“Saffron Inclination was Always There … But Not So In The Face As It Is Today”: Naseeruddin Shah Discusses Urdu and Saffronisation in Bollywood

By Rana Siddiqui Zaman | 22 April 2018

The veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah recently introduced a show, “Ghalib, Begum Umrao Ki Nazar Se,” conceptualised and directed by the renowned vocalist Iqbal Ahmad Khan, at the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi. The show, which told the story of the  iconic poet Mirza Ghalib through the eyes of his wife Begum Umrao, was an amalgamation of two Urdu storytelling traditions—dastangoi and ghazal gayaki. Before it began, Shah had a brief but candid conversation with Rana Siddiqui Zaman, a senior film and art critic, about the resurgence of the art of dastangoi, the usage of Urdu in recent Bollywood films, and the growing presence of saffronisation in the film industry. Shah observed that there was a palpable influence of saffron politics in the Bollywood industry, but emphasised that “no negative forces can ever dare to snatch my identity from me.” He added, “I am a proud musalmaan and a proud Indian.”


Rana Siddiqui Zaman: Dastangoi has more viewers today than ordinary plays. What do you think is the reason behind the revival of dastangoi and the fact that it has been widely accepted and appreciated by the audiences?
Naseeruddin Shah:
Dastangoi is the oldest form of theatre and is also close to my heart. Its impact was always powerful, so it had to come back. And see how it is faring on the Indian and global stage! Dastangoi is a good narration, not a mechanical joke. I don’t believe in technical magic and marvels on the stage. Simple camera angles, content-driven, text-oriented stories by the able playwright, powerful dialogues, flawless adakari [acting] do wonders on stage—not technically-produced grandeur. I get annoyed off by artificially-created lies on stage.

RSZ: How would you rate our musical plays?
Musical plays? Are there any?  Our so-called musical dramas are nothing but a fusion of stupidities. They make one singer hop from one place to the other, and sing. They insert a cabaret dancer in a corner and make her do vulgarity on the stage. They have no sense of dialogues to be delivered by the characters, which does not even match the actor’s voice, which also sings! They use backdrops of technical marvels, which says nothing of their own expertise of creativity in stage design. They don’t deserve to be called musical plays.

RSZ: There appears to be a sudden attention towards Urdu in recent days, with emerging festivals reinforcing the beauty of the language, increasingly frequent evenings of ghazals, and the revival of the dastangoi. What do you think is the reason for this?
Fascination for Urdu is not a bad idea. But one must be very clear about this thing—especially those who say that Urdu zabaan mar gayi hai; zaban to zinda hai aur rahegi [that Urdu language is dead; it is alive and will always be]—but it is not the property of Muslims. No one has a haq [right] over the language. Zaban ka mazhab se nahi, ilaqe se vabastgi hoti hai [A language is not associated with religion, but with the region]. Urdu will remain forever because it has that delicacy, that humility and that warmth, which enriches a language without anyone having to support it. It is a self-sustainable language. Issey hamdardi ki zaroorat nahi [It doesn’t need sympathy.]

RSZ: What is lacking in our Urdu plays?
There are barely any Urdu plays happening. [smiles] Our Urdu knowing playwrights now should write new plays in Urdu-Hindi mixed or Hindustani, instead of digging old graves.

RSZ: The few songs that use Urdu words today seem to do so without knowing its proper usage.
Yes, the fact is, Hindi films have done much harm to the language, especially for the past few decades. Where do we find words like baad-e-saba [the morning breeze], zulf [long hair], ghata [clouds] in today’s lyrics? Urdu se unki door tak ki koi vabastgi nahi hai [They seem to have no connection with Urdu]. Earlier, the censor board certificates used to have Urdu and Hindi both—now it is vanishing, Film titles, as shown in film posters and screens, used to be in Urdu too.

RSZ:  Several actors, directors and producers have told me, off record, that there is a sudden restlessness in the film industry, because of a visible divide due to the saffronisation in the country. Is Bollywood feeling the effect of saffronisation?
: A polarisation out of a saffron inclination was always there. We always knew about it—boo toh aati hi thi [The stench was present]. But not so in the face as it is today—and it is far more dangerous. It is creating a feeling of restlessness among buddies in the industry. I would any day prefer a person who makes his saffron intentions clear to me, rather than keep on breaking my heart by subtle ways of expressing it—bas dilon par vaar na karey. But yes, I do feel it in the surroundings, much more than earlier, and among people we have lived and worked with.

RSZ: Does it anger you?
Of course. Bohot si baton par bohot ghussa aata hai [A lot of things make me very angry]. This is my country and I am proud of it. Let them [saffron forces] change what they want. They are already changing history, institutions of art, culture and literature, attacking the language, making films a useless and silly vehicle of propaganda, and what not. Do I care? Two hoots. Instead, I laugh it off. I don’t want to be seen or understood as a victimised Muslim. I am not. I can never be. No negative forces can ever dare to snatch my identity from me. I have absolutely no identity crisis.  I am a proud musalmaan and a proud Indian. No one can dare try to tell me who I am, or where I should have been. If anyone dares, he will have to fight with me first—main ladoonga. No one in the film industry, or otherwise, dares to show his saffron colour to me and compare it with me and my beliefs.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Rana Siddiqui Zaman is Delhi-based senior film and art critic.


5 thoughts on ““Saffron Inclination was Always There … But Not So In The Face As It Is Today”: Naseeruddin Shah Discusses Urdu and Saffronisation in Bollywood”

Interesting statement against the saffron Cloth by Actor Nasreeudeen Shah. I was not born in India but i am 4 generations descendant of India. I am of the opinion that your statement is out of place and as usual bold against the culture of India. India , Bharat Desh , Hindustan, Aryavarta had an identity before Islam invaded India. We are proud Men, women and children all descendants of the saffron cloth. Our great Rishis and Munis of the saffron cloth brought the light of knowledge and civilized culture of the highest order of values to the world. India never invaded any country, India & Vedic Hindu Dharma Never convert others but embrace the unity of all religious diversity. What you see today is India blossoming is her true identity. Discuss the Sanskrit language and then you will understand where the birth of all languages came from including Urdu you mentioned. you will even understand where your ancestrial heretage and culture patterned from. India and the knowledge of the saffron cloth gave birth to religious ideas and perspectives. The roots of a tree they have invaded tried to convert, claim and destroy but the seeds of the fruit from that immortal tree has spread its fragrance of life in every corner of this world and enshrined its identity in the very creation. WE DESCENDANTS OF THE GREAT RISHIS AND MUNIS Of the SAFFRON CLOTH ARE PROUD OF OUR IDENTITY THE TRUE IDENTITY OF ARYAVARTA, BHARAT DESH AND NOW INDIA !! MY HUMBLE PRANAAM TO THE RISHIS AND MUNNIS OF THE SAFFRON CLOTH> WE know our history, we know our identity and we are proud of that Saffron Cloth Identity Mr. Naseerudeen Shah. JAI HIND !!

Shah saahib, after years and years of being apologetically silent, we can also say like you fearlessly, I am a proud Hindu and a proud Indian, and I am not afraid or apologetic about it. Why is that fundamentalism?

This means Bollywood, dawood, radical barabaric islamic ideology and its stupid anti national propagandas should’nt be opposed then the country is going gud …
When the citizens became nationalist this evil people will feel unsafe in india !!

Glad to hear Mr.Shah still has hope for India. Fascist forces maybe hell-bent in painting this diverse and pluralistic society in one color (saffron) but there will be resistance.
Muslims, Sikhs and Moolnivasi are joining forces and will push back against this badbud-daar manuvadi thinking.

I was and is your fan, Sir! Saffronisation is not only a threat to secular structure of this country. It is also harming Hindus. Whenever someone criticized unnecesary costums from scientific or women’s point of view, one is asked a question, “will you dare to say this about other religions?”. Now why should I clean someone else’s house? I should clean mine first, so that I can live there comfortably!
And Sir it’s not saffronisation exactly. If examine properly it’s, ‘brahmanisation’. They want to finish all non brahmnical cultures in Hindus. They are ‘suedo’ Hindus! I was shocked to listen to Vivek Agnihotri from a dias of RSS, presenting an idea of a narrow ‘bharat’. I was shocked because he is husband of Pallavi Joshi! I used to be her fan also. But the couple proved that they are typical ‘brahmins’!

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