“Saffron Inclination was Always There … But Not So In The Face As It Is Today”: Naseeruddin Shah Discusses Urdu and Saffronisation in Bollywood

Shah observed that there was a palpable influence of saffron politics in the Bollywood industry, but emphasised that ''no negative forces can ever dare to snatch my identity from me.'' Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
22 April, 2018

The veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah recently introduced a show, “Ghalib, Begum Umrao Ki Nazar Se,” conceptualised and directed by the renowned vocalist Iqbal Ahmad Khan, at the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi. The show, which told the story of the  iconic poet Mirza Ghalib through the eyes of his wife Begum Umrao, was an amalgamation of two Urdu storytelling traditions—dastangoi and ghazal gayaki. Before it began, Shah had a brief but candid conversation with Rana Siddiqui Zaman, a senior film and art critic, about the resurgence of the art of dastangoi, the usage of Urdu in recent Bollywood films, and the growing presence of saffronisation in the film industry. Shah observed that there was a palpable influence of saffron politics in the Bollywood industry, but emphasised that “no negative forces can ever dare to snatch my identity from me.” He added, “I am a proud musalmaan and a proud Indian.”

Rana Siddiqui Zaman: Dastangoi has more viewers today than ordinary plays. What do you think is the reason behind the revival of dastangoi and the fact that it has been widely accepted and appreciated by the audiences?

Naseeruddin Shah: Dastangoi is the oldest form of theatre and is also close to my heart. Its impact was always powerful, so it had to come back. And see how it is faring on the Indian and global stage! Dastangoi is a good narration, not a mechanical joke. I don’t believe in technical magic and marvels on the stage. Simple camera angles, content-driven, text-oriented stories by the able playwright, powerful dialogues, flawless adakari [acting] do wonders on stage—not technically-produced grandeur. I get annoyed off by artificially-created lies on stage.

RSZ: How would you rate our musical plays?

NS: Musical plays? Are there any?  Our so-called musical dramas are nothing but a fusion of stupidities. They make one singer hop from one place to the other, and sing. They insert a cabaret dancer in a corner and make her do vulgarity on the stage. They have no sense of dialogues to be delivered by the characters, which does not even match the actor’s voice, which also sings! They use backdrops of technical marvels, which says nothing of their own expertise of creativity in stage design. They don’t deserve to be called musical plays.

RSZ: There appears to be a sudden attention towards Urdu in recent days, with emerging festivals reinforcing the beauty of the language, increasingly frequent evenings of ghazals, and the revival of the dastangoi. What do you think is the reason for this?

NS: Fascination for Urdu is not a bad idea. But one must be very clear about this thing—especially those who say that Urdu zabaan mar gayi hai; zaban to zinda hai aur rahegi [that Urdu language is dead; it is alive and will always be]—but it is not the property of Muslims. No one has a haq [right] over the language. Zaban ka mazhab se nahi, ilaqe se vabastgi hoti hai [A language is not associated with religion, but with the region]. Urdu will remain forever because it has that delicacy, that humility and that warmth, which enriches a language without anyone having to support it. It is a self-sustainable language. Issey hamdardi ki zaroorat nahi [It doesn’t need sympathy.]

RSZ: What is lacking in our Urdu plays?

NS: There are barely any Urdu plays happening. [smiles] Our Urdu knowing playwrights now should write new plays in Urdu-Hindi mixed or Hindustani, instead of digging old graves.

RSZ: The few songs that use Urdu words today seem to do so without knowing its proper usage.

NS: Yes, the fact is, Hindi films have done much harm to the language, especially for the past few decades. Where do we find words like baad-e-saba [the morning breeze], zulf [long hair], ghata [clouds] in today’s lyrics? Urdu se unki door tak ki koi vabastgi nahi hai [They seem to have no connection with Urdu]. Earlier, the censor board certificates used to have Urdu and Hindi both—now it is vanishing, Film titles, as shown in film posters and screens, used to be in Urdu too.

RSZ:  Several actors, directors and producers have told me, off record, that there is a sudden restlessness in the film industry, because of a visible divide due to the saffronisation in the country. Is Bollywood feeling the effect of saffronisation?

NS: A polarisation out of a saffron inclination was always there. We always knew about it—boo toh aati hi thi [The stench was present]. But not so in the face as it is today—and it is far more dangerous. It is creating a feeling of restlessness among buddies in the industry. I would any day prefer a person who makes his saffron intentions clear to me, rather than keep on breaking my heart by subtle ways of expressing it—basdilon par vaar na karey. But yes, I do feel it in the surroundings, much more than earlier, and among people we have lived and worked with.

RSZ: Does it anger you?

NS: Of course. Bohot si baton par bohot ghussa aata hai [A lot of things make me very angry]. This is my country and I am proud of it. Let them [saffron forces] change what they want. They are already changing history, institutions of art, culture and literature, attacking the language, making films a useless and silly vehicle of propaganda, and what not. Do I care? Two hoots. Instead, I laugh it off. I don’t want to be seen or understood as a victimised Muslim. I am not. I can never be. No negative forces can ever dare to snatch my identity from me. I have absolutely no identity crisis.  I am a proud musalmaan and a proud Indian. No one can dare try to tell me who I am, or where I should have been. If anyone dares, he will have to fight with me first—main ladoonga. No one in the film industry, or otherwise, dares to show his saffron colour to me and compare it with me and my beliefs.

This interview has been edited and condensed.