Bollywood Movies

Irrfan Khan said I can see death approaching me…: Naseeruddin Shah on his friends, ageing and death

Anthony Hopkins, 83, bagged his second Oscar this year, becoming the oldest-ever acting Oscar winner, for his stunning yet heart-breaking performance in French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller’s debut movie The Father. But much before the movie, Naseeruddin Shah had brought this Molière award-winning play that traces an elderly man’s descent into dementia to the Indian theatre-going audience. His poignant performance as Andre (which Zeller had rechristened to Anthony in the movie version) is one of the best Indian theatre has seen in recent times. We spoke to the thespian about Hopkins’s award-winning turn, his own take on the character, and how he approaches ageing, death and life.

Excerpts:

In your adaptation of the Florian Zeller play, you play the father, the same role that has fetched Anthony Hopkins his Oscar this year. What is your take on his portrayal vis-à-vis yours?

First of all, the moment I learned that Anthony Hopkins is doing this film, I predicted that he’s going to 100 per cent win the Oscar. It is exactly the kind of role that gets you an Oscar and then Anthony Hopkins is a great actor, there is no doubt about that.

It is such a role that you just follow what the writer has written. All the character’s confusions, his state of mind, are already there in the text. So, if the actor is just truthful to the text, that’s half the job done. Rest of it is to summon up the emotional intensity that this character requires. I am full of admiration for Hopkins, who is in his 80s, and has played the character with a lot of zest and energy. I however, had taken a different approach while playing the character. For me, this was a man at the end of his rope and I was looking more towards the despair of this character. I really admire his performance but I am proud of mine as well!

Acting in a movie can be more exhausting but there you can do it in bits and pieces; you are often doing small disconnected shots. Thus you can ration out your emotional output. But on the stage you have to go all guns blazing all the time. I prefer that — when you go from one mood to another — rather than breaking it up.

How did you get into the skin of such a complex character?

I didn’t attempt to get inside the head of this character; it would have been attempting the impossible. What I did do was to keep his outward behaviour as honest as possible according to what the playwright had written. I didn’t have to give it an interpretation of my own. The interpretation is already there in the script. The entire play is written from this man’s perspective. The audience is supposed to see and experience what this man is seeing and experiencing. For instance in the second scene when you have another actor playing the daughter, I had to portray a genuine sense of puzzlement. I need not get into the mind of this character. In any case, I don’t believe it is necessary to understand all the characters that you play. We don’t understand ourselves, how is it possible to understand someone else? When I play an Einstein or a Ghalib or a Gandhi or a Bernard Shaw, I don’t try to understand these people. Because it is beyond anybody’s capacity! As an actor, what I have to do is simulate their behaviour as closely as possible. Too many actors these days are concerned about what the character they are playing is feeling. I don’t think that is as important as understanding what this character is doing.

But how emotionally draining was playing this character over and over in front of a live audience, especially since unlike in a movie, a play has no cuts or retakes?

I did not want to get so involved in the act that I would lose perspective. The play is so emotionally demanding that one had to look out for one’s sanity. In any case, I don’t believe in that kind of involvement where you become the character. I don’t believe you can become a character and if you do, you are of no use as an actor. Having the imaginary set and objects helped remind all the actors that hey we are just giving a performance, it is not what you are actually feeling… we are representing something and not recreating any actual event. Otherwise the play might have become too draining and it would have been difficult for the actors to keep their mental balance. In fact, performing it is not emotionally as hard on me as the audience might think it is; I think it is harder on the audience. This is because I keep myself at a distance from the character. You see, if I started believing that I am this character, then we will get into a very tricky territory. The great thesis on acting, called the Natyashastra, which is an Indian treatise and the first thesis written on acting in the world, talks of two things: Bhav and Ras. It is the actor’s job to be involved in the bhav, which means the presentation. The ras, which is the emotion, is transmitted into the audience. The actor does not need to suffer with the character. Even Bertolt Brecht has said the same: The actor must never lose himself in the part. If I lose myself emotionally in every performance, I will not be able to sustain myself for even a month. And that I have to watch out for. I need to transmit the emotion to my audience. I need not necessarily go through that emotion myself. I represent that emotion as an actor.

Naseeruddin Shah played the father’s role in the adaptation of the Florian Zeller play. (Photo: Express Archives)

Did you have any such personal experience where you drew from?

I had met a doctor who works with Alzheimer’s patients to understand the character better. Also, I have a friend whose husband suffers from dementia. I learnt a lot about the suffering that these people go through and it was heart breaking to say the least.

I haven’t had any personal experience of such an illness, not in my family. But I do remember a few instances with my mother. In fact, just a few days before she passed away, we went to Badlapur where we have a small farm, and all the way she kept thinking that we were back in our hometown in Meerut and driving to our village in Sardhana. Although I kept telling her that we are going to my farm, her mind had gotten a bit muddled by then and she could not follow. Even when we reached there she kept insisting that we should send someone to the station to receive my father. Now by this time, my father was dead for a good 30 years. But for some reason that memory had come back and gotten stuck in her head. We had to humour her as we didn’t know how to handle the situation. Within a few days she passed away. Something had gone wrong with the machinery of her brain in those last few days.

How difficult it is to stage such a complicated play? When are you planning to revive it?

The reason why I have not done this particular play for a very long time is because I would need a certain number of continuous shows to do this play. It will not make sense to do one show of this this week and another after a week or a month. For this play, it is imperative that all the actors are in the mental zone of the characters. We have plans to revive the play in July/August first in Pune and then bring it back to Mumbai. Also, it will not work in a proscenium. I want to do it in an intimate setting, with a limited audience sitting on four sides. It will lose its impact in a bigger theatre. Initially, I had thought of doing this in the midst of the audience… with about 15/20 people in the audience who would be seated in the living room but then it would have gotten too close to the bone and far less effective. It would have been trying to create for the audience an experience of a real incident, which I don’t think should be the intention of a play.

As it is, I detest the idea of realism on stage; I don’t think it has any place on stage. It is nonsensical when plays try to be realistic and create an atmosphere as if what you are seeing is actually happening to these characters. I don’t believe in all that. I think it is important to underline that we are doing a play; we are the actors, they are the audience. A film can have realism. Film as a format lends itself to it. You can shoot on location; you can create the illusion of reality…but not in a play.

In fact, that is also why we went with a unique set design for this play. My lighting designer, Arghya Lahiri, came up with this brilliant idea to have a ground plan of the set rather than having walls and furniture and other realistic details. And that worked beautifully for the play. People with dementia are not always aware of social niceties or decent behaviour. They can do things that can be offensive to others. If we had actual food there in the dinner scene and I was spitting it out, it would not be aesthetic and more than that it would be excessive for the audience to stomach. We decided to use imaginary objects but have their sounds. This made the audience see things that were not there.
You are 71. Did the perils of old age ever hit you on a personal level while portraying the character?

Certainly. For any character you play, you have to find that potential within you. I had to find the potential of this character within me and I was able to. In fact, while prepping for the role I had once even asked Dr Shetty, who was explaining dementia to me, that it often happens to me that I go to my bedroom and open my cupboard and forget why I have opened it, if this can be tell-tale signs of dementia. In fact, I have always been a little bit forgetful. But then he explained to me the difference. We all forget things once in a while but we also eventually remember those; but not a person suffering from dementia. As an actor, I could enlarge upon these fits of forgetfulness to play a character like this. As an actor I used that to imagine this suffering objectively. I as an actor cannot afford to suffer that way, because if I do, I would lose perspective of what is desirable on the stage and what is not.

Naseeruddin Shah wife ratna pathak shah Naseeruddin Shah with wife Ratna Pathak Shah. (Photo: Express Archives)

How do you confront the idea of aging in your personal life?

I confront the idea by taking care of my health, both mental and physical. What terrifies me the most is the thought of becoming an invalid. The thought of death doesn’t scare me at all. But having to depend on others to perform the basic tasks is a very frightening thought. As far as I am concerned, ever since I turned 60, I have kept myself busy learning new things. I have been learning how to read and write Urdu, how to play the flute, how to play the guitar; during the lockdown I learnt how to cook! I think it is very important. Be it any part of your body, if you don’t use it for a while it will stop working properly. If you don’t use your arm for a while it will begin to atrophy. Similarly, you need to keep stimulating your brain. I have realised that this kind of mental instability can happen to anyone; just like a fever or a cold it can strike anybody. But just like in the case of a physical illness, you can definitely take precautions. What would be worse than me suffering from such an ailment is if this happens to someone I love. So, one has to be on one’s guard. Of course you can’t escape such thoughts but then you can’t afford to dwell on those thoughts –it does no good and leads you nowhere. Whenever such thoughts crop up in my head, I immediately dismiss it and focus on something else. I read something or write something or play my flute. You can’t afford to indulge in such thoughts or let yourself go in that direction.

The play is also in a way about death. In the past two years Covid has highlighted the transient nature of life like never before and many of us have experienced death very closely. How do you process death, especially those of your colleagues?

I don’t think it is healthy to obsess about death. I definitely don’t do that. I have experienced several deaths of my close ones — my family, my parents. Also, some dear friends, particularly the unexpected ones — the way Om [Puri] died, the way Farooq [Shaikh] died — were terrible shocks. But it does no good to obsess over it. I think that death is the most unimportant part of life and ironically also the most unavoidable one as well. I don’t dwell on it at all. I will go when I have to go. As long as I am around I want to be as alert and as alive as possible. I would not like my friends to be lamenting about me when I am gone but celebrating and laughing and talking about the things I did. I would rather they remember me for the life I have lived than talk about how I died.

We also lost Irrfan Khan last year…

That was a unique thing because Irrfan knew for about two years that it was going to happen. I spoke to him several times over the phone even when he was in the hospital in London. It was amazing and it was a real lesson how he dealt with it. He would say: ‘I am observing death approaching me and how many people get that opportunity? To be able to see this grim reaper coming towards you and you are almost welcoming him.’

Of course, it was a terrible loss. But it was not in our hands. It was just your bodily machinery shutting down. You don’t have any control over it.

How would we see you in the next five years?

I want to have fun till I am alive. I don’t think I would be doing many such grim plays! It would be more of the light-hearted stuff. As of now, I am having a pretty good innings and have some pretty good projects lined up both in films and the OTT. In fact, I am getting more interesting roles now as an old actor than I did as a young man! Then of course there are several plays I have in my mind that I want to stage. Also, I don’t want to call it ‘teaching’ as that sounds rather pompous, but I love to work with young actors and help them reach their potential.

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