Naseeruddin Shah and Albert Einstein couldn't be further apart. Other than an eerie physical likeness, they have nothing in common. One is the German-born theoretical physicist who developed the general theory of relativity while the other is one of India's greatest film and stage actors. One is entertaining for us to watch while the other, if we are being honest, would probably be a bore to listen to if he was lecturing us on the pillars of modern physics.
Yet here is where Naseeruddin's genius bears fruit. Known for his natural ability to give life to characters, Shah will re-live the life of the legendary scientist in Abu Dhabi and Dubai theatres from January 28 to 30. In the 75 minutes of nonstop performance, Shah will reveal different facets of Einstein's personality to the audience. The play, written by Gabriel Emanuel, and directed by Shah himself, portrays Einstein in a more realistic light as a man who is riddled with guilt and disappointment for inadvertently creating the bomb which caused such devastating destruction in World War 2.
Which other actor can we imagine to bring a sense of realism and believability to a character who, to many of us is as stale as his many black and white photos? This is Shahs's expertise and why audiences rush to see him perform. Ironically though the legend has never seen himself as the stereotypical leading man.
"I never thought I could be a Clark Gable or a Gary Cooper, I could see that. I wasn't built like that."
His career thus far proves otherwise. Thanks to his unique methods in acting Shah has won numerous awards including three National Film Awards, three Filmfare Awards, an award at the Venice Film Festival, a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dubai International Film Festival 2015. The government of India has honoured him with the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan awards for his contributions to Indian cinema.
The living legend had a lengthy discussion with City Times on why the stage feels like home, the role of the Asian actor in the West and the future of Pakistani films.
When did the role for Einstein come to you? Why did you find it interesting?
I had the script lying with me for a few years. I read it and filed it away to do at some point in the future. Last year I was asked by the Prithvi theater to do something for their festival so it occurred to me that I could do this. Because there wasn't much time and there is just one actor, myself, involved in it.
Everyone asked me if I chose to do it because of the physical resemblance; that certainly helped I'd say but that wasn't really the reason. Einstein made a very famous statement - that if there is a third world war, then the fourth one will be fought with rocks. Really, a chilling statement. But it's very true. He foresaw the horrors that would follow and felt responsible for having had created this monster.
Apart from the fact that I'm not at all knowledgeable in physics (laughs) it wasn't my love for the subject that got me to do it. And the play is not a technical revise, not a boring scientific lecture.
It's about the failings, the weakness of a man like Einstein who is perceived normally as having one dimension. That of being a genius. But he had many other aspects to him, which I have touched upon. For example his marriages, his relationship with his parents, with his teachers and the fact that he was an incorrigible flirt (laughs).
What's it like to play a genius? How did you prepare?
It's a challenge because he's so well documented. You see, because if you're playing one of these historical people their voices are recorded, the way they walked, the way they sat, so you have to conform to that. I don't think you need to understand the character fully. How long would it take you to understand Einstein for God's sake? You can spend a lifetime. I don't pretend to psychoanalyse the characters I'm playing, I try to empathise with them, because in a play it's usually the emotional time of their lives, not the intellectual side.
How did you prepare for the role?
Well I listened to recordings of his voice. I saw a little bit of footage of him . . . he had a kind of shuffling walk but he was pretty fit otherwise. I had to approximate the accent. He spoke in a thick German accent even when he lived in America. So I had great fun doing that because doing an accent is always fun and I haven't really done that too many times. Basically I had to learn my lines and not bump into the furniture.
What do you like about performing live on stage?
It may sound a little strange but the fact is I cannot stop feeling gratitude for the stage. It's an addiction, is the only way I can explain. The first time I went on stage within a few seconds, I knew this is where I belong. This is where I'm going to stay. Because I don't think I've ever had a moment in my life which I could recall absolutely lucidly the sense of being accepted . the feeling that you're getting across you know? That is what is very precious to me because I always had a problem with that as a child - getting across to people. That is why, it gives me a sense of fulfillment, it makes me feel complete, it feels like coming home.
How do you prepare before a performance on stage?
I just make sure that I don't get into any kind of state during the day. I try to avoid stress of any kind. Apart from that I don't do anything in particular. I go and play a set of tennis if I feel like it or sometimes I even watch a movie. I just try and get into an even state of mind. Whatever helps me do that, I do.
Which contemporary actors from the West do you enjoy watching on the screen?
Kevin Spacey I think is the actor with the greatest depth. He's probably one of the greatest actors ever. I have been watching a lot of his work, unfortunately I haven't seen him on the stage but I have seen many of his films and television work. He is quite astounding in the way he keeps so still yet is totally expressive. And I'm certain his effortlessness is achieved after a great deal of effort.
How do you add a sense of believability, of realism to the characters you inhabit?
There is a bit of research. Observation and imagination go hand in hand, they aren't two separate things. An actor has to be observing all the time and he's got to use his imagination too and he has to apply that observation into his work.
What I do is I try to think like the character. I don't claim that I become the character or anything like that. I don't thing that's possible. I think it's a load of nonsense that has been propagated by American actors. If I were to play a boxer tomorrow, I would have to practice for two years in order to look like a boxer. So I don't believe that these actors became the character they were playing. They approximated the characters. That's what one tries to do, and that's why I find it very difficult acting in these popular movies, because you have to conform to stock characterisations. You're not free to use your imagination and I find that very constricting.
Would you say that acting comes from a visceral place? A place you can't pinpoint?
Absolutely right. It's not as simple as 'something happens'. It's something that has taken root in you at you don't know which point.
I'll tell you a really interesting fact regarding that. I was playing Mahatma Gandhi and a very old friend of my mum's, she was about 80 years old, came to see the play and after the play she gave me a big hug and said, 'You were very good. You know how much you reminded me of your mother?' So I said, 'what? Come on my mum doesn't look like Gandhiji for God's sake, she was much prettier!' (laughs). So she said, 'no, there was something about you that reminded me of her, and all the time you were performing, I was thinking of her and I was thinking of how proud she would have been. But the way you sat, the way you rose, it was exactly like her.'
Now that's really strange because I was trying to embody Gandhi's characteristics, but somewhere, memories of my mum . . . without even realising it came to me . . . I'm part of her and those mannerisms came most easily to me.
You belong to a select group of Indian actors that has been involved in Pakistani cinema and theater. Can you tell us about your relationship with Pakistani cinema?
In the last 10 years or so there have been a few young people who have come along who are trying to make these movies in Pakistan, that are trying to tell the truth of the times. I was lucky to be approached by a couple of those filmmakers. One of whom is Shoaib Mansoor who made the film, Khuda Ke Liye which I feel is the most important film I've ever done in my life. Because it talks of issues, which have bothered me since I was a child. Shoaib talks about these issues in an entertaining and engrossing way. So I was a part of that movie and that started my relationship with Pakistan.
Among the generation there I find a high level of intelligence. The people there really want to do something and they want to be part of it and I have a feeling that change is not too far away and certainly great art will emerge from Pakistan. Already there are great painters and writers there.
It's only a matter of time before great cinema emerges not only from Pakistan but also from Bangladesh, from Nepal from all these countries, because these countries have been through quite a bit of hell. And somehow that seems to produce great art.
How important are international awards for you such as the Academy Awards?
It depends on your priorities. It doesn't matter to me. Because I don't think nature made a mistake by having me be born in this country. So I know I belong here. I know that the time is not yet right for an Asian to be a star in the West. It won't happen, and people are chasing foolish dreams. It's just hunger for more recognition, international recognition. I can understand because Hollywood is the end of the yellow brick road, you finally get there and it's the land of dreams. I've been there and done that and I didn't particularly enjoy it.
I did one Hollywood movie, huge budget, which I got great tons of money for it and I hated every moment of doing it and watching it. It's likely to happen in Britain earlier than in America. Because in Britain now the Asians are second third fourth generations. You can't tell a young strapping Punjabi youth there from a British youth. They speak the same language, they speak the same accent, they are as confident as any native is and that will certainly make it happen in Britain. But in America its still some time away. I'm not at all averse to do a great part if it comes my way from Hollywood. But so far none has.
What advice do you have for young Asian actors who are trying to break into the industry?
I don't know what advice I can offer except that they may have to live with the fact that they are part of a transition. And that may mean unfortunately that they may not receive the success that they perhaps deserve. But, I think it's good enough for them to be part of a transition. There are guys like Dev Patel who have made a difference. In any case when you chose to be an actor you should have known what's in store.
Copyright © 2022 Khaleej Times. All Rights Reserved.