Review: And Then One Day - A Memoir by Naseeruddin Shah

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And Then One Day: A Memoir
My earliest memories of watching Naseeruddin Shah are of him tearing through a film poster on television and mouthing the dialogue “phata poster nikla hero” in Hero Hiralal. I didn’t know who he was and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became somewhat aware of his oeuvre of theatre and movies alike – not the dishoom dishoom kind but the alternative kind. A friend, during his internship, bumped into him in a lift. When you watch theatre actors in movies, you can more or less make them out – spotting them is easy as they bring out the character with a realistic portrayal – sometimes however they overdo it as well. His Dear Liar with Ratna Pathak was an eye opener for me as I didn’t have the faintest of an idea that his English could be so good that he could remember long, witty dialogues enacting G.B. Shaw. It only reflected upon my lack of awareness of the world around me.

And Then One Day is a candid memoir of his first 32 years, from being born in Barabanki to tasting relatively sweet successes of films and theatre. Our view over the years change – and they change about almost everything if not everything. So do his. But in his case the ambiguity started right from the beginning, as he recalls, “I was born in July of the year 1949 or maybe it was August of the year 1950”. His father, who was with the Provincial Civil Service and later the administrator of the Moinuddin Chisti shrine in Ajmer, is a central figure in his life – even though he could never connect with him at a level at which he did when he lay dead buried in the ground. At times his admissions are funny, at times ignores the overhanging sadness of events and at times thoughtful. One may not agree with all of his reflections on life, but the autobiography does make for a blaringly truthful account not mincing words or shying away from mentioning memorable incidents.

His father and mother “were from different branches of the same family, spawned by Agha Syed Mohammed Shah, a soldier of fortune from Paghman, near Kabul, who arrived in India sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century, fought for the British in the 1857 War of Independence”. His family consisted of interesting characters – his maternal uncles, mamu, being the brave, wild hearted ones; his talkative and loving aunts; the playful cousins; and his own two brothers – one of whom went to IIT and the other in the defence sector of India. His father’s attempts at getting him ‘properly’ educated by pushing for medicine, engineering, law and even civil services failed. His education was at Christian schools and which now explains how he could he be so good in Dear Liar – he wasn’t an actor coming from a family not ingrained it the ways of the English. His own father used to always dress up in a hat and liked English over Hindi or Urdu or Farsi, which was much in use before the British stamped it out. He did have a decently adventurous childhood with his three mamu in tow – hunting expeditions, boarding school, theatre and even failing in the 9th standard and repeating it. He later joined Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and then National School of Drama at Delhi. At AMU, he met and fell in love with Purveen who was 14 years elder to him and got married to her – also because she had stayed with his father from Pakistan and needed Indian nationality. However the coming of a child, Heeba, did spoil things for him – he was after all only 21 years old and had already joined NSD.

He hardly hides anything from the reader – the boyish grin of looking at legs of girls and teachers, his first ‘encounter’ with prostitutes and later often visiting Falkland Road in Bombay, the ‘open’ culture at NSD with common hostel for boys and girls and his experiences at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, his getting stoned with Marijuana and LSD. His friendships with many theatre artists and even getting Rajendra Jaspal to become a starch enemy of his and even stabbing him with a knife in his back and getting saved from another one with timely intervention from Om Puri. His struggles of searching for roles in the film industry at the age of sixteen and sleeping at bus stops and factories stand testimony to his madness of making firm his steps in a career oriented towards acting. His coming in touch with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant proved fortuitously lucky – opened the sluice gates for the alternative films for him, nonetheless he worked in mainstream ones as well but he still detests most of them till date. His collaboration with Ebrahim Alkazi, Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi and countless others are stories he regales us with great enthusiasm. He attended Jerzy Grotowski’s workshop in Poland which turned out to have nothing about acting at all, as per him and seemed like a waste of money and time.

He gleefully admits that he hasn’t had to do movies for money but only because he liked acting, but also contradicts himself when he writes that he accepted so and so roles only because of money. At many places the editing is missing in action as one can spot missing grammatical constructs and misspellings. His attempts at being pensive and thoughtful about acting and relating to life aren’t very clearly written and often end without explaining in detail what they meant. My own conjured up image of an unblemished aura of the man “yours truly” has diminished somewhat as I now am much more aware of the flesh and blood of the man. His comparison of Satyadev Dubey and Alkazi does give a reader an opportunity to look into the mind of a theatre actor. He laments how people like Shriram Lagoo are known only for their character based roles in films, while totally being ignored for their body of work in theatre. His relationship with daughter Heeba was odd when she was too young to make sense of the world around her, but then she went to London with her mother Purveen and later to Iran, where the Ayatollah’s coming to power resulted in a subdued lifestyle. Heeba comes to India under the wings of his father, who by now is married to Ratna. He lauds Ratna for being the generous partner and understanding him all throughout.

An amusing, but not wonderful, memoir of one of fine Indian actor.

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