because that means cutting down on the hundreds of millions they make on a film. It is very anger inducing.”
Even as child, Shah admitted that was he was never sold on Bombay Hindi Cinema, calling it “rather silly” even in his impressionable years.
He continued: “We are light years behind what the rest of the world is making. We are trying to ape Hollywood’s superficialities. It’s different being inspired by work and just blindly imitating.
“And now Pakistani cinema is imitating Bombay cinema, so it is a vicious circle we are caught up in.”
The actor in him believes the answer lies in not contesting the big Bollywood movies, but rather finding work that is meaningful.
“A film like ‘Masoom’ is an ideal film,” he said. “It was made 35 years ago and is still talked about today. The first film of mine they always mention. It introduced me to three generations of children that like me because of it.”
Talking about his latest ‘Zinda Bhaag’ he explains why he chose the film in the first place, saying: “The film is made by a group of young Pakistani people that wanted to make a truthful film about the state of affairs in their country and not making a potboiler, resorting to formulae.
“They are tackling a subject of great importance, which showcases young men and women of Pakistan running away to a nebulous future somewhere instead of staying on and contributing to their country.
“It’s a problem we in India also face, except it’s the more educated people that keep running away. In Pakistan it’s the unemployed youth who see a dead end in their lives.”
For fans of Shah who wonder why this film has received a delayed global release, the actor responded: “Because I am not the biggest box office name and the rest are unknown actors and filmmakers. People don’t gamble on such a project. It’s not new territory for me. I have a list of 35 films in India that have never released.”
He continued: “These 35 are completed unreleased movies lying in the cans in some warehouse somewhere.”
Salman Khan’s politics
These days, Shah is also angered by the Saifai fiasco that occurred earlier this month, which saw actors such as Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt and other receive a lot of flak for dancing at a stage show in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, while people are suffering from hardships in neighbouring Muzzafarnagar camps.
Quiz him about this latest controversy and the politics behind it, and Shah states: “I don’t think of our big stars have any particularly strong political beliefs. The fact that Salman Khan can say I was paid to go and dance at Saifai, I am only an actor, it shows his politics.
“It betrays his politics. How can you possibly do a thing like that? Are you so blind to what’s happening in UP itself? And it was stupid of the government to host an event like that.”
Pointing out that his ‘Dedh Ishqiya’co-star Dixit was also at the event performing, he added: “Misguided enthusiasm is all I can categorise it as. They have no excuse.
“And I don’t believe any one has donated that money to charity. If they had donated it... if the UP chief minister, Akilesh Yadav really wanted to show a hand of good faith, he should have taken that money and used it towards the Muzzafarnagar relief camps.
“I don’t think it even occurred to anyone of them. I mean come on, Rs10 million is small change for Salman Khan.”
Yet while at one end the politics of some fellow actors upsets him, Shah was all praises for the movement of India’s latest Aam Aadmi Party, saying: “AAP is fantastic. I hope Kejriwal is not living in too much of a delusion but his ideas are bang on the button. And he seems determined. I am all for AAP.”