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Right now, the actor has changed tracks. His directorial debut, Yun Hota To Kya Hota, will release come July. He’s aware of the naysayers lying in wait to ambush him, but couldn’t care less. Firing one salvo after another, Shah tells it like it is. And so I ask:
Are you nervous about the reaction to Yun Hota To Kya Hota?
Yes, I must admit I’m feeling slightly nervous. It’s more about how much I’m going to like it than about how much others will like it. I need to know if I’ve failed or succeeded as a director. I know different yardsticks will assess it.
I also know that all the filmmakers whose happiness I’ve screwed in the last 10 years are dying to sink their claws into me. They are welcome to it. And I will be able to judge that only after I see the entire film.
No, I haven’t. Right now, I’ve totally lost all objectivity. I’m completely saturated. I’ve no opinion about the film except that this is the best I could do. No apologies, no excuses. Frankly, what I’m really concerned about is my own abilities as a filmmaker.
And why would that be?
Because it’s a first for me. And I’ve no way of assessing whether I’m on the right track or not. I’ve never told a story in pictures before. I’ve done storytelling on stage. But that’s quite different. This is the acid test for me. I will not gauge my success or failure by whether critics like it or not or how it fares at the box office.
Isn’t box-office success important to you?
It is. It would naturally be very hurtful if the film doesn’t do well. But frankly, I would not judge my own success or failure as a filmmaker by that. I’ll judge it by whether I’ve made a coherent film or not. And that’s what I’m waiting to see. At the moment I really don’t know. So I’m nervous. I know my family and my friends will be supportive come what may. Those who come to trials invariably say nice things, which is why their reaction is of no consequence.
You must have a fair idea of what you’ve made.
No. I know I’m being very harsh in judging the film. But I feel I’ve got just about 50 percent of it right. That means I’ve failed in the other 50 percent. There are areas where I could have been better. I wish I could re-shoot certain portions. But unfortunately I don’t have that luxury. Which is why I prefer theater. Because you’re never signed, sealed, and delivered there. You can keep on improving; adding new things or subtracting them.
In fact, I’m wondering quite seriously, and I’m not being modest at all, whether I’m cut out for filmmaking. Because the quality that I’m after is so difficult to achieve. There are many scenes in the film where I haven’t got it because I was so caught up in other issues. In theater, you can improvise from show to show. There have been instances where we’ve brought about changes in the play after a 100 performances. So how do great filmmakers achieve that quality? I think I’m incapable of it. At least at the moment.
Do you realize the expectations are sky high?
I’m well aware of that. But that doesn’t bother me. Because the matter will be settled once and for all. But I realize it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I know I won’t be let off easily. On the other, it’s very heartwarming to know that people expect me to do good work. And I have always had high regard for criticism. There have been critics who sometimes allow personal issues to creep into their reviews. That’s unfair. Those are the ones that hurt. Criticism about my performance has never hurt me.
No. It has in fact invariably given me some food for thought. I have never deluded myself that I’m a perfect actor or that I’m anywhere close to perfection. I’m not. There’s no such thing as perfection in acting because it’s a never-ending search that we’re after. And we can never achieve perfection unlike sculptors or musicians or poets because what we’re working with is intangible. We’re working with ourselves and we are always changing. So there can never be the definitive actor, the best actor of all times. Because the bar is raised all the time.
But isn’t there something like a best actor at that particular point in time? Like you for instance. You’ve turned out superlative performances at each given time.
It’s unfair to pull one actor out of the hat and say he’s the best. It’s unfair to the others who are also trying their best. Which is why I have nothing but contempt for the awards. And I pity actors who judge their self-worth by whether or not they get these awards.
But aren’t awards mere appreciation of the work put in by an actor?
To me, a beggar at a traffic light telling me, “kya kaam kiya hai boss” is worth as much, perhaps more, than any award. Mind you, I’ve nothing against Filmfare. They’ve given me four awards and they certainly gave me the coverage when I needed it. But I don’t believe in competition among actors. And, I quote Mr. George C. Scott who refused the Oscar. He said, “I do not believe in competition between actors.”
And you’ve never felt competitive towards other actors in your entire career?
No. Honestly I haven’t. I’ve felt envious of actors, I’ve felt admiration for actors, I’ve felt a lot of things, but never competitive. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I’ve never felt covetous of what any other actor has achieved. Because ultimately we get what we deserve. And no one can take that away from you.
You say that only because you know you’re better than the others.
No I don’t. And I don’t delude myself. I know I’m good. I’m an above-average actor. I know I’m good at certain things. And I also know there are plenty of actors who are better than me in certain other things. Like playing larger-than-life heroes that I could never do successfully. Like singing songs that I could never do successfully. Every actor can’t do everything just like every human being can’t be everything. So it doesn’t kill me that I can’t do what so-and-so actor can. That’s what makes you admire another actor, when you look at him and say, “Wow, I couldn’t have done that.”
So which are the actors from the present generation that you really like?
I admire Saif Ali Khan, I admire Ajay Devgan. Both of them have grown immensely as performers and as level-headed actors. I admire Nana Patekar. I admire Akshay Kumar. I’ll tell you why. Because watch Akshay’s first movie, or his second or his fourth or even his 10th film and then you watch his work now. And just observe how he’s grown as far as his performance is concerned. I’m not saying he’s become a very good actor. But compared to what he was, he’s traveled a huge distance. And he has done it on his own steam. He had no sugar daddies, no godfathers. He came here without a penny in his pocket and he’s done it. He’s a role model. He’s a disciplined man, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t indulge. He’s punctual and he’s hardworking. What else do you want? You don’t need a generation of Marlon Brandos. You need disciplined, responsible actors.
You think Hindi cinema is finally coming of age?
Let’s not make the same mistake we made in the 1970s. Everyone started tom-toming about the movement, experimental and new wave cinema. It ended up in the dustbin. And then when I said the parallel cinema movement is going to the dumps, everyone lynched me.
There was quite an uproar, no?
Yeah. They called me a traitor. When all I was complaining about was the decreasing quality of those movies. And everyone, Filmfare in particular, called me a traitor and said he’s dismissing good cinema. Why on earth would I dismiss good cinema? Am I a fool? What I was dismissing was the pretentiousness of those filmmakers who claimed this was their mission in life and very conveniently jumped onto the commercial bandwagon at the first chance they got. Every single one of them.
Time has proved my point. I was the one who was accused of having deserted this movement. This is the irony. I’ve never deserted it. I’m the one who’s been doing commercial movies and off-beat cinema for the last 25 years. I’m still game to act in these movies at any time, free of charge as I always did. Yet I am the one accused deserting the movement.
Coming back to your movie. You’ve often been accused of giving your directors a tough time. Were the tables turned this time round? Were you at the receiving end of star tantrums?
(Smiles) No. My actors were very, very good. And for the record, I challenge anyone to contradict this. I’ve never given my directors grief. I think I did it just once and that too, deliberately. Apart from that, I’ve never given grief to my directors. And I would invite anyone who’s directed me to respond to this statement. So I think my good deeds came back to me. All my actors did my movie for a very small fee. And all of them said yes without hesitation, which was wonderful.
Did you ever yell at them?
I’ve learnt over the years not to yell at actors because it’s very humiliating. My directors have never yelled at me. So I have no first-hand knowledge of how that feels. But in the acting classes that I’ve been conducting for the last 15 years, I’ve often lost my cool at my students and I’ve found that it harms the entire team. It scares the hell out of them. So I’ve learnt over the years that kindness works better. Of course, you have to pepper it with the occasional kick in the butt.
Were your actors Ayesha Takia and Jimmy Shergil in awe of you?
I don’t think so. If they were trembling and nervous, they would never be able to do their job. A lot of young actors tell me that they feel nervous acting with me. I don’t take it as a compliment. Because if I’m making another actor nervous, I’m not doing my job. I meet these 15- and 16-year-olds telling me, “Oh sir, I’m so nervous acting with you.” What are they nervous about acting with a 60-year-old man? Come on. What am I going to do to them? Am I competing with them in any way? For looks? (Laughs) I know I’m better looking than them, there’s no doubt about that. So forget it. Am I competing with them in terms of exposure, audience attention, in anything? Where does this sense of competition come from? It’s such an insidious thing that has been fed to actors over generations by some of our so-called greats. If a kid is in awe, he’s in awe of my work, not me. I can still make friends with him.
What disgusts you about commercial cinema?
That there’s no hope for change. But you have to face the facts of life. It’s there, you can’t deny it. What bothers me is that this spurt of activity among younger filmmakers doesn’t peter out like it did earlier. But I suspect that it will. Because I can already see these youngsters hankering to work with bigger stars and bigger budgets.
They say the best way to fight the system is from within. (Pauses) But then why should one fight the system? I’m not interested in fighting the system, for god’s sake. It’s too big for me, it’ll crush me. I’ve learnt to survive in the system. Despite my disgust with many aspects in the commercial industry, I’m also grateful to it. It gave me a good life. It gave me a lot of comforts, lots of luxuries. It compensated me for the fact that I was unhappy doing many films. Whether it’s Mujhe Meri Biwi Se Bachao or Zinda Jala Doonga or whether it was Karma. From the smallest to the biggest, I’ve done the whole range. I may have failed in some, too bad.
Now you’re being modest.
You haven’t seen some of the really spooky ones I have done. I acted in a film called Maan Maryada in which I played a daku. It starred Rameshwari and Deepak Parashar. And it was re-released as Ganga Daku. Believe it or not, I shot it alongside Paar. And on another occasion, I shot Masoom and Dil Aakhir Dil Hai simultaneously. I actually ran around trees in Dil Aakhir Dil Hai. It’s the same actor putting in the same effort in these movies. And the efforts are there for all to see. So the actor is helpless when he’s wrongly cast or when he’s not up to the demands of the role.
You’ve often been quoted as saying you haven’t got your due in commercial movies?
I consider myself downright lucky to be cast in lead roles in commercial movies. And I’ve always felt a sense of gratitude about that. I’ve never felt that the industry hasn’t given me my due. For some strange reason, I’ve always been quoted as having said this. It’s given me a lot in terms of exposure. The kids at traffic signals still call me Kheru bhai, Kheru bhai (Karma). They don’t name Paar and Manthan. My criticism of the quality of the work in the Hindi film industry is misinterpreted as contempt for the whole business. I do have a lot of contempt for several aspects of our film industry. The fact that filmmaking is one continuous party, one unending picnic.
What was it like while working in A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in Hollywood?
Boring. Very boring. I was supposed to shoot for four months but it went on for six months. Two good things came out of it, though. One, I memorized The Prophet, which I wanted to stage. Two, I made a hell of a lot of money.
That’s great. But why did they have to cover your face?
That’s how the character is drawn in the comics. Basically they wanted someone with a big nose. It made no difference really who they cast. (Laughs) And my nose was bigger than Gulshan Grover’s. Basically they were trying to be faithful to the comics it’s based on. The characters in the comics are so dynamic and full of adventure. They tried to keep that look but what they couldn’t get was the actual feel of the comic, which is one of great dynamism. I was bored. I would actually stand there and most of the time I had to “talk to” special effects that weren’t even there. It satisfied my curiosity about Hollywood.
And Sean Connery?
Yeah, he’s a nice gentleman, very down to earth. He’s a big star and he never forgets that. That’s true for any star. I guess for any big star to behave normal is in itself an accomplishment.
Closer home, your son Imaaduddin makes his debut in Yun Hota To Kya Hota. How does it feel?
No, he’s not making his debut. He acted as a baby in Perfect Murder. He acted as a little older baby in Pestonji. Then he’s acted in an ad film. He’s acted on stage. He’s playing a small part. And he’s only playing it because he was idle after just finishing school. So I cast him in an inconsequential part because I wanted him around since he’d expressed his interest in making movies. At present he’s acting in a small movie being produced by Prakash Jha and directed by Manish Tiwari.
Does he aspire for stardom?
He’s not too sold on acting. He’s into music and watching movies. He watches all sorts of movies. In fact, he’s seen movies even I haven’t seen. Some pretty complex French, Italian, and Iranian stuff. He says he wants to make music videos, which I interpret as his desire to make movies.
And what advice do you give him?
I advise him only when he asks for it. Not otherwise. (Grins) I think parents overestimate the influence they have over their children.
Is that a father’s experience speaking?
(Smiles) No. I realized it even as a child. My poor dad.
I read somewhere that you had a troubled relationship with your dad. Does that shadow your relationship with your kids?
(Chortles) I try not to make the same mistakes. I make others.
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