Naseeruddin Shah: Film industry created Rajesh Khanna, used him and cast him away

This report first appeared on DNA Online on 10 August 2016.

A controversy that seemed to have found its closure may resurface again with Naseeruddin Shah elaborating on the comments he had made about Rajesh Khanna. Shah contextualised his comments and said that he had been asked about mediocrity in Hindi cinema in general, to answer which he had used the 1950s, 60s and 70s as reference.

In a conversation with Neville Tuli that lasted almost two hours on Tuesday evening at the Liberty cinema in Mumbai, Shah was searingly honest, candid and witty, not just about others but about himself as well. The packed hall welcomed him with a rousing applause and a standing ovation.

On the Rajesh Khanna controversy

Elaborating on his comments on Rajesh Khanna’s mediocrity, Shah said that the coming of colour was the “main thing that caused it”. “The trilogy of Raj Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand were on the wane. The film industry needed a new icon. Rajesh Khanna filled that role,” he said. “The fact is the industry created him, used him, and cast him away when he was no longer a money minting machine.”

Shah added that none of those who got upset when he called Khanna mediocre had contradicted him. The industry had criticised Shah for “not respecting the dead.” But he countered, “What respect did the film industry have for Rajesh Khanna when he was alive? He was forgotten.”

Various celebrities had challenged Shah’s claim by citing Khanna’s stardom and popularity. However, Shah said that an actor and a star are “two different things”. “There are people saying he had thousands of people waiting outside his bungalow. Does that make him a great actor? Are you saying everyone who has thousands of people outside their bungalow is a great actor?” he asked.

‘Stardom was an important dream’

Shah said he never dreamt of playing roles like Mirza Ghalib or Einstein but wanted to do all the things a commercial hero did. “I wanted to sing songs, swing from a chandelier. I didn’t know how well I would do that and, as it transpired, I did them badly,” he said. Shah said that the fact that he was an ordinary, unnoticed student triggered the burning desire to be seen, applauded and liked. “Stardom was an important dream. I cannot deny that.”

“After I was finished with NSD in Delhi, I did not know what to do next,” he said. Shah described how he decided to study at FTII after watching the film Piya ka Ghar (1972). The film had Jaya Bachchan playing the lead role, among others. Shah realised that the only way he could earn a living was by acting in movies. “One day, I saw a film called Piya ka Ghar at Regal cinema and I walked in. I don’t know why. The actors in it weren’t my favourites. But it was providential. While watching it I said to myself, there are at least six actors in this film who are from the film institute. The fact that none of them know how to act is a different thing.”

Shah felt he was fortunate enough to maintain a certain balance and thanked Sanjeev Kumar for it. “He was offered the role in Sparsh (1980). He turned it down. He was offered Mirza Ghalib (1988). He turned it down. May god bless him.”

While admitting it felt great to do a song like ‘Oye, oye’, Shah said he “never got the hang of commercial cinema”. He further said he still does not understand why Tridev (1989) was a big hit. “I got a leading role in Rajshri film, Sunayana (1979). It was a terrible movie and I did a bad job. I tried to be authentic. I tried to apply the yardstick I applied in films like Manthan (1976) but it didn’t work at all,” he said.

The veteran actor was all praise for director Shyam Benegal, who he described as one of his “surrogate fathers”, saying he wished he could go back and relive the experience of working on his first big breakthrough, Nishant (1975). “I could not believe when Shyam called me. It was just the kind of thing I had dreamt would happen,” he said. Shah was in awe of his co-stars like Amrish Puri, Girish Karnad, Mohan Agashe and Shabana Azmi. Elaborating on Benegal’s contribution, the actor said that the director’s Ankur (1974) was the film that gave him hope because he thought he could get work in a film like that. “I knew I couldn’t be the magnificent seven. But I knew I could be actors or characters who could be real.”

During the course of the conversation, Shah spoke of his love affairs and had advice for young actors on the long, hard and lonely process of acting. He said Spencer Tracy made him believe that an actor could look like a human being.

‘Hindi cinema has numbed the senses of the audience’

Shah made no attempt to sound diplomatic and continued to be forthright with his opinions. He named Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) as the finest commercial film in Hindi cinema because, inspite of its absurdities, it was “made with conviction”. He described working with Khwaab (1980), directed by Shakti Samanta, as his biggest suffering while calling Jaane Bhi Do Yaro (1983) a film he treasures.

The actor felt that Hindi movies had systematically numbed the senses of the audience to the extent that the they had started enjoying it. “If the audience isn’t supplied anything else, they will take whatever is available,” he said, adding he did not take Hindi films seriously because he was exposed to western films way before watching them. “Frankly, the so-called good Hindi films weren’t very much better than the Dara Singh films. I preferred Shammi Kapoor movies and Dara Singh movies because one didn’t have to take them seriously at all.”

After the conclusion of the interview, the floor was thrown open to the audience and Shah was at his wittiest while answering questions. When asked about films like Welcome Back and Jackpot, he said that satisfaction is not just creative or artistic but also financial. “I would never go to see a film like Welcome Back,” he said, “but I would act in it.”

A man asked Shah about how comfortable he was being directed by a first timer in his recently released short film. Shah said, “Working with first-time directors has never been a problem, though I have often complained about veterans.”

The loudest laughter came when Shah was asked how he tackled his family after a film like Dirty Picture (2011), to which he replied, “Tackling my family after Mohra (1994) was more difficult.”

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