It’s Naseerji’s birthday! How wonderful! His career is so long and so impressive, I don’t think I can possibly hope to do justice to it in one post. So I am going to do the best I can and if I miss something, just mention it in the comments and maybe I will put it in for next years post! Anyway, here are 26 reasons for now, for the age he was in his first movie.
1. I love him because he is both one of the few school-trained actors in Hindi cinema, and one of the few with no family connections. He came from Delhi, where he went to Aligarh University, and then the National School of Drama, before traveling to Bombay and trying to make it in the film and stage scene there.
2. I love him because, at age 19, he formed his first connection to the film industry when he married Surekha Sikri’s sister, 16 years older than him. The marriage was a mistake, but I love him for patiently working to pay off his promised alimony in order to get out of it, and trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter by his first wife.
3 I love him because his second wife is Ratna Pathak, who is AWESOME. I love her in everything I have seen her in, she just has such a refreshing casualness onscreen.
4 I love him because at the same time he was dealing with all this upheaval in his personal life, he continued to do good serious work in his professional life, ranging from art films like Nishant with Shyam Benegal in 1975 (his first official film role), to Hum Paanch, his first big hit, a Boney Kapoor produced Mithun Chakraborty action film.
5. I love him because he worked with Shashi Kapoor multiple times and was instrumental in reviving Prithvi Theaters, the live theater venue that was Shashi’s dream in honor of his father, Prithviraj, who had founded the Prithvi theater company but had never been able to raise the money to build them a permanent home.
6. Possibly his most famous role of the 80s is in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, culminating in the amazingly cynical use of “Hum Honge Kamyab” at the end.
7. Either that, or in Umrao Jaan, where he wasn’t a main character, but he still made his mark. Although no one could steal that movie from Rekha, who was glorious in it (and I say that as someone who isn’t terribly fond of Rekha). But it’s still kind of a tribute to Naseeruddin Shah, that he is the kind of actor who is more interested in the part and the film as a whole, then in making sure he gets a sizeable role.
8. The 80s was really the decade for Naseerji, when he was able to navigate easily between art and popular films. And when the parallel cinema in India in general was at its peak, providing plenty of challenging parts for him. He was also in Masoom, a movie that managed to cross between the two arenas, and provide the ultimate version of a story that has been retold in films from Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai to Main Hoon Na to Shandaar to Brothers and dozens of others.
9. Of course, by the end of the decade, that era of film was ending and Naseerji’s career started veering more towards the character roles and villains in big budget productions, with only a few thoughtful character parts mixed in.
10. Which was wonderful news for mainstream films, since it meant that Naseerji was around to mentor and train dozens of young actors who ended up working opposite him, for instance a young Shahrukh Khan in his second released film (he had already worked with Aamir in Aamir’s forgotten first film, Holi).
11. I love Naseerji because, as the 90s rolled on, he resisted the temptation his fellow 80s art actors fell to, and did not leave film for television (Pankaj Kapur) or overseas productions (Om Puri) and instead stayed in India and kept working, taking whatever part was offered him.
12. I love him because his dedication paid off in 2001 when he was cast in Monsoon Wedding, which became a massive cross over hit (to this day, it is the one Indian film I can bring up at a dinner party and know everyone will have seen).
13. He could have used that as a jumping off point for an international career, or a return to his art film roots. But instead, after one small part in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he was back in India, adding a touch of class and interest to the bad guy role in B-grade action movies, and the occasional art film for an old friend.
14. I love him because he works hard! 10 parts in 2013 alone, when he was 64 (or 63, there are varying reports of his birthdate) and could easily have started downshifting to elder statesmen parts in select films.
15. And I love him because he seems sincerely thrilled that his son is acting, but at the same time is not openly assisting him or using his connections or pull to give him any advantages.
16. It’s probably because I have no taste, but those terrible 90s action movies are some of my favorite performances from him! Or maybe it’s just because he really shone against that backdrop?
17. Although he was also pretty great in some 90s romances.
18. And he was amazing playing the evil brother/co-conspirator to future Ranimaa from Bahubaali, Ramya Krishnan, in Chaahat.
19. I also love the sadness and coldness he somehow managed to combine in his performance as Gulfam Hassan in Sarfarosh. Plus, this is my all time favorite Qawwali.
20. And then there’s Monsoon Wedding. The only non-Satyajit Ray movie to be included in the Criterion Collection.
21. Post-Monsoon wedding, as I said, he returned to his action movie parts. Including one of my personal favorite performances in one of my guilty pleasure action films, Asambhav. Plus, he got to act opposite his old friend from the art theater scene, Tom Alter!
22. He had some slightly more dignified roles, of course, like Shahrukh’s father in Main Hoon Na (strangely replaying Masoom over again, but as a prologue to an action film), and in Bhardwaj’s first of his Shakespeare tragedies, Maqbool (Macbeth). A few years later, he would show up again in Omkara (Othello).
23. But a good 50% of his output continued to be glorious happy trash. Like, for instance, Krrish! To which he lent some much needed gravitas.
24. On the less trashy side of things, he was also in Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na, co-starring with his wife, and now this is always how I imagine their real life marriage to be as well.
25. In recent years, he’s gotten more and more starring roles, either because people are learning to appreciate his genius again, or because the industry has shifted so more films are being made that have space for an odd looking older gentlemen. Either way, it gave us Vidya Balan seducing him in a series of bad wigs, which is just the best thing ever!
26. And, before that, seducing him in a lovely meditation on how the heart never really grows old.