When Naseeruddin Shah said he ‘tried and failed’ in commercial films: His journey from Tridev to Bandish Bandits

On Naseeruddin Shah's birthday today, here's looking back at his work in the commercial Bollywood space and his experiments with roles ranging from comic to villainous in films like Mohra, Tridev, The Dirty Picture and more.

There’s nothing wrong if you remember Sparsh and Tridev in the same breath. It’s fine if you’re a fan of both versions of Naseeruddin Shah in these films, which are poles apart. Call it the veteran actor’s versatility that he could play a visually impaired man in a heart wrenching Sai Paranjpye film and a bandit in the mainstream masala Tridev. He’s given us enough performances (and counting) to remain a reference point across genres, for years to come.

Naseeruddin Shah is a force to reckon with in Indian cinema, and to talk about his body of work in one piece will perhaps be too limiting. The onscreen icon who is nearing five decades in the industry, and has inspired generations of actors with his path-breaking films like Nishant, Aakrosh, Mirch Masala, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai, Junoon, Mandi, Ardh Satya, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and several others.

Most of his films come with a “content driven” tag. His commercial work has not been so vast, so, despite offering a mixed bag, a large majority of audience still bracket him for his alternate cinema. The Padma Bhushan recipient also accepts this to an extent. He has gone on record to say that he has largely stayed away from commercial space because he believes he hasn’t been good enough in that kind of entertainment even after several attempts.

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“I don’t think I have ever been good in a commercial movie not that I didn’t try. I did try and I failed. I have to admit that I did want to be a popular hero. Sometimes I tried too hard and other times I didn’t try at all. Frankly speaking, you’ve got to accept the reality of those movies and you have to have affection for them. Unfortunately, I do neither. And thus, I really don’t think the parts I played succeeded in any of those movies except Tridev,” Naseeruddin Shah said in an interview with News18 in 2019.

Yes Tridev… And his “Tirchi Topi Wale” act. The film was released in 1989 and Shah played a dacoit, who romanced Sonam, apart from firing guns and nabbing villain Amrish Puri. The film became the third highest grosser of the year after Maine Pyar Kiya and Ram Lakhan.

Reflecting back at his illustrious acting career, Shah has played some interesting characters in aforementioned kind of “commercial films” that boasts of everything that Bollywood stands for – big budget, action, romance, loud drama, choreographed songs et al. So, let’s keep his remarkable work in arthouse cinema aside, and talk more about his trials in the ‘masala’ space.

“Apart from the immediate reward of having done a good job… Therefore when Tridev came around 15 years later no one was as astonished as I was. I never expected it to have that kind of success and I never expected to be accepted in the way I was in that part. And, I realised since then that both success and failure are by-products of your efforts,” the veteran said at India Today e-Conclave Inspiration last year.

A theatre thespian, Shah’s first round with the particular kind of entertainment was films like Karma, Jalwa, Hero Hiralal and Maalamaal. In fact, barring Ijazaat (1987), Shah explored the typical formula films in late 1980s, which included dacoit dramas, revenge stories, investigative movies and rom-coms.

Come 1990s, and Shah turned towards variations. Like playing a good ghost in Chamatkar, which was Shah Rukh Khan’s first film as a lead actor post Deewana. He starred with SRK again in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, playing his confidante.

But Shah’s 90s is categorised more with turning a baddie, apart from small yet impactful roles. His ruthless drug-lord Jindal in Mohra became one of the most memorable villains in recent years. There was Chaahat and China Gate too.

The 1999 blockbuster Sarfarosh established Shah as the quintessential antagonist in Bollywood, for he was as strong and at par with the main lead, Aamir Khan. Playing a Pakistani intelligence operative in the garb of a ghazal singer Gulfam Hassan, Shah not just gave us timeless songs in the film, but also an act to watch out for in this high-octane thriller.

While Iqbal got him his third National Award, he played the scheming scientist in Hrithik Roshan starrer superhero film Krrish, both in late 2000s too.

It would be wrong to say that Shah stayed away from the commercial space. The count might be less, the films were definitely unforgettable. Take for instance The Dirty Picture (2011), a perfect sample of what makes a hardcore Bollywood potboiler where he played an ageing superstar in south cinema. He romanced Vidya’s Silk on “Ooh La La” and knew how to use his larger-than-life persona to his advantage.

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The actor, however, refrained promoting his films. That’s because he believed, “The ones I have promoted, flopped. So now I have a very good excuse to not promote any films anymore. I never promoted Dirty Picture, it was a hit. I never promoted Ishqiya, it was a hit. I promoted a whole lot of others, which all bombed. I never promoted Fanny, it was a hit. So now it’s confirmed. No more promotions,” he told Deccan Chronicle in 2014.

One can place A Wednesday, Welcome Back, Aiyaary and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara in similar space too. Even his turn as the patriarch in Bandish Bandits last year made fans swoon over his craft. Nobody can lip-sync the way he did, can enact riyaaz the way he did and turn out to be the high point of the musical web series.

Shah had at one point asserted that his own expectations from a commercial film is different as against the realistic cinema he is associated with. “I consider a film successful if it succeeds in doing what it set out to do. I don’t expect social commentary from a David Dhawan film,” he said. He, however, added that these films extended his career. “Tridev extended my career by 10 years and I am grateful for that. Then Mohra cameand extended my career by another 10 years. Similarly, Krrish did well,” he had said.

Here’s wishing the stalwart, a very happy birthday, and may Naseeruddin Shah keep giving us roles in every space – commercial included.

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