July 1, 2013: Best Actor? Nasseer, By Far

Naseeruddin ShahThis week Julie is just brimming over with an accumulation of Naseeruddin Shah film magic.  I’m just going to get out of the way.  It’s a natural reaction, in my opinion…evidence of my own mania for the man, here.

Julie M:  I continue to be impressed with Naseeruddin Shah.  I’ve seen, what, eight or nine films with him now, and I want more!  [just counted, and actually I’ve seen him in 19 films!] The last two just reached out and slapped me across the face, they were that good.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for including Parzania in the latest box! I was totally gobsmacked by that film, and your man Naseerji was simply stunning in it. Trailer here. Wow.

Jenny K:  I did warn you…he can be quite habit-forming.  Ought to have some sort of label at the beginning of each film, or something.

Julie M:  Parzania (2007) is the story of a Parsi family caught up in the religious riots of 2002 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Cyrus (Naseeruddin Shah) is a middle-class, educated movie projectionist with a wife, Shernaz (Sarika), and two children, a daughter (Pearl Barsiwala) and a son named Parzan (Parzan Dastur). Parzan is a typical ten-year-old, fooling around and dreaming of a land he calls Parzania, where the buildings are made of chocolate and you can do whatever you want. They befriend a visiting American named Allan (Corin Nemec), who is escaping from a troubled life and is looking for answers by studying Gandhi’s teachings in India. The family is close and life is good.

One day while Cyrus is at work a joint action between a radical Hindu political party and the local police in retaliation for a Muslim leads to the majority Muslim population in the family’s neighborhood getting attacked by a gang of thugs while the police watch. Their housing block is torched and citizens are murdered; in the melee Parzan is separated from his mother and sister. Despite obstacles Cyrus eventually reunites with his wife and daughter but Parzan remains missing. Allan finds the family in a refugee camp and takes them in.

parzaniacover

The rest of the film is the family’s search both for meaning and their missing son, and the horror of being caught up in a brutal war between religio-political factions, neither of which they affiliate with. It is based on a true story.

This is not an easy film to watch. The riot scenes are graphic and horrific, and there is a courtroom scene at the end that had me spellbound while tears were welling up. As a parent I cannot imagine anything worse than being forcibly separated from my children with no knowledge of where they are or if they are even alive, and the pain was portrayed in an absolutely realistic, compelling and heart-rending way by the two lead actors. Best thing I’ve ever seen Naseerji do, and I was unfamiliar with Sarika (later looked her up–ex-wife of Kamal Hasan) but am suitably impressed.

The film is mostly in English, but the bits in Urdu and Hindi are about 15-20% of the film and are not subtitled. I would have liked to have gotten the full impact of the movie–I can figure out some Hindi but this must have been some kind of dialect because it just sped by me, and I have no Urdu at all. Nevertheless, even with only 85% of the dialogues in my language it still was a heart-stoppingly powerful film. No wonder it was banned in Gujarat when it came out: it’s not something the tourist board would want spread around, and it makes the police and politicians look corrupt, incompetent and heartless.

I could say so much more about the film’s pacing and cinematography, which are both perfect, but this has gotten too long already. Although obviously the true story has been dramatized, the historical facts are correct, heartbreakingly so. The damage and waste of humanity occasioned by these constant religious wars is really keeping India from any kind of progress. Gandhi must be spinning in his grave.

This is definitely one I will recommend to all–amazing piece of filmmaking. It is available free on YouTube here. 

Julie M:  The other film was 3 Deewarein (3 Walls, 2003)…and, true to Naseerji’s form, it was an excellent one. To me, possibly Naseeruddin Shah’s best performance of what I’ve seen so far (although he was really good in Sparsh as well).

Absolutely unbelievable character drama with four superior lead performances. Trailer here (subtitled).

Brief plot summary: Jaggu (Jackie Shroff) and Nagya (Nagesh Kukunoor) are both prison inmates, convicted of murder and awaiting execution. Jaggu freely admits to killing his wife in a jealous rage, but Nagya insists that the murder he is accused of (also his wife) was an accident. They are joined one day by a transfer prisoner, Ishaan (Naseeruddin Shah), who is also convicted of murder and is a serial escapee. His story is that he too killed accidentally, tripping during a bank robbery and the gun went off, killing a pregnant woman. The three men form a bond of friendship in this somewhat experimental prison where the goal of the warden (Gulshan Grover) is rehabilitation rather than warehousing.

Naseerji 70's ChicJenny K:  I think I first fell in love with Naseerji when he popped up with that silly curly wig! Oh, my…

Julie M:  Into this milieu walks Chandrika (Juhi Chawla), a documentary filmmaker who is doing a project on death row prison inmates. She asks to interview these three (the only ones in the prison set to die) for her film, to raise awareness about the true face of crime in India. Over the course of the interviews we learn more about these men, and about Chandrika as well, who we find out is undertaking the project as a way to escape her abusive husband. Meanwhile, Ishaan is planning yet another escape and Nagya is hoping for a pardon at the prison’s annual Republic Day celebration, while Jaggu is resigned to his ultimate fate.

The characterizations are sharp and the way stories unfold are unexpected. Naseeruddin Shah’s Ishaan is a charming con man whose brain you can almost see ticking away, while Jackie Shroff’s Jaggu is a sensitive cook and poet, who speaks almost entirely in English. Nagya’s twitchiness seemed a bit forced for the purpose of the character development, but it worked. Juhi Chawla ably breaks out of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl image to portray a very complex character on her own, not merely the vehicle for the exploration of the mens’ stories or a potential love interest for one of them. Here’s a key scene with her husband. 

Jenny K:  I was really impressed by Nagesh Kukunoor who was the writer and director of the film, too. I think it was his third film, and unlike most directors who put themselves in their own films, actually has reason to do so. Not your typical film hero, but gives a reasonably effective performance, when up against Jackie’s practiced film hero style and Naseer’s undeniable charm, you wouldn’t necessarily expect it of Nagesh.

Julie M:  Reasonably effective, but I thought his character was the least thought-through of all of the prisoners. Even Nasty Gautam had more to work with.

One thing that confused me: (spoilers) Was Ishaan really responsible for those other 2 murders, or did he just confess to them in order to avoid being shot by Chandrika? It was never really made clear.(end spoilers)

Jenny K:  I don’t know…been a while since I watched it…now where did I put my copy…

Julie M:  The prison itself, through the cinematography, becomes a character in the drama. Fully half the scenes are shot at night, and the moonlight effects are riveting. One of my favorite scenes is an interview between Chandrika and Ishaan that takes place in a workshop where the prisoners block-print designs on saris, and it is absolutely an authentic-looking studio for that kind of work; the bright colors of the saris hanging to dry contrast with the crumbling stone walls of the prison and are evocative on so many metaphorical levels. Just beautiful. The final shot of the film (don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler), where you see an aerial view of the prison that previously you had only known from corners and courtyards, is absolutely spectacular and cleverly in keeping with the nature of the plot denouement. Stunning.

Just when you think you have this film figured out, something happens to totally upend your preconceived notions. In a good way, every time. All my thumbs (and you know I am ALL thumbs!) are up on this one, and I’ve even borrowed a few from other people so I can put them up too.  Available free on YouTube, albeit without subtitles. 

Julie M:  So let’s talk crossover potential.  Why has he not done many films in this country, or in Britain?  Is Irrfan Khan so much a better actor that he gets all those parts? (I’m thinking The Namesake and Life of Pi in particular, but also ones like Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited)  What does Naseerji get…The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (bad film:  I didn’t actually see him in that), Monsoon Wedding (OK, that was a good film and he rocked it) and Today’s Special, which, despite how good he was, was small and formulaic?  What gives?

Jenny K:  Irrfan’s got a better agent, maybe?  Or maybe chooses better directors to work with, or perhaps, better known directors…no, that doesn’t quite work as both have worked with Mira Nair, but maybe it’s “frequency equals recognizability”?  Irrfan has done three features with her, and one short, (The Namesake, Salaam Bombay, New York I Love You (where he successfully convinced me he was deeply in love with Natalie Portman, of all people!) and a short (Migration), against Naseerji only doing Monsoon Wedding with her…plus working with Ang Lee couldn’t have hurt Irrfan’s recognition factor, either.

Nasserji’s choice of The Great New Wonderful doesn’t stand up quite as universally appealing a crossover vehicle as Irrfan’s choices.  Not that I mean to insult that film’s director, Danny Leiner.  It was an interesting small film with a nice ensemble, and I loved the chemistry he established between our boy and Sharat Saxena, though as almost all of those scenes were subtitled, the two of them, as a pair, didn’t make it into this trailer.  Either way, both are fabulous actors and deserve to be American household names…but considering the basis of US media fame these days, without their own reality shows, this probably won’t be likely.  Sigh.  I don’t really want to have my favorites sell out that way, in any case.

Except a teeny tiny part of me that wants to see Hrithik Roshan blow the socks off of the rest of the celebs on Dancing with the Stars.

3 Comments

  1. They would NEVER have HR be a dancing celeb–too professional! But I’d love to see him as a judge. Maybe then I’d actually watch the show regularly. Even as a guest judge would have me squeeeeeing all over the place.

  2. They would NEVER, ABC, I mean, have him on as a guest judge because he’s not well enough known here by mainstream US audiences. And they’ve been known to have quite a few “ringer” dancers on the show as competition (Sabrina Bryan, Nicole Scherzinger, and Jennifer Gray spring to mind, not to mention all the figure skaters).

    Not to say I think this will happen, at all. But if it did it would be because it benefited both parties, Hrithik to help him cross over, if he wanted that, and ABC would use it to pull in the desi demographic, which is untapped there, so far…like they did when they chose that tele-novella star whose name I keep forgetting. It was a whole different voting bank when he was on! Such screaming female hoardes.

    • Is the desi demographic big enough to risk alienating their main audience? He’s little known here in the mainstream…but really, if his agent wants to expose him that’s the way. Kites pretty much came and went with nary a ripple–he’s still “who?”


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