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Interview Hindi

Was difficult to say I'm an actor with a face like mine: Satish Shah

On his 67th birthday today (he was born on 25 June 1951), the veteran actor speaks to us about his initial struggle in finding acting jobs and his voluntary exile from films.

Keyur Seta

For a comedian, dialogue delivery and comic timing are of prime importance. However, there are few artistes who can amuse by their mere presence. Veteran actor Satish Shah is one of them. With around 250 films and over a dozen television serials to his credit, he is considered one of finest comic actors in the Hindi entertainment business.

On his 67th birthday today (he was born on 25 June 1951), the actor speaks to us at length about his career, the reason he became an actor, his voluntary exile from films and why art filmmakers stopped offering him roles. Excerpts.

How did you become an actor?

Acting for me was an accident. I had no idea what acting is. Nobody from my family is into acting. A class teacher of mine did a mistake by casting me in a play because they couldn’t find anyone else. All others were busy in other plays, so she felt I was the best from the leftovers. I was scared, but I was ordered to act. One has to obey the teacher. But after doing it, I was the one who made the maximum impact. My act wasn’t that great but I had a good voice, lung power and didn’t forget my dialogues, so I became a hero. Then I started acting for fun. Whenever there was a good play in school, I was called. At the same time, I was also into sports and was the school captain. 

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Then I went to St Xavier's College which was a window of opportunity for every [extra-curricular] activity. They used to run Natya Mandal, Sangeet Mandal, English and Urdu theatre groups. I joined Natya and Sangeet Mandals. I became the secretary of the Sangeet Mandal which is now known as the Malhar festival. We used to collect enough money for a professional show, which was the annual show. Even in 1970s, we had a budget of around Rs1 to 1.5 lakh! 

How was your experience at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)? 

I was offered to join the FTII in the first year itself. Shabana [Azmi] was senior to me and she said, let’s go to FTII. She was completing graduation but I had just started and wanted to enjoy college life. I was not inclined towards professional acting as much as I was inclined towards enjoying life.

After my fourth year, I applied in FTII. I got in with flying colours. I stood first throughout my FTII years. Probably that was the only period of my life in education where I didn’t bunk a single class. I made up for my absence in Xavier's. My guruji, Roshan Taneja sahab, specifically mentioned in his autobiography [Moments of Truth: My Life with Acting] that I never missed a single class. 

A still from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)

You don’t come from a film background. How was your initial period in films?

I struggled a lot in my initial period. It was not like today. You only had your black and white photographs. And it was difficult to say that I am an actor, with a face like mine. So, I was thinking of doing a small role in a film made by any of my batchmates and shine in it. 

But that happened after seven years. I passed out in 1976 and Kundan Shah made a film in 1981 called Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Before this film I had done blink-and-miss roles. At that time I couldn't be a chooser, so I had to say yes to anything. It wasn’t more about exposure but survival. Then Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (TV series) happened in 1984 and there has been no looking back. God has been very kind.

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You did a number of off beatfilms at the start of your career like Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978), Gaman (1978) and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980). But later on you became a regular in commercial cinema and were never seen in such films. 

I used to do offbeat earlier because commercial filmmakers never thought of me. And these offbeat filmmakers knew that Satish Shah won’t be expensive and that’s why they cast me. This is simple, there is no intellectuality in it. I had got Rs5000 for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro where I worked for 31 days. Naseer [Naseeruddin Shah] got Rs15000. Not just me, even others got the same amount as mine. Ravi Baswani got may be Rs10000 because his Chashme Buddoor (1981) had become a hit. He was like a star. So, I did all these art films out of obligation rather than inclination. 

What inspired Naseeruddin Shah to choose Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro?

And I am averse to the kind of films where I have no idea what I am doing.  

Later in your career were you not offered any art film?

No, because I got the stamp of a commercial actor. So, the art filmmakers started keeping a distance as they were scared that I will charge a good amount. This isn’t true for all art filmmakers but there are people who start searching for someone else if you start charging a good amount of money. I am not talking about a single person, this is true for the entire world. 

Sarabhai V/s Sarabhai is one of the most celebrated television serials. How important was it for your career?

It was hugely important. I had great fun shooting it. I did quite a few serials after Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. I enjoyed Ghar Jamai and All The Best also. Of all the serials I did, 90 percent became superhits. But I have only done 10-12 serials in my life. 

A still from Judwaa (1997)

You had once said that you don’t do daily soaps because of the hectic schedule. Do you feel churning out five or six episodes per week affects the quality?

It is all a gimmick to make money. Story goes from here to there. The beginning is good but then it goes off track, which is what I feel. Then they are not ready to leave the slot. Then they have to do other antics to gain TRPs. Quality goes to the backseat. They keep dragging with so many close-ups. It reminds me of those arrows in the serial Ramayan, which keep on flying. I wonder how the intelligent audience of today’s time fall for it. 

I am saying all this because I don’t fear anyone. I am not made by anyone. My opinion is my own. 

The shoot of Sarabhai V/s Sarabhai must have been fun.

It was more than fun. When my friends used to visit the sets, they used to complain that we used to take money for doing masti [having fun]. What we enjoyed went across to the audience. We used to eat together and go out. We are still a family. Although we are not working with each other any more, we hold at least one party in three or six months. The bond is such that it will never break. It was at my place that I suggested the idea of Sarabhai V/s Sarabhai - Take 2 and it was decided. JD Majithia agreed. 

But he decided to do it online. Just like our show was used to launch Star One channel, Sarabhai V/s Sarabhai - Take 2 was used to launch their digital platform [Hotstar]. We thought, it doesn’t matter to us as we just wanted to work and have fun. This version wasn’t as clean as the one on the TV. It was the need since it was a digital platform where there is no censorship. However, we were quite uncomfortable doing it as that is not our style. But we did. We were also criticized a bit for this. But if the channel demands it, the producer has to obey. 

Do you think these days people are randomly adding adult content in web series just because there is no censorship?

I don’t know, but I think so. Sumeet [Raghavan, co-star in Sarabhai V/s Sarabhai series] had done a web series Jay Hind. There was a lot of vulgarity. I was taken aback. Then I was told that there is no censor board for internet and there is an audience for such content. This also made me concerned that if today’s generation prefers this, there is no space for entertainment. I haven’t seen Veere Di Wedding (2018), but whatever I saw in the trailer and teaser... Well, I feel I am outdated or maybe it is because of my Gujarati sanskar

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Do you generally watch new films that get released?

No, I don’t see any new films. 

Satish Shah, Johnny Lever at an event

Why is that? 

I have not seen a lot of my own films. I didn’t see Main Hoon Na (2004) full. I saw the latter half. I saw Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) because they had a big premier. For my last few films, sync sound was used, so I didn’t see them. Earlier, we used to see our parts while dubbing for the film.

I did one of the first sync sound films, which was Saathiya (2002). So, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see Fanaa (2006) too for the same reason. But I have seen the original Alaipayuthey (2000) since it had Madhavan [his co-star from television series Ghar Jamai]. I have done around 250 films. Sometimes when I see some names I wonder when I did them. 

Why you aren’t seen in films since now?

I have stopped acting now. 


I don’t know. If I feel like doing, I will do. I can’t do a film just for money. I will do a film only if I get some inspiration from inside. Maybe I got upset after doing my last film Humshakals (2014). Once I committed myself, I had to do all that [in the movie]. It wasn’t my type of humour. People told me that my work was impressive. But that doesn’t make a film. 

What do you generally do on your birthday?

I haven't done anything special since many years. I have stopped celebrating birthdays after my parents’ demise. I lost them in a span of three months. If few friends visit home, it’s okay. And I never need to spend for my wife’s birthday as well since it falls on 24 December [Christmas eve], so someone or the other throws a party.