on the actor's trail

The draw of a Naseeruddin Shah performance is that it never feels like one

Has any other Indian performer made acting look so effortless?

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.

Play
Nishant (1975).

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.

Play
Aakrosh (1980).

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.

Play
Sparsh (1980).
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.