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.

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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.

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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.

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Sparsh (1980).
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With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.