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When a protest got Naseeruddin Shah his first film role: Birthday special

The incident was shared by actor Atul Tiwari at a prayer meeting last month for the late playwright-actor-filmmaker Girish Karnad last month.

Keyur Seta

No list of finest Indian actors is complete without Naseeruddin Shah in it. The thespian, an alumnus of the National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), has performed various types of roles in a wide range of films and plays in a career spanning more than 40 years.

Shah began his journey in cinema with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975), which also starred Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, Amrish Puri, Anant Nag, Mohan Agashe, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Sadhu Meher.

The film saw Shah play Vishwam, youngest son of a rich and powerful landlord (Puri). Though he is married to Rukmani (Smita Patil), Shah's character gets attracted to Sushila (Azmi), wife of the newly appointed village schoolmaster played by Karnad.

But there is an interesting tale of how Shah landed the role, which is worth revisiting on the actor's 70th birthday today. The amusing tale was recounted by veteran actor Atul Tiwari at a prayer meeting held for Karnad last month in Mumbai. 

Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri and Anant Nag in a still from Nishant

When Shah and his long-time associate and friend Om Puri were students at the FTII, they had all gone on strike — some things never change — against the then director, Karnad. Karnad had become FTII director at a young age. “He became director at just 35; some of his students like Saeed Akhtar Mirza were older,” Tiwari recalled.

The strike was led by Shah, who along with Om Puri and others staged a dharna, a sit-down protest, outside Karnad’s cabin. “Girish told them he might have to call the police if they continued sitting outside his office. The protestors retorted that they would lie down instead and so they did. Girish laughed and just returned to his office,” said Tiwari.

It was during this strike that Karnad got Shah his break in cinema. “Even as Girish Karnad was fighting a battle with the students and trying to resolve the strike, he called up Shyam Benegal and told him he has a good actor called Naseeruddin Shah to cast for his next film Nishant. He said he is a bit weird but he is a wonderful actor and that Benegal would not find a better actor,” said Tiwari.

Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad in Nishant

Highlighting the situation, Tiwari said, “On the one hand, you have this battle going on with him [Shah]; at the same time you are recommending him. You need a big heart to do this which Girish Karnad certainly had.”

Interestingly, at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2015, Karnad and Shah had an interaction where they recalled the incident. Karnad recalled that when the strike was going on, he was told by the Union information and broadcasting ministry to rusticate Shah and Rajendra Jaspal (another actor who was also a student then). “But I said they are the best students. I don’t want to lose my best students. I will sort it out,” said Karnad.

Karnad also recalled that Benegal did not want a 'hero material' actor for the particular role in Nishant. “He said he doesn’t want a Rajesh Khanna type of person. He said he wants someone normal, simple,” said Karnad. 

Making light of the incident, Shah added that a number of actors were rejected for the role for being too good-looking. “I had lost a girlfriend because she thought I was not good-looking enough to be in the movies. And I got the role in Nishant because I wasn’t good-looking enough and because I looked good for the part,” said Shah.

Girish Karnad (1938-2019): Renaissance Man bids adieu

Shah also said Karnad had seen a play of his which had prompted him to recommend him to Benegal and it wasn't just his ability as a protestor. “It was a play called Zoo Story. Then he called Shyam. And in 10 minutes looking very closely at me Shyam told me I had been cast [for the film],” he said. 

Despite acting in more than 200 films, Nishant remains closest to Naseeruddin Shah because he could empathize with the character. “He is very much like me. I have been the youngest of three brothers. I have been the butt of ridicule. I have been the slightly stupid person. I have been the one who makes mistakes. The one who gets easily smitten. Just like the character in Nishant,” said Shah.