A few days after having watched Sanjay Leela’s Bansali’s latest, Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), I found myself going back to an old favorite – Mandi, directed by Shyam Benegal and based on a story by the famous Urdu writer, Ghulam Abbas. It tells the story of a brothel in Hyderabad run by Rukmani Bai. Out of the many intriguing aspects of the film, I realized how much I look forward to the character of Tungrus, played by Naseeruddin Shah, a faithful helper filled with alcohol and prophetic words by the night and successfully tames a monkey by the morning.
Shah impersonates the character so well that it is difficult to imagine that in the same year (1983), he starred in films like Masoom and Woh Saat Din. Such is the prowess of the auteur, Naseeruddin Shah! Aged 71 now and hailed as one of the best actors to grace the Indian film industry, he continues to bring life to the characters he plays on screen, even in roles with as little screen time as Vinod Khanna, Alisha’s father in Gehraiyaan (2022).
At the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture in Kolkata 2015, Naseeruddin Shah says, “Anyone at any time can be transcendently wonderful or irredeemably rotten depending on many factors, not necessarily talent or intentions alone. But in our little pond, an actor’s punctuality and ability to speak on cue is enough to qualify him as “good”, and being able to cry without the help of glycerine puts him in the league of “great”…” Hence, it doesn’t require saying that judging Shah’s performances merely on the basis of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is not the intention of this top ten list. We will be looking at ten of his best performances in ten landmarks films in Indian cinema. After all, in Shah’s own words, no actor can ever be better than the work he is in.
I must mention here that this list has been curated from a personal point of view, and I have not taken into consideration the popularity or the success of the movies so much, only to what extent Shah does justice to the character he plays in these movies. If you think there are better performances or films that I have missed out, feel free to mention them below. Happy Reading!
Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (2008)
A landmark rom-com in Bollywood and a favorite across all generations, I chose this film for the Special Mention category because Naseeruddin Shah plays Amar Singh Rathore, the protagonist’s (played by Imran Khan) late father, whom we see only in glimpses throughout the film. His role is crucial to the context of the plot and Jai’s coming-of-age in love and life.
Shah comes alive as a life-size portrait when he is in the company of his wife, Savitri Singh Rathore (played by Ratna Pathak), and speaks animatedly about the bravery imbibed in the Rathore blood for generations. The exchanges with his wife are hearty, reminding us of parents talking with each other about their children. Shah plays his part with the natural fluency of a now-dead royal patriarch, who only has words and the past to fall upon. It does add a much-required frivolity to the narrative of the film.
Watch Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na on Netflix
10. Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980)
If you are familiar with John Osborne’s renowned play, Look Back in Anger, you possibly know why Albert Pinto is angry. Played by Naseeruddin Shah, Pinto is a young, Christian car mechanic affected by the world – social, political, religious, and economic – around him. We trace his life and his larger realizations in this underrated and underappreciated film from Shah’s career.
His character is problematic with respect to the treatment he mates out to the woman, Stella (played by Shabana Azmi) in his life, and I don’t mean to defend it by citing its context. That is just how the character is fashioned – angrily. Shah seems to rope in some amount of his evil charms from the character of the subedar he played in Mirch Masala (1987) and better it with a sumptuous indulgence of anger.
Stella defines him best when she remarks that Pinto’s brain stops working when he is angry, refusing to listen to anyone (read: her) and only saying what he wants. It is a role that certainly contributed to defining the stereotype of the angry young man in Bollywood cinema and has remained unmatched even after Manav Kaul’s commendable efforts in the latest adaptation of this film, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai? (2019).
Watch Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai on YouTube
9. Iqbal (2005)
Directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, this is a coming-of-age story of a disabled boy, Iqbal (played by Shreyas Talpade), who loves to play cricket and dreams of playing for the Indian Cricket team. Although he enrolls himself in an academy under Guruji (played by Girish Karnad), he is unable to keep up with the boys, gets thrown out eventually, and takes the help of a local drunkard, Mohit (played by Naseeruddin Shah), to give wings to his dreams. It won the National Award for the Best Film on Other Social Issues and won nominations in several categories.
Starring in a supporting role, Shah delivers a strong performance as a drunk and a cricket coach. His methodology of teaching is unique, to the extent of substituting fielders with buffaloes during practice, adapted to Iqbal’s learning curve. Initially, his words towards Iqbal aren’t kind; they help get the job done – train him to perfection. Mohit gradually becomes a caring coach, sharing in Iqbal’s pains and healing the cracks on his foot. It is a different role – a sports coach – and Shah doesn’t falter one bit.
Watch Iqbal on Zee5
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8. Pestonjee (1987)
Directed by Vijaya Mehta, this film leads us inside the chambers of a Parsi home, community, and traditions. We meet two very dear friends, Phiroj Shah (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and Pestonjee (played by Anupam Kher), who look like they could sacrifice their souls for each other in friendship. Unfortunately, Phiroj starts keeping his distance from Pestonjee and his newly married wife, Jeroo (played by Shabana Azmi), with whom he is in love. A complex web of emotions around relationships, marriage, and, most importantly – happiness – is laid out for the audience to enjoy and think over. It went on to win the Best Feature Film Award in Hindi at the 35th National Film Awards.
Naseeruddin Shah shines as Phiroj Shah in a quiet, moody, and restrained way. He is a young man who watches the love of his life get married in front of him; that peculiar sadness in his eyes persists throughout the film. He near-perfects the adaption of the Parsi mannerism for this role. Shabana Azmi and Anupam Kher are equally stunning in their performances, but nothing like walking through the emotional turmoil in Shah’s shoes and experiencing an epiphany at the same him as him.
Rent Pestonjee on Cinemas of India
7. Ijaazat (1987)
Adapted from Subodh Ghosh’s story, “Jotugriha” and directed by Gulzar, Ijaazat is a personal favorite for two reasons – its music and Shah’s performance. One night, Mahendra (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudha (played by Rekha), once married and in love, now separated, accidentally cross paths at a railway station waiting room. The rest of the film is poetic, albeit not the most progressive, take on separation. The constant lingering presence of Mahendra’s ex-lover, Maya (played by Anuradha Patel), in their married life is bittersweet. Regret and snippets of memory from their past life cut into the present to draw a tender portrait of lost love.
Shah, as Mahendra, is a character straddling between his past and present. He is uncannily selfish in his desires and decisions, therefore, being mostly devoid of the audience’s empathy. The easy complacence about him strikes me the most, especially knowing that he was suffering from the angst of a lover-husband at the same time. He blurs the edges of the love triangle, which otherwise seems to be etched out clearly for us, so well that you are forced to partake in his loneliness and hint of regret by the end of the film. Shah makes Mahendra what the character is really meant to be – human.
Watch Ijaazat on MX Player
6. Masoom (1983)
Shekhar Kapur’s directorial debut and adapted from Erich Segal’s Man, Woman and Child, Masoom has been hailed as one of the classics in Bollywood featuring Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah as the Malhotras, happily married with two daughters, Pinky and Minni. However, the discovery of a nine-year-old son, Rahul (played by Jugal Hansraj), from Mr. Malhotra’s affair from the past with Bhavana (Supriya Pathak), stirs trouble in his otherwise happy life. What follows is a tale told with maturity about infidelity, marriage, and love, holding up a mirror to the innocence of childhood.
I am personally affected by the swift change in character that occurs in Shah during the course of this film. In the beginning, he is full of laughter, jokes, and songs, but soon, they precipitate into a sense of perplexity. The growth is traced so beautifully by Shah’s performance that when he is at the railway station, inquiring if everything is in place for Rahul’s journey, you start noticing how frivolity has metamorphosed into responsibility and only affection abounds. The film is gorgeously shot, and the narrative is richly detailed – both contributing hand and glove to bring out the simple complexity of D.K. Malhotra’s situation.
Watch Masoom on Prime Video
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5. Ishqiya (2010)
Abhishek Chaubey’s directorial debut takes us through the North Indian hinterlands into the lives of rustic lives of the Vermas. Khalujaan (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (played by Arshad Warsi) are two criminals who share a love-hate relationship so sweet that you forget about the barbaric crimes they are capable of committing. Once they take refuge under Krishna Verma (played by Vidya Balan), the three are engaged in a seductive journey of love and secrets. It successfully incorporates elements of the spaghetti western and the neo-noir in the Indian context.
In a scene where Shah is explaining to Balan why his names, sounding old, do injustice to him and that he should be addressed as “Jaan”, we are forced to break into a beguiling smile at the old man’s flirting skills. He is romantic but, in a crude way, adding to the charm of Khalujan, who is already quite quirky in his clothes and words for his age. Shah, in an interview with Anupama Chopra for the NDTV, had confessed that this was a significant role for him to break out of the father-son roles he was being offered then, and he proves every inch worth it during its 115 minutes-long runtime.
Watch Ishqiya on Netflix
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4. Sparsh (1980)
Directed by Sai Paranjype, the film leads us into the life of a disabled school principal, Anirudh Parmar (played by Naseeruddin Shah), and a young widow, Kavita Prasad (played by Shabana Azmi). It has proved to be quite groundbreaking in its dealing with themes around disability, especially the ‘touch’ (read: sparsh) of love among the disabled, winning the National Film Award in the Hindi feature film category that year. It is replete with metaphors of sight and blindness, adding a layer of complexity to the plot already transfixed upon the grey areas in human relationships.
In the scene at his office where Kavita addresses the blind as “bechara” (poor thing), Shah’s face stiffens. He casually sheds his gaiety to tell her that they might be blind, lacking in something and in need of help, but they certainly don’t want to be reminded of their helplessness over and over again. With the progress in the narrative, his head and heart collide, blinding him of love. His performance as a disabled man moves me every time I watch the film, noticing the slight details that make it so nuanced. I understand that a perfectly abled actor playing the role of a disabled man is fundamentally problematic, it is Bollywood in the 1980s, and I am afraid we have to cut it some slack. Shah’s performance won him the Filmfare Award in the category of Best Actor that year.
Watch Sparsh on YouTube
3. A Wednesday! (2008)
Written and directed by Neeraj Pandey, this film has become quite an inspiration for a breed of OTT thrillers, such as A Thursday (2022). It traces the extent to which a common man, played by Naseeruddin Shah, will go, to shake the system up for voicing his grievances against the government. Interestingly, there exists no official records of this incident, and our narrator, Prakash Rathod (played by Anupam Kher), the retiring Mumbai police commissioner, believes everything happened for the best.
Shah is the singular protagonist-antagonist who shoulders the film, opposes the government, all the while being an “aad aadmi” (common man). He carefully traces the line between being didactic and melodramatic, measuring out the scope of the role with every dialogue that he delivers, especially when he tries to explain to Rathod his motive behind this operation and draws the analogy of the cockroaches in his home. If you look closely, the pride (also hint of patriotism) in him borders on unruly nature that is threateningly noteworthy, even as you watch it on your screens today. Further, Shah teamed up with Pandey for another similar performance in Aiyaary (2018).
2. Aakrosh (1980)
Directed by Govind Nihalani and written by Vijay Tendulkar, it won the ‘Golden Peacock’ for the Best Film at the International Film Festival of India, the Best Film at the National Film Awards Hindi feature film category, among many others. Lahanya Bhiku (played by Om Puri) is a lowly peasant who has been arrested to hide the crime of his foremen, the rape and consequent murder of his wife, Nagi (played by Smita Patil). He is rendered voiceless – literally and metaphorically – by the violence he undergoes. It is interspersed with metaphors but doesn’t become too didactic, even during the climax when the final act of violence ensues.
Naseeruddin Shah plays a pivotal role in this social drama. He is the young, upper-caste lawyer appointed by the Government to take up Bhiku’s case. He is faced with complete silence on his behalf and is forced to go digging for answers in Bhiku’s socio-political background. The audience comes across important discoveries through him. Shah is relentless in his role, desperately trying to coerce Bhiku into speaking, insistent with empathy in his voice, the desperation in his voice ringing clear when he says “… aise chup baithe rahoge toh main bhi kya kar paunga tumhare liye” (roughly translated as: If you are so silent, how will I be able to help you?) While the power of Om Puri’s silent acting is hailed as being exceptional, which no doubt is, Shah’s performance plays out like a dramatic monologue. It won him the Filmfare Award for the Best Actor in 1981.
Watch Aakrosh on Prime Video
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1. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)
Kundan Shah’s film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, has been hailed as a prophetic gaze into the post-truth world by critics in recent times. I cannot disagree. It is a film that rings too close to reality, almost making it universal in its treatment of the themes of corruption in media, power, and relationships. The story follows the misadventures of two photographers, Vinod Chopra (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir Mishra (played by lt. Ravi Bhaswani), who are trying to earn money to run their new shop in Haji Ali, Bombay (now Mumbai). It is purely comic and dark in equal measures. Watch it, just for the Mahabharata play scenes, if nothing else, and you’ll see why it is an enduring cult classic in the Indian film industry.
It is one of Shah’s career-defining performances, one that he has confessed to being risky. He took it up to prove his mettle in a comic role, used to being offered serious roles as he were at that time. Shah, obviously, outdoes himself. He breezes from being a starry-eyed young man with a dream to flirting with the manipulative magazine editor, Bhakti Barve (played by Shobha Sen) to cunningly trying to dispose of a dead man’s body, and, ultimately, emerging as a cynic in life, singing “hum honge kamiyab” with chilling coldness into a microphone. The transformation is disturbing yet so real that it haunts you long after the film is over, forcing you to look into the deeply disturbing truths of human existence in a morally corrupt world.