When veteran Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah takes to the stage of the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto next week for a conversation about his career on stage and screen, don't expect a bubbly chat about the delights of Bollywood. Shah has appeared in numerous popular Indian movies, and films created by India's independent cinema, as well as international crossover hits such as Monsoon Wedding and the 2007 Canadian film Amal. But his first love is theatre, and his opinion of his homeland's commercial industry is scathing.
"Indian cinema has contributed to the dumbing-down of the audience big time," he said in an interview in Toronto, where he is appearing in two plays – one in English, the other in Hindi-Urdu, as the inaugural theatre production at the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre. "Indian cinema is in fashion; it is being talked about. Everyone is curious about it. Like Indian food, people like the tasty spices, but people will tire of the spices unless there's substance."
"That's why they called him; he always says naughty things," laughs his wife and co-star, Ratna Pathak Shah, although she also accuses Bollywood of lulling audiences with vapid experiences.
Her husband also points out that the independent Indian cinema showcased, for example, at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, has always been around; he doesn't think there is any reason to herald a new cinematic maturity. "It's not a linear process; junk gets made all over the world."
In any case, Shah would rather make theatre. He and Pathak are currently performing in English at Regent Park in Dear Liar, playing Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, with whom the playwright shared a passionate friendship and a long exchange of letters. Next weekend, they will offer Ismat Apa Ke Naam, a Hindi-Urdu play they have created using short stories by Indian feminist Ismat Chughtai.
Their small Mumbai theatre company, Motley Productions, was founded in 1979 to perform Western classics, including plays by Beckett, Chekhov and Shaw; this is the first time they've toured an English-language production to the West. "We will be judged severely, which is a good thing: We are testing ourselves," Shah says.
Motley Productions first came to Toronto in 2011, invited by the cross-cultural group Why Not Theatre to perform Ismat Apa Ke Naam in Brampton, the Southern Ontario city that is a hub of Canada's South Asian community. That run proved so successful that they are back just 19 months later, this time offering the Hindi-Urdu play (with English subtitles) for a South Asian audience and the English-language one for all communities. It's a downtown gesture neatly suited to the new arts centre in the rebuilt Regent Park, Toronto's ethnically diverse public housing neighbourhood.
But will South Asian audiences who turn out to see an actor whose most recent film was The Dirty Picture, a Bollywood biopic about erotic movie star Silk Smitha, get a tad confused? Probably. Shah says he has come to expect it. "If anyone is coming to see it because he's seen my last movie, don't come because he will be disappointed," Shah says. "I have learned to live with it."
So, for the record, Ismat Apa Ke Naam is based on three Urdu stories by Chughtai, India's Alice Munro, set in rural India in the 1940s. One, told by Shah, is a satire about male-female relations; another, told by Pathak, is a love story set amid India's landed gentry; a third, told by their daughter, actress Heeba Shah, describes childbirth in a railway carriage. "She is very funny, bawdy and wicked," Pathak says of Chughtai. "But she is also deeply, humanely aware of what her characters are going through …They are highly performable."
Although the show has been in the Motley repertoire since 2001, it marked an experiment for a company that had specialized in Western theatre. "We felt the urge to perform our own plays," Shah says. Lacking any dramatic literature in Urdu, Shah and Pathak turned to Chughtai, whose willingness to tackle taboo topics such as sexuality and monogamy made her writing highly controversial and occasionally subject to censorship. (She died in 1991.)
They add that Dear Liar, an American play from the 1960s, is well suited to the same storytelling approach because it is framed as two actors reading from letters rather than playing characters.
So, Shah is not Shaw; instead he is playing the role of an actor – an actor who refuses to be ghettoized. "We don't want to be seen as exotic," he says. "We just want to be good."