By Prof Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: There is a great pleasure in watching a wizard in action: a gymnast, a singer, an actor.
The legendary actor Naseeruddin Shah displayed his wizardry in the play ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam’ this week at the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre in Toronto.
Based on three short stories by radical Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai in the 1930s and 40s, this play presents tantalizing and sensuous profiles of three Indian Muslim women that were unheard of in literature and theatre at that time. The author aroused condemnation and even hatred from the custodians of morality; even today they seem risqué.
Each of the stories was told dramatically by one actor in the troupe. It was, however, Nasseeruddin who brought the house down; he played the role of a dozen different characters of men and women, young and old, all with a master’s touch.
In the multicultural city of Canada, Indians – and South Asians in general – are claiming a place for themselves in theatre, literature, music and dance. The two plays at the Centre – including Dear Liar in English – featured Naseeruddin and Ratna and Heeba Shah, and were sponsored by ‘Why Not’ theatre group.
In the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, Shah stands out as an actor’s actor, deeply committed to his craft, achieving palpable artistry, both in films and on stage, with studied elegance. His is a rare achievement, not only in India but in the world at large.
In more than 130 films, over four decades, and in numerous plays on stage in Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore and Bangalore, Shah has played roles as varied as the great human drama would render; he has played these roles with subtlety, and with utmost confidence.
And he has done so consistently and unfailingly by assuming the persona of each character as though he was truly him.
Time and again, Shah was honoured with National Film Award for Best Actor – for Manthan in 1976, for Sparsh in 1979, for Paar in 1984 – and with Filmfare Awards for Aakrosh, Chakra and Masoom, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan – India’s third highest civilian honour.
International audiences could see Shah’s artistry at work in Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding and in Richie Mehta’s debut film Amal.
For me personally Naseeruddin Shah was at his quintessential best as the great 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib in the television series directed by Gulzar.
Who else but Shah could possibly present the great poet, in the most tumultuous times in the Indian history, and with such aplomb?
(Dr. Sehdev Kumar teaches appreciation of International Films at the University of Toronto)