Mumbai: In a candid interview with The Wire, actor Naseeruddin Shah talked about a wide range of subjects, including the ongoing anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests, the rise of communalism and why the big names of the film industry remain silent.
Shah’s family has been in the ranks of the Army and administrators in the Indian government at different times, and never in his life has he ever felt that being a Muslim was a handicap. Now, he points out, he is reminded of that identity all the time, which is very worrying.
A full transcript of the interview is below.
Sidharth Bhatia: We’re joined today by Naseeruddin Shah, theatre actor, director, producer and, of course, film actor who has been in these industries for over 45 years. Shah is just not a creative person but also a very engaged citizen, who on occasion has really spoken his mind. Naseer, thank you for joining The Wire and giving us this interview.
There is a lot of ferment in the country at the moment, you’re seeing protests from citizens who are against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, you’re seeing women coming out on the streets and sitting for days on end in Shaheen Bagh, and now you have students who’ve come out to say that they will not let their educational institution be subverted by the government’s policies and actions.
Despite state violence, in a manner of speaking, people have continued to pour out on the streets and student leaders beaten up…
Naseeruddin Shah: …and been accused of violence.
SB: …and been accused of violence, but that has not dampened anyone’s fervour. What do you make of this and what has happened suddenly that has brought people like this?
NS: The youth has suddenly risen and suddenly realised that they’re being trampled upon. Just today I read in the papers, there’s a Rs 30,000 crore cut in the education budget and we’re spending on other things like re-doing the NRC, which flopped totally, according to the ruling party, because it included several hundred thousand Hindus as well.
SB: That’s right.
NS: So, ‘Oh no! This can’t be correct.’ So you go over this whole futile exercise all over again. And then of course they’ve created the escape clause of the CAA, which is that if you are non-Muslim, you can apply for citizenship and it will be granted to you.
The first flaw that one notices in the CAA is that it excludes Muslims, which is not surprising, but I just didn’t expect the Centre to be that blatant about it.
What people haven’t noticed is the more invidious side of it: repression only happens in Islamic countries. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, no mention of Myanmar no mention of Sri Lanka. ‘Muslims have 15 other countries to go to, Hindus have only India.’ You expect a refugee who is running for his life, who’s with his meagre belongings , trying to outlive the trauma of leaving everything he owned and everything he loved and trying to cross the border, you expect him to book a ticket for Jeddah? You expect him to go to the UAE or something? And it is deliberately singling out. I’m not saying this as a Muslim because I have never thought of myself as a Muslim.
SB: You were saying that you have never been told…
NS: It has never been an obstacle in any way. My brother has served in the Army all his life, another brother has served in a corporate, my father was in the government services, I’ve had uncles serving in the army, cousins, uncles serving in the police, others who’ve been government servants, deputy district magistrates and so on.
None of us has ever felt our being Muslim to be any obstacle, and it has not been on my mind the fact that I’m a Muslim. So I’m not saying this as a Muslim and the fact that its not only the Muslims who are protesting – of course, in Assam the protests are for a different reason, in the Hindi heartland for a different reason – but I’m not saying this as a Muslim but as a concerned citizen, and the invidious part of it that I’m talking about is to imply that repression only takes place in Muslim countries.
The prime minister suggesting that he knows who are behind the riots, ‘you can tell by their dress’, with a person like a minister of the Centre saying ‘Deepika Padukone stands with those who celebrate when Indian soldiers are killed’ – celebrate when Indian soldiers are killed, what is she living in a Hindi movie? And I don’t think she has a right to talk about respect for the armed forces. She herself is a person who insulted a war-veteran, an awardee, a person who was fighting the Battle of Longewala when she was in her diapers.
SB: And the person you’re referring to would be?
NS: I’m referring to a retired lieutenant general who went on to be deputy chief of the army staff. She would not not think twice before insulting a person like that. She’s talking about respect for the armed forces? Excuse me, ma’am, you have no right to talk about respect for the armed forces. And the entire vilification, which is underhand, of the Muslims and the constant connection with Pakistan, this government just seems to be obsessed with Pakistan.
SB: Which the Indian Muslims are certainly not!
NS: And we are all supposed to be sympathetic to this enemy country.
SB: But you referred once or twice to say you’re not talking as a Muslim, why do you feel compelled to point to this? Has something changed, something you suddenly are being realising or being told?
NS: I thought my passport, my voter ID card, my driver’s license, my Aadhaar card would be enough to prove me an Indian.
Does not the fact that five generations of my family are buried here, I’ve lived 70 years of my life here, I have served the country in whatever little way I could in the fields of education, or in the environmental issues or social issues, if that does not prove my Indianness then what does?
And I don’t have a birth certificate, I don’t think I can produce one. I don’t think many people can so, does that mean we’re all going to be excluded? And I do not need any reassurances that Muslims do not need to worry, I’m not worried. If living here 70 years does not prove it and doing whatever I could does not prove me an India, I don’t know what does. I’m not afraid, I’m not anxious – I’m angry that such a law has been imposed on us.
SB: So this anger is obviously also spilling out on the streets, and you’re seeing this. Now the government has been saying that the CAA is in the true spirit of humanitarianism and the NRC has not even been discussed.
NS: Well, the home minister has been announcing again and again that it is going to be countrywide, ‘Ek ek karkay nikalengay aur keede aur termites aur yeh aur woh‘ and then the PM in a rage goes on and says that ‘Aisa toh hua hi nahi kabhi bhi’ – I mean who is going to believe? This is becoming like a play by Samuel Beckett. This is becoming completely absurd, the kind of defences that are being put, ‘Is the opposition behind this?’ If the opposition was capable of mobilising so many people, wouldn’t they have done better in the elections? And the contempt for students, that it what is hurting me most of all – the contempt for the student community, the contempt for the intellectuals.
SB: Why do you think that is so?
NS: I suppose people who don’t know what it’s like to be a student or people who’ve never had any intellectuals pursuits would consider students and intellectuals to be pests. It is not surprising that the prime minister has no empathy or any compassion for the students, he’s never been a student.
There is a video clip of him saying that before he became the prime minister, ‘mainay toh parhai varhai ki nahi‘, which was considered a very charming and candid statement at that time. But in the light of what happened in the last six years, it has acquired eerie proportions, this statement of his. Then of course he got his doctorate in political science…
SB: Entire political science.
NS: …entire political science, which like Anurag [Kashyap] I would be very interested in having a look at. So having never been one of this community who feels responsible for the future of this country they’re gonna grow up in, how do you expect any empathy for the students from them? And the amazing turnaround of the Delhi police in the face of documentary evidence, video evidence, that the people who are injured are blamed, when there is not a single shot or still of these students attacking anybody, all you see are the visuals of students being attacked, all you see are the visuals of the police in UP brutalising passersby, all you hear about is that people who are six years dead have been charged with an FIR for rioting. This is what is worrisome.
SB: When you see the students coming out on the streets, before JNU, which of course the present establishment just doesn’t like for a variety reason, there was also this charge inside Jamia library, in Aligarh Muslim University and the state responded with great ferocity against students. You mentioned empathy a few times – empathy, even beyond empathy for the students, seems to be lacking in the present climate, isn’t it?
NS: Absolutely. If people of the leading dispensation can say we will shoot anti-CAA protesters, we will bury you alive if you protest against Modi – I mean, are we blaspheming? Are we going to become like our neighbour? That if you say anything against religion, you are sentenced to death here, you cannot say anything against the ruling party, and if you do, you are sentenced to death?
And no one takes any action, these people are not even chastised for saying things like this. It’s a well known fact that even the PM himself follows hate spewers on twitter. Why he does that, he only knows. This army of ignorant trolls who work for the BJP’s IT Cell are spewing this thing all around and its astounding, its bewildering where did this all come from.
Maybe the answer to that is it not among the youth, it is among people of my generation or a decade or two younger, who have been infected by the memetics of what they’ve heard as children. As a child, I heard hate stories about Hindus and Sikhs, I was born in 1949. I’m sure Sikh children heard hate stories about Muslims. This clouded us for a little while, and in school we did toss epithets at each other, but there was never ever anything followed up by any action. I don’t remember getting into a fight over religion, I got into plenty of fights over you stole my cricket ball, you used my cricket ball.
SB: …and never felt discriminated.
NS: Never felt discriminated yes, even though these religious insults were tossed around. But I guess somewhere in our psyches these things have remained, the wounds inflicted on our parents’ generation by the Partition have somewhere affected us. Luckily our generation is reaching its end and the generation which is not scarred by this memetics is coming up.
SB: No, but I would point out that there is also propaganda, so you may have a generation growing up with that propaganda.
NS: I think that generation is on the ween, the one that is growing up on propaganda and the one who is propagating the propaganda, so to say. I think the younger generation is clear-headed and they’re coming into it with an objectivity of neither Hindu nor Muslim, more and more, no matter what the Romeo squads may do and say.
More and more children are realising that the inter-religious marriages, in-fact my wife is a Hindu and several of her friends are of mixed marriages, and the first time my son met a couple from the same religion marriages and he said “Oh yeah, Hindu married to a Hindu that’s interesting”, this is when he was about five years old. So I think this generation is free of this baggage and it is up to them to continue the battle while being cheered on.
SB: So this generation if we take it to let us say specifically the film industry, a lot of the opposition to what’s going on, to the government really, has come from, young actors, young directors, young writers.
NS: I think these people have more courage and less to lose than the established figures. And as far as the established figures are concerned, it’s understandable why they don’t speak up, but one does wonder, how much do they have to lose? Haven’t you made enough to last you seven generations? I mean this is like that line of Jibran, “It’s not the dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable.” It does seem to be like that – loss of popularity loss of revenue, how much of it? Will it kill you?
SB: No, but let’s say a star says something and it affects their film, it can affect a whole lot of people working around it.
NS: Well, I think that the star is basically concerned with himself and not with those around him, otherwise there would be more parity. But that’s another story for another day. But you have to log the courage of Deepika [Padukone], who is in the top firmament and yet takes a step like this. Let us see how she takes this, she’ll loose a few endorsements, sure, okay, will that impoverish her? Will that lessen her popularity? Will that make her less beautiful than she is?
They’re gonna come around sooner or later. The only god that film industry worships is money, and the only way to keep that God happy is to keep making more and more. But i think their silence is not as important as the vociferousness of the younger generation. Though all of them have been a bit guarded in their statements, they understand why, and by the younger generation I mean across the board, across the country – and the women coming out has been so fantastic.
SB: While you’re taking about courageous voice in the film industry, especially among the younger, and even Deepika and clearly you – you have a scenario in which the industry is now making movies which promote the nationalist agenda, including distorting history to such an extent where a historic battle, or a story about a general, is retold and reconstituted really with banners which reflect the current dispensations interests.
NS: So what’s new about that? The film industry has always pandered to those in power, there’s too much money at stake. They do what pleases the Centre.
SB: So you’re saying it’s a cynical move, therefore, a commercial move?
NS: Yeah, I really wonder how much conviction there is in these filmmakers who are helping rewrite history. And what is the purpose of it? When we are trying to invent a fictional history, we are trying to invent a fictional past, we’re trying to invent discoveries which were made in the Vedic age and so on, which sounds ridiculous. Don’t these people realise that the world will be scoffing at our actual achievements, in mathematics, in astronomy, in languages, in philosophy, in poetry and so on because we are making nonsensical claims? How far is this going to go?
It is really very bewildering to see this happening. And what is so important about changing names of places, I mean what’s the big deal here? How does it make any difference what a road is called, or what a city is called? But that’s whats happening, so the valour of the Indian soldier, which no one has ever doubted, is being multiplied and presented as something romantic, and the villainy of the Mughals and whichever side you look there are stories of running down the Mughals and claiming how they were invaders.
SB: So it’s not merely a matter of a road change or a movie being made, it’s also history books, it’s also propaganda, it’s also the lectures and the hate speech. An atmosphere is being built up where today, in 2019 or 2020. you’re going to have the creation of an atmosphere which 10 years, 15, 20 years later will show itself in the ugliest of ways – so you’re really poisoning the well.
NS: Yes, even 10-15 years is a very long time. I think it may happen sooner than that. And unless it is resisted with all our might and that is all that we can do, because as I said in my earlier interview which created a storm to Karwaan-e-Mohabbat, that the poison is spreading and it is being done by the ruling party, and they are accusing everybody of what they are doing.
They invent these imaginary enemies and this obsession with Pakistan. We go on about Pakistan and how we will reconquer PoK, and we’ll do this and we’ll do that, and the complete sabre-rattling that’s been going on, it’s really very bewildering. The fact that we can talk in terms of ‘we are preparing for a war on two fronts’ and all this kind of thing – I mean these people who are craving for war, do not know what war implies.
SB: Naseer, you’re talking about a lot of people in the industry who have stood up and spoken out against what they see are discriminatory politics and policies. But at the same time you have got to admit that the industry has given a lot of support to…
NS: They are fewer than those who oppose it.
SB: You think so? But they are vocal, certainly.
NS: Yes, they’re on Twitter, I’m not on Twitter. But these people and the Twitterati – I really wish they would make up their mind what they believe in. Someone like Anupam Kher has been very vocal, I don’t think he needs to be taken seriously. He is a clown. Any number of his contemporaries from NSD and FTII can attest to his sycophantic nature. It’s in his blood, he can’t help it. The others who are opposing it should really decide what they want to say, and don’t remind us of our responsibilities, we know our responsibilities.
SB: So you are saying they actually, in numbers and impact, don’t count for much.
NS: I think they are fewer than those who are opposing.
SB: Even if they remain silent?
NS: They haven’t remained silent. They’ve been very vocal.
SB: You have a brother in the Army at a very senior level. The Army has been known for being completely apolitical, but suddenly things change and the army is making noises, senior officers are making noises that reflect the political mood of the ruling party.
NS: Yes, and at the same time saying that we will stick by constitutional values, but at the same time saying if the government tells us to attack, we will attack – these are self-contradictory statements.
SB: And maybe keeping every side kind of satisfied.
NS: And as I was saying about creating imaginary enemies, this ‘tukde-tukde gang’ nonsense – I mean, who is the tukde-tukde gang? If there’s anybody, it’s the ruling party, they are the ones who are dividing us. The accusation is being hurled at everybody who speaks up, and I repeated before, is it blasphemy to speak against the ruling party? Or the government? You can be threatened with lynching and your children can be threatened and your personal safety is at stake.
SB: Has it happened to you?
NS: It hasn’t happened to me and I hope it doesn’t, but I know it’s been happening to people I know.
SB: So when you say, you brought up ‘tukde-tukde gang’, it could really create a situation where citizen will turn against citizen, people will turn against each other, the road ahead of us is not looking very optimistic for a country of our diversity, our size.
NS: We have to be optimistic, we can’t afford to lay down and say walk over us, we have to be optimistic. I prefer to believe that the common citizen, who has been saying ‘these Muslims are this, these Muslims are that’ will change his mind someday. I’m determined to be optimistic.
SB: So you are clear that the ordinary citizen of this country…
NS: His good sense will assert itself.
SB: and not be communal by nature.
NS: I don’t think anyone is communal by nature, it is what you are fed. What has shocked the government today is that these students have not been led like cattle, as they hoped would be. And to accuse the students who’ve been mislead is showing utter contempt for the student community. It means that these students, koi bhi behka de toh behek jaatay hain. No no no, that is not so. There is no leader in this movement, if you notice. It’s all spontaneous anger that is arising, and if you dismiss the anger of the youth then I think you are creating dangers for yourself. That’s all I can say.
SB: You remember your own student days?
NS: Yes, I always thought I don’t need to be political – I’m okay, country’s fine. I wasn’t part of any student unions or any kind of movements or anything. It was gradually when i started working in movies, which were overtly political like Bhavni Bhavai, Albert Pinto and so on, that’s the politics that began to affect me. I remember Saeed telling me that nothing is apolitical, you cannot be apolitical, you have to have a conviction about it. It’s taken me a long time to develop a conviction about it, but it’s never too late.
SB: Actually this was my last bit – I wanted to come to your cinema. In the ’70s you were a very integral part, a pillar of the arts cinema movement in Bhavni Bhavai, Albert Pinto. Even in a sense some of the other films, which had kind of a subliminal message about progressive ideas etc. Where were we then and where are we now, in terms of what art is doing, in terms of what cinema is doing?
NS: I think politically, cinema has not advanced because those filmmakers of the ’70s didn’t stick to their guns, and did not really create a movement, they did not create a follow up generation. But what they did was create a generation of filmmakers of excellence, which I consider very many young filmmakers of today to be. They wouldn’t have happened – films like Masaan, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Gully Boy, etc., or what Anurag keeps making, would not have happened without those filmmakers of the ’70s, flawed though their work was.
Going back further, those filmmakers wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the Mrinal Sens and Basu Chatterjees of the earlier generation, or the Khwaja Ahmed Abbases. So each generation feeds off the previous one, and I think craft-wise, the inexpensive movies being made today are far superior to the ones being made in the ’70s, the actors are far superior. I really envy these actors, I wish i was that good when I was their age, and they all have great ideas. Politically though, I don’t think Albert Pinto and so on have had a follow up generation.
SB: Politically, so that progressive filmmaking, those progressive values say…
NS: They are there but I think maybe there’s less pamphleteering. You can’t say these films are apolitical, a film like Mukkebaaz or Two Point Zero, you cannot say they are apolitical. But they’re not pamphleteering. And I think that’s better because these kids have a better grasp on the craft of the work.
SB: What about theatre?
NS: Theatre I’ve been hearing ever since I joined the NSD, 50 years ago, that theatre is dying. I’m still hearing it.
It’s in the best of health, and this city probably has the most vibrant theatre in the country, Bangalore too and Pune. What’s very heartening is so many younger people taking part in it, writing, producing, directing, newer spaces opening up, spaces which seat 50-60 people, so people who can’t afford Prithvi, because even Prithvi has become unaffordable, NCPA is completely unaffordable.
There’s way more people doing plays, kids writing about things which matter to them and making their beliefs known and as far as we are concerned, we have not had a political stand, we have done theatre just because we loved the activity, but the more and more meaning is entering into our plays as we go along.
We did a play called A Walk in the Woods, which is a conversation between a Russian and an American Diplomat, which we changed, which acquiring more and more meaning, about the Indian and Pakistan situation. Our play Einstein, which talks about what happened to the Jews, he’s reminiscing about how the students were being marginalised, and how the books were being burnt, about how he discovered he was a Jew only because of the Nazis, otherwise he felt no Jewish sentiments, is something I empathise with completely. When he talks of the next world war, the world war after the next one to be fought with rocks, I know what he’s talking about.
And even the story of Krishan Chandar which we did, Ek Gadhe Ki Aatma Katha, I think it’s pretty political. So we’re not flag-waving political theatre people, but we do not do meaningless stuff. My mission is to create a theatre company which will survive, which will outlive me.
SB: You’ve done such a lot of theatre, and I was reading a quote by Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror to show reality, but art is a hammer to change a soicety.” So that fervour which you’re saying should now be reflected in let’s say Art, in theatre and cinema.
NS: I think it will. I think it will. I have great faith in the next generation. I really feel that this is probably the first national trauma we’re going through. It’s national.
One has often wondered why great writing and great poetry by and large has not emerged, great films, great play-writing – because we haven’t suffered. The way great writing emerged from Germany, Italy, France after World War Two, I’m not wishing something like that happens to us, but I think this is something which has united us, united all free-thinking people, and certainly great art is a result.
SB: Thank you very much Naseer, that was really very, very revealing about what’s going on. But also very frank, it’s not often that people in public life are ready to speak out so frankly, so thank you very much for speaking out to us.