True theatre lovers stick to the medium despite more money and fame offered in films and television. Actor Saleem Shah is one such artist that has always preferred doing quality work in theatre instead of ‘stupid’ roles in lucrative mediums. But in his two and a half decade long career, he has also played a part in good quality films like ‘English August’, Mammo’, ‘Naseem’ ‘Sarfarosh’, ‘Fanaa’ and TV serials ‘Just Mohabbat’, ‘Byomkesh Bakshi’, ‘Kashmeer’, etc.
In an exclusive, friendly chat with My Theatre Café, the nephew of thespian Naseeruddin Shah opens up about his love for theatre, reasons for staying away from hardcore commercial films and the need of the hour for Urdu theatre.
How did your acting journey begin?â€¨
I was always fascinated by stage plays. My journey with acting started when I was in school. Then I became the drama secretary in my university. So my basic education in theatre happened due to rehearsals at National School of Drama (NSD) and Aligarh University when I was doing Mechanical Engineering.
You have done theatre, films and television. Which medium satisfies you the most and why?
â€¨My personal choice is theatre. It is difficult to point out a reason for it. You earn lots of money in films. Also, people can see you at many places simultaneously. Same goes for television. But while doing theatre, you have to be present for each show. So theoretically, the reasons for doing films and TV are heavier. But theatre is an actor’s medium. A director can’t do anything if the actor isn’t good. So maybe the subconscious reason for me preferring theatre is that it’s an actor’s medium where he gets all his freedom, although within the parameters. In films, however, I am just a toy in the hands of the director. Also, an actor is unaware about which scene will be shot when. Sometimes, the scene where you performed brilliantly is chopped off.
You have also done plays on social issues like ‘Zoha Khan Jawab Do’. Do you think theatre has the capacity of bringing a change in the society?
â€¨I can take a stand that corruption is wrong but at the same time, I might bribe my way out after breaking a signal. So theatre can give an insight into what is right. We can’t expect films to do it, going by the masala and double meaning films made these days. Although two out of ten films give a message, they suffer due to lack of funds and proper release. Theatre can give food for thought. It should be left to the audience as to how they take it. During our show of ‘Zoha Khan Jawab Do’, many people cried but one lady was so touched that she was inconsolable even after it was over. Theatre can strike a chord this way.
Have you deliberately kept yourself away from the hardcore commercial and masala films?
â€¨I have only done few chosen films. You can also say I didn’t get such films (laughs). Actually, people and even some filmmakers are unable to see me do such stupidity. Also, I didn’t approach any filmmaker. I kept on working hard in theatre. However, I am not averse to such films; if I get a really good role, I will surely do it. And a good role need not be lengthy.
You played a 90-year old in Dr M Sayeed Alam’s ‘Ghazanfar Hussain’. How challenging was it?
â€¨For 7-8 years, I was busy in films and TV so I didn’t get time for theatre, although I was taking workshops. Dr M Sayeed Alam approached me for this play around six years ago. After reading it, I was floored! I thought this is exactly the play I had been searching for my comeback in theatre. It is wonderfully written. It was surely challenging but then, non-challenging things don’t attract me.
You are the nephew of the acting legend Naseeruddin Shah. Does he keep giving you tips on acting and do you discuss acting or theatre with him?â€¨
During my initial days, I have learnt a lot from Naseer sahab as I was also a part of his group, Motley. Everyone knows he is an acting institute in himself. Due to my relation with him, I got the privilege of living with him and observing him through close quarters. Knowingly or unknowingly, he has given me a lot of insights and I too knowingly or unknowingly have accepted them. However, both of us strictly never supported the idea of me getting roles due to his influence. At the end of the day, your talent counts, although saying such a thing can be a bit foolish in today’s times. But we have always refrained ourselves from doing that.
What is the need of the hour for Urdu theatre currently?â€¨
Aga Hashar Kashmiri, quite a few people have kept Urdu theatre alive. However, by taking donations and various grants, people didn’t allow Urdu theatre to stand on its feet. Hence, people started terming it as ‘dying art’. Our theatre institute is in Delhi (NSD) and all these grants also happen there. Plus, people spend meaninglessly on sets after receiving grants. In such a situation, Dr M Sayeed Alam made Urdu theatre stand on its feet by making it self-sufficient.
Around 20 years ago, NSD used to give scholarships of Rs 350. Now its Rs 2000-2,500. What is the value of that amount in today’s times? You can’t give proper due to those who wish to pursue theatre but you are spending lavishly on sets! If this continues, we would become an endangered species. Another issue is that the makers of some big plays have started charging even Rs 2000 for a single ticket!
What are your forthcoming projects?
â€¨I am making ‘Zoha Khan Jawab Do’ into a film. I will also be doing my solo act ‘Bhelpuri’ in Mumbai soon. We have already done around 50 shows of it. I am also doing some film projects.