Naseeruddin Shah: the fox is cleverer than the lion

Publié le 13 Mai 2008


I’ve been longing to write that LetsTalkAboutBollywood article about Naseeruddin Shah for a long time. He’s one of my favourite Indian actors, if not my favourite. Okay, let’s say he is my favourite actor (alive). I suppose it’s natural to take sides, so there, I prefer the fox to the lion. The lion’s beauty is a treat to watch, you stand straight when you watch him. But the fox’s cunning makes you duck and dodge, to see what’s behind, or inside, and that’s more my style. Everybody will agree that Amitabh is the lion: he’s the old king of Bollywood, as yet uncrowned. But Naseer is Foxy Loxy, the clever charmer, the unassuming jester, the cunning fooler. Naseer can do what he likes, the way he likes. He’s got that little wily face, those rodent’s eyes, that powerful and deadly jaw that can bite through any role and chew any text. Looking at him you think: “What a nice little man” But in fact he’s a devil. He’ll make believe you’re saved even though you’re damned, and will do so with that little absent-looking expression.  Wouldn’t you say that he’s half there and half not there?

A 1999 article calls him “Mr Chameleon”, and that’s noted everywhere. Shah’s versatility is renowned and deservedly praised. “It is this seemingly effortless ability to slip under any character's skin that has always ensured his success. Shah proudly says that he has no niche: "I have managed to avoid the trap.” No doubt, I’d say: you don’t trap the fox, he’s the one who traps you, and laughs his way out. “Grinning because he knows he has played all parts-from the libidinous villain and blind school principal to the famished villager and beefy weightlifter-picking up several trophies in the process, including a best actor award for Paar at the 1984 Venice Film Festival.” Here are a few pulloffs from this many-facetted crafty craftsman:

One of the best roles I’ve seen him in was that of the Subedar, the nazi-like overweening prig in Mirch Masala. It is in such roles that you see all his creativity, all his power. Somehow playing villains enables him to implement the buffoonery which acting always contains up to a certain extent, and which he feels capable of expressing perhaps more than others. In Masoom, we see him as the vulnerable and complex father who shifts from love to guilt, and has to learn to bear the awful weight of a truth made ten times more painful because he thought it simpler to hide years ago. The bland faces and awkward moves, the soulful eyes, the poignant silences: all testify to his great talent here too. In 3 Dewaarein, he’s Ishaan, the slippery conman, the elusive master trickster who steals the show continuously: he’s at the top of his art there. There’s a scene in which he dresses up as a dead man, and disappears in a James Bond-like manner, and yet is caught at the end by the black eyes of revenge (Juhi Chawla the avenger!): too many trap-laying makes one forget that others too can lay traps. That film really demonstrates his utter foxiness! One last example: Monsoon Wedding. Here, Shah is no trickster, but as the courageous defender of a wronged daughter, he has to face the all-powerful Uncle who has done everything for the family, including incest… A role that demonstrates his commitment to important causes, we’ll come back to this in a while.


I’ve always wondered whether there wasn’t something feminine in Naseer: perhaps it’s his smallish physique, perhaps his round features. In fact, when I look at his pictures, I see no femininity. He’s a guy all right! Perhaps it’s his way of acting then? There’s something fluid and easy-going in the way he acts, a naturalness, a presence, and also an absence of swaggering and machismo. It could also come from the way he adapts to his roles so fully, never caring about the loss of his own identity, something very few actors in Bollywood manage to do (even Amitabh has a tendency to remain Amitabh, I feel he’s more and more reluctant to let go of that cherished self-image of his). Naseer is more feminine in the sense that he doesn’t cling to his persona, like so many male actors do. In fact, I’m sure he’d be extremely successful in a transvestite role! (Not that I particularly wish to see him in such a role, but if there’s somebody who could do it, it’s him)

Most of you probably know that he is a theatre actor down deep, and that he regularly plays on stage. He has his own theatre company, the Motley Company (see here), he’s played for Peter Brook, and I wish he would also play for other world-renowned directors. In fact, when you study Naseer’s profile, he’s one of the rare Indian actors I know for whom I wouldn’t need to strain my praise and build some sort of half-category that pro-Bollywood affirmative action so easily justifies. Let’s say the truth, for once: Naseeruddin Shah is a good actor, but no more than Robert de Niro or Dustin Hoffman. Probably less, in fact. Yet he can suffer the comparison, something that almost nobody can do in today’s Indian Cinema. Aamir Khan has real presence, but is too self-centered; so is Shahrukh; Ajay Devgan’s scope is too limited. I haven’t seen Abhishek recently, but he strikes as too green for the moment. Most of them simply have to learn to act! I have only looked at some of the men, but apart from the one or two exceptions, the same could probably be said of the actresses. The problem is that the Indian cinema is still MUCH too India-oriented. Why would they make a crucifying effort at self-redefinition when a billion spectators are there to watch them strut, dance and sing? Who among them would be capable of dying that awful wriggling death that Shah performs in Sarfarosh? Not very pleasant in terms of hero-worship.

I am wondering if much of his talent doesn’t come from the fact that he isn’t a sex-symbol, and has had to fight to exist as an actor. Most of the young actors out there are remarkable for their good looks (to say nothing of the girls…): they just don’t need to be good. But if you’re not a pretty face, and you want to be noticed and have money bet on you, you’ve got to attract the money in some other way, talent for example. Somebody who is thinking at how to use his own drama company to reflect upon the political situation of the country where he lives – this would sound almost banal in Europe. But that’s something Naseeruddin Shah has been doing for a long time (see Playing tough). In that field and in others, I can’t see anybody following suit quite yet. 


Here's a video where Naseer speaks about felow actors and inadvertantly, about himself too!

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Bollywood Talk

Pour être informé des derniers articles, inscrivez vous :
Commenter cet article

Hi again Yves, I do think Naseeruddin Shah has great diction.Just like you have a thousand accents of English, accents amongst the native-speakers as well as foreign accents, Hindi also comes in
a thousand different accents. And just like the Queen's English is incomparable, there is this particular upper-class, Hindi-belt (native Hindi speakers) language which sends thrills of
pleasure through my spine :)  I admit, I am a language-snob :) As to the actors with great Hindi diction, I would promptly name Amitabh Bacchan - his VERY upper-class, well educated
Ilahabadi Hindi is peerless (listen to his poetry recitation in Kabhi Kabhie - his father was a great poet and Amitabh knows exactly how to recite poetry to maximum effect). THAT
is Hindi as it should be spoken but seldom is. The Hindi film industry is run from Mumbai and Bumbaiyya Hindi is to Ilahabadi/Luckhnawi Hindi what cockney is to the
Queen's English. People who have theatre backgrounds seem to have a decent diction like Saeed Jaffrey, Dina Pathak etc. I never could stand Raaj Kumar but he was known for his Hindi. Dilip
Kumar had excellent language skills too. Amongst the women, your favourites Nutan and Waheeda have excellent diction. On the other hand, people like Dharmendra, who is Punjabi with a strong
accent or Hema Malini, a Tamil with an equally strong accent are good examples of what Hindi should NOT sound like :) Very successful stars, both of them, inspite of their lack of good Hindi. The
Hindi in the current movies is so bastardized that I suppose good language skills are not needed.. Still Shah Rukh Khan is not too bad. The girls are all too anglisized, terrible Hindi uniformly!
Amongst all this, one musn't forget the singers like Mohammed Rafi (oooooooooohh....his enunciation! his pronuciation!he makes love to words :) and even Udit Narayan whose excellent diction makes
us think that the actors lip-synching have equally good Hindi !

Cheers, Suja


Yes, I'm sure now: you definitely should have a cinema blog! Because this message you wrote is just incredible! I'm sure many other readers would love your insight into such fascinating
differences! Thanks for having taken pains to write it! And what a pity that my poor knowledge of hindi bars me such a wealth of nuances! For example, I listened through Amitabh's recitation of
his poetry in Kabhie Kabhie: I had no way of appreciating what I nevertheless was hearing! For me it was just some poetry which I had to rush to understand thanks to the subbtitles!

So just let me know when you start :-) I'll make sure you have all the readers you deserve!

PS: I hadn't read the last message stating about your music blog when I wrote all this...


I am in total agreement with you here ! Naseeruddin Shah delivers roles with a brilliance that makes him memorable even in non-memorable movies. I recently saw Ishqiya, just because he is there
(and also because the music is good). I was SO angry with the film makers for taking talented people like him, Arshad Warsi and Vidya Balan and still not delivering a good film. What a waste !!
Its a crying shame. But there is this scene, when he is falling in love with this much younger woman, and his eyes...his eyes speak!

Like everybody, I too admire the beautiful people of the Indian film industry. But perhaps you underestimate the attractiveness of a man who can emote romance through his eyes alone :) I saw
Masoom soon after it was released as a young woman. To this day, I remember the way Naseer looked at his women. And Shabana, I will always remember how she carried herself..the dignity, one
should all aspire for. As for Naseer, his beautiful diction of Hindi is very VERY attractive, i can assure you. So no, not a sex symbol, nor a handsome man, but an infinitely attractive man of
many layers.



This is an appreciation that touches me more than you can imagine. I have for the moment left aside those actor reviews and realise I loved to do them. You mention Masoom, which I have
not reviewed, but thoroughly enjoyed (so one day maybe...); there would be many other Naseer movies which would deserve a treatment apt to render justice to his skill. And I was particularly
touched by your compliment concerning his diction: would you say that certain actors have an "ugly" diction of Hindi? Who else according to you shares this quality? I try my best to follow the
language in the movies (have been teaching myself the language for four years now), but of course I have trouble distinguishing between a proper and an improper pronounciation of the language!

Thanks for your comments and encouragement.


Je n'avais pas vu ton superbe article sur Aakrosh !

Le problème de Party, c'est que c'est l'adaptation d'une pièce de théâtre très théorique sur la littérature et l'engagement. ça ne rend pas très bien à l'écran, et les personnages ne sont guère
plus que l'incarnation de thèses.

Des trois films de Govind Nihalani que j'ai vus (Aakrosh, Party et Ardh Satya -dans lequel Naseeruddin Shah a aussi un petit rôle), c'est le seul que je n'ai pas aimé.


Bonne fin d'année à toi aussi !


Merci A2line pour Aakrosh, dont le souvenir est toujours vif, car l'espèce de violence sourde, et le sentiment d'impuissance ont rarement été si bien rendus. En plus, c'est un film qui est encore
d'actualité, au vu des difficultés que l'Inde rencontre encore aujourd'hui dans sa gestion du problème des naxalites et celui des Adivasis.


Bonsoir Yves,

Naseer sahab est un de mes acteurs préférés ! Il m'arrive de regarder un film simplement parce qu'il figure au générique. Avec parfois quelques surprises : son apparition très marquante
(traumatisante, en fait) dans Party (Govind Nihalani) est sans doute tout ce que je retiendrais d'un film terriblement bavard, mais il n'est à l'écran qu'une trentaine de secondes en tout !

As-tu finalement vu Sparsh ? Il est absolument excellent dedans, dans le rôle du directeur aveugle d'une école pour non-voyants, et le film est n'est pas mal du tout. Et c'est l'occasion de le
revoir avec Shabana Azmi !

Il est bien dans Aakrosh aussi, face à Om Puri (à mon avis un autre très grand acteur à qui le cinéma indien d'aujourd'hui n'arrive plus à donner de bons rôles), et à Amrish Puri qui joue un rôle
plus nuancé qu'à l'ordinaire.

Plus récemment, il a joué dans le film américain "Today's special", qui n'a pas l'air d'une originalité folle :





Salut A2line,

Merci de ta visite, toujours appréciée. Je pense que tu as compris que pour moi Naseerji est également un de mes acteurs préférés... Je n'ai pas vu Sparsh, et je note ce film dans ma liste des
"to-see films". Etrange pour Party, car Govind Nihalani a une bonne réputation. En tout si j'en juge par Aakrosh, il a fait du bon travail. Maintenant, je n'ai vu que ce seul film de lui comme réalisateur.

Bonne fin d'année!

He had a short but very impactful role in one of my favorite films, "Rihaee", he loves Shammi Kapoor too.

You know, I wonder whether he's always been that good. I've read a number of reviews that say:" if it hadn't been for Naseer, etc"; and he's done more than 140 films, according to IMDb... Whew! So,
would you recommend that "Rihaee"? I have just sent a order to Nehaflix, though!

I do love your site- ur commentary is so insightful.I agree with u- Mirch Masala is my abs fav Naseer movie, but there is so much of his that is also amazing: Sparsh,  masoom, libas, jalwa, pestonjee, ijazat, mirza ghalib (a tv show, available on dvd). Also Bazaar, Mandi and Bhumika, where he had short but great roles. there is so much more he rocks at. I really wish i cud see a play oh his- thanks!

Thanks shweta for your suggestions: there are almost too many, in fact! where do I start? Would you say Sparsh? Somebody at IMDb says it's Naseer "at his brilliant best"! AND there's Shabana-ji
there too, so I'll choose that one - for a start. In fact I'm thrilled at discovering more and more from this Bolly Cave of wonders!