Released on YouTube late last month, the theme of loss recurs often in The Miniaturist of Junagadh. Naseeruddin Shah plays Husyn Naqqash in the short film, an artist whose dogged pursuit of the perfect miniature has cost him his eyesight. Partition, we see, is forcing him to give up his home in Junagadh and move to Karachi. Much like the gramophone he plays, his everyday Urdu today seems obsolete, an artefact. Kishorilal Randeria (Raj Arjun), the man who is buying Naqqash’s home, seems visibly uncomfortable in a Muslim household. As he refuses the sharbat he’s given, we see him as an outsider.
Though melancholic, Miniaturist is never bleak. In its runtime of just 30 minutes, the film repeatedly underscores art’s ability to build bridges, ease tensions and foster tolerance. “It’s the only thing we can hope for,” says Shah, 72. Speaking of present India-Pakistan relations, he adds, “I can only go [to Pakistan] with a message of peace and harmony, with the work I do. I’m not a politician. I don’t make speeches or anything, but I try and convey my feelings through my work. Only art can heal this divide.”
‘The Miniaturist of Junagadh’ underscores art’s ability to build bridges and foster tolerance
There is a renewed frequency with which we are seeing Shah on our screens. Besides Miniaturist and The Daughter, the actor will be seen in another three short films releasing this year—2100 FT, The Wallet and Bin Bulaaye. Shah says he likes working with youngsters: “They now have a chance to try out their abilities without any risk of massive money losses, or without having to deal with the temperament of stars. Short films are a very joyous business. I think it will certainly spread.”
Earlier this year, Shah played a small but crucial role in Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan. More recently, he played Pappi Singh, a Mandarin-speaking Sardar, in Mumbai Dragon, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Modern Love: Mumbai segment. Though Shah says he picked these parts because he wanted to work with Batra and Bhardwaj, there were some other factors at play—“Unlike when I was younger, I no longer have a desire to outshine everyone else. I want to participate in projects that are fun and meaningful.”
Interestingly, Gehraiyaan and Modern Love: Mumbai both released on Amazon Prime Video. Shah doesn’t just believe “OTT is the future”, he goes as far as to say, “Cinema halls will all disappear.” This perhaps explains why he has just spent four gruelling months shooting for Taj: Royal Blood, an OTT series in which he plays the Mughal emperor Akbar. “The show is not stuck in a Mughal-e-Azam syndrome,” says Shah. “The Akbar that will be seen in this series will be surprising—not offensive, but startling. It explores aspects—his conflicts, torments—which have not been seen.”
Given how contested the legacy of Mughals has become of late, Shah insisted on reading scripts of all 12 episodes from the show. “I didn’t want to be part of a Mughal-bashing series, nor one which unnecessarily glorifies these people,” says Shah. “They were kings. Ruthless, lascivious, ambitious and merciless when required. But everything they did is attributed to slaughter and mayhem, which is stupid as people tend to confuse them with Mahmud Ghaznavi, Taimur or marauders like Nadir Shah. Open your eyes and look around. You’ll see what they gave us.”
For Shah, his performance might, at times, be political but his politics is never performance. Seeing the recent assault on Urdu, he says he’s determined to do more work on stage in the language. “It’s my gesture of defiance,” he says. On July 4, when Motley, his theatre company, will start staging a string of plays at Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara, they will start with Manto Ismat Hazir Hain, a production that dramatises the writing of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. “The test of great writing is that it transcends the time it was written in. It’s important to remember that these stories were written almost 100 years ago, in the 1940s. And they still ring true today. We can still find more than a glimmer of reflection of today’s life, relationships, human interactions in them,” says Shah.
In August this year, when Shah takes the stage as a patient with dementia in The Father, audiences in Pune might mistakenly assume the actor has internalised his character’s suffering to better depict it. “I don’t subscribe to that belief anymore. I’m only the bhava (emotion). The audience is the rasa (essence). If I try to get into the psychology of characters, I’m challenging my own sanity. You can’t understand a character you’re playing. Hell, it’s hard enough to understand yourself,” he laughs.