A consummate stylist on the page and on the stage

Human memory is a thing of marvel. It allows us the luxury to make time malleable. This ability to recall, visiting the past while being in the present, is not only extraordinary, but also machine-like. But unlike machines, unencumbered with biases or transformations, we change over time, and so does our engagement with the past. Empowered by information in the present, we, at times, see the past in a renewed light and, unwittingly, distort it. The new, manufactured memory, then, is not an account of how things happened, but how we would have liked them to happen. And that’s fine because, for all our failings, we at least deserve to be heroes in our own stories.

Naseeruddin Shah begins his memoir, And Then One Day (chronicling his first 33 years), by recounting his earliest memory that he hasn’t been able to forget — one that keeps coming back to him. Shah talks about an onstage performance he saw as a two-year-old. “What has stayed burned into my mind is the thickly painted face of a person up there I got mesmerised by — dancing on top of a very high platform, his face alight, his eyes darting like agitated snakes. A singular course of excitement coursed through me whenever, body contorting and eye balls slithering, he looked towards me, which seemed to be most of the time. I remember almost absolutely nothing from this day, and” — he reveals — “I sometimes do wonder if this is a memory I have invented.” Shah will never get an answer to that question because shared memories have the luxury of verification; individual memories do not. Shah’s confession about the fallibility of his memory, and subsequent revelations about him frequently “inventing” fictitious worlds to humour his listless adolescent self, lends a fascinating edge to this memoir. Because a memoir, among other things, is also an ode to remembrance; so how do you react to the recounts of a man, who is telling you a story drawn from his memory — one that has frequently juggled real and make-believe world in the past? It’s akin to listening to an unreliable narrator, who’s himself, at times, uncertain of the extent of his unreliability.

Accustomed to watching Hollywood classics in school, Shah believed he wasn’t good looking enough to be an actor. His side profile, for instance, was of “a mousy-looking guy with a very small chin and a very big nose, unruly hair growing almost into his eyebrows, small crinkled, frightened eyes.” And then one day he saw The Old Man and the Sea. The fisherman in the film, the actor Spencer Tracy, looked “so real, he smelt of the sea”. It was a revelation for Shah: “I now just had to know whether I at least had these qualities… ” These lines speak volumes about the psyche of an aspiring actor, who is also perennially riddled with self doubts because he’s an outsider. But moved by a moment of clarity, he musters enough courage to finally embrace the medium because something assures him that films are not such a make-believe world after all; that some actors on screen do belong to a space that’s real, tangible and achievable. Shah’s ingenuity as a writer, here, lies in his seamless blending of the personal with the professional. He hasn’t shoehorned his ambitions as an actor separately; that passage just sits there quietly, sharing space with his other life stories — of him losing virginity at the age of 15; running off to Bombay to become a “filmstar”, and returning back dejected; enduring the “absurdists” at the Aligarh Muslim University.

Shah’s other potent strength as a writer lies in his remarkable detachedness, at times even from his own self. He writes with unusual equanimity about his cold indifference towards his first daughter, Heeba. Shah could well have been writing about someone else, someone he only fleeting knew — this uncanny ability to step out of yourself and see your life like how a stranger would is an ability that can’t be taught. Because you can’t be taught to bare your insecurities on the page, especially about a memory as intimate and as scarred as failed fatherhood. Besides, this confession acquires a new meaning when you realise that Shah was himself, according to him, a son to a disapproving, condescending, cold father. For a brief while, And Then One Day becomes a story of two fathers, ones who were supposed to take care of their children, but who ended up betraying the people they were supposed to look after. Shah perhaps doesn’t make a deal about it because, to varying degrees, we regularly fail to do what’s right. We try our best to not become the people we have been disappointed by, but that’s, ultimately, just a wish, and we often end up embodying the disappointment we were once so averse to.

Naseeruddin Shah

In Shah’s world, lovers are often a disappointing memory, plotting their future before figuring out their present; school teachers are unrelenting taskmasters; college teachers, ones at National School of Drama (NSD) and Film Television Institute of India (FTII), are a little more discerning, but not unaware of placing their own interests before their students’; these are textbook flawed characters, always trying to emerge victors by manufacturing conflicts and misgivings. But the most chilling segment in the book features Shah’s relationship with his NSD and FTII friend Rajendra Jaspal. It’s a story whose echoes can be found in many close-knit male companionships: it begins with a slow merging of the identities of two friends, where one blissfully deludes the other that they are in it together, that it is the outside world that’s different, that’s out to get them. But, of course, it’s a lie that soon runs its course. The falling out too, then, comes with its own tinge of romanticism — something similar happened between Jaspal and Shah. From being “referred to as one person: ‘Jaspal/Shah’” in NSD, the two had a falling out years later when Jaspal accused Shah of being a “sell out”. According to Jaspal, Shah betrayed the actors’ strike at FTII, an accusation the latter refutes in his book. But, sadly, that wasn’t the end of their relationship or Jaspal’s story. Jaspal soon descended into a drug-addled paranoia, which culminated in him trying to murder Shah. Since this is not a journalistic account, you aren’t going to get Jaspal’s version, and Shah, interestingly, is not his usual nonchalant self in these portions; instead, he’s carefully defending himself so the reader’s takeaway from these bits isn’t coloured with doubt, or the possibility of an alternate version. The most disconcerting part about this segment is that we don’t know what pushed Jaspal off the edge; we just know that a promising actor became a man possessed. Good actors can often become whoever they want to be; Jaspal couldn’t become an actor; heck, he couldn’t even become a murderer, but he at least left Shah a story to tell — one where he is both the wronged and the survivor. In fact, come to think of it, it’s one of the few stories in his memoir that makes Shah look unequivocally good.

Shah barely spares anyone in his memoir: be it teachers, peers, institutions, Bollywood, even friends, lovers and “serious” films, and it’s hardly surprising, given he’s usually forthcoming in his interviews. This constant condescension, however, could have become tiring, but Shah skirts around this potential stumbling block masterfully: first, by being self-deprecating (he frequently describes himself as someone who was full of himself and an “arrogant loud mouth”), thereby alternately being the one who is both ridiculing and being ridiculed, and second, by adopting an irreverently humorous tone, so even the most unsparing, mordant gibes have a takeaway — a chuckle or, in some case, a guffaw.

So, in that case, Shah talking about popular Hindi cinema, and his place in it hold a lot of promise, because there’s a possibility of an abrasive takedown. And, as expected, Shah doesn’t disappoint or veil his insults. He, for instance, singles out Sholay, making an example of it, by first casting aspersions on its originality, and later pointing out its other notable flaws. “I could identify the source of almost every scene — not only Spaghetti Westerns this time but blithe borrowings from Hollywood. (…) What someone should research is what it was that caused this failure to become the most successful Hindi movie of all time.” For someone who despised the mechanics of mainstream Bollywood films, but also wanted to sustain himself as an actor, Shah couldn’t completely erase Bollywood from his mind either. His love-hate relationship with Bollywood, a symbol of dominance, which awarded conformity over dissent, wasn’t too dissimilar with the kind of bond he shared with his father: one that didn’t border on the hatred, but was underlined by a sheer disconnect and, consequently, his indifference to do anything about it. “My attitude to Hindi cinema turned even more condescending, possibly because I couldn’t see myself fitting in it. I was resentful in advance of being cast in roles it would hurt my ego to have to play. (…) Though I have to say that the thought that I was not qualified to be the lead in popular movies pinched greatly,” he writes, “so this reaction was very possibly my defence mechanism working in advance to counter the rejection I anticipated.” It’s interesting, this endless and long-standing debate on the difference between a good actor and a commanding star. What frequently gets lost in these discourses is the recognition that an actor and a star are often separate entities, tailored to markedly different ambitions and skills. Shah chimes in with his two cents on the debate in the closing segment of the book. “I began to realise that being so appallingly bad in my early commercial movies was not entirely my fault. The only two who could make the schmaltzy Hindi film dialogue and ersatz situations believable were Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan and I was nowhere in their league,” writes Shah. “Being effective in popular movies requires a certain kind of sensibility and an unshakeable belief in them, neither of which I possessed.” But this world would be too drab a place if everyone were doing and saying the same thing; which is why we need the misfits. We already have enough people who are fixated on smoothening the edges all the time; we also need someone who will make the dent.

A shorter version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian

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