New Delhi: Naseeruddin Shah, who had auditioned for the lead role in Richard Attenborough's 'Gandhi', has no regrets over not been selected to enact the iconic character.
When Shah learnt about Attenborough's prospective film, he didn't give much of a thought to the possibility of playing the role as he was 14 then. But when the iconic British director was to visit Mumbai in the late 1970s, Shah thought the prospect was worth pursuing this time.
"My aim, however, was not to play Gandhi. I just wanted to be a star in an international project. I dreamt of playing Zorro. So I have no regrets that Gandhi's role finally went to Ben Kingsley," 64-year-old Shah told PTI in an interview.
"I regret that I am not an international star like Ben Kingsley. But then if I had got the role what would have become of Ben Kingsley," he says in a lighter vein.
But he feels he was "not enough skilled at that time as Ben to have pulled it off the way he did."
However, he says that it is a "pungent irony" that in his entire career, this is one role which he went after and it eluded him completely.
When Shah was in London auditioning for the role, there were reports in the media back home that an Indian has been chosen for the role of Gandhi.
"I later deducted that Ben had in fact already been cast as Gandhi and this whole process of tom-tomming all of us being tested and sneaking the news to the press in India that I had been chosen was a masquerade conducted to pre-empt objections that inevitably would have arisen if a white actor were announced straightway," Shah writes in his 'And Then One Day,' which was released recently.
The actor says that the response his book, a candid recount of almost four decades of his life, has received so far astonishes him.
"I did not expect such a warm reaction. The writing field has embraced me and it feels very good. I was expecting it to be patronised and condescended. I feel very thrilled. I do not consider myself as a writer. I have no vanity about it. I have written it as the way I felt it should be written," he says.
Shah said he is not much interested in writing a second part of his autobiography. "There is not much interesting in the second part. There was almost a smooth going. I don't see any point just mentioning which films I did, which were good or which were bad.
"Unless I can hit upon some insight which would make telling all those things relevant," the actor of films like 'Nishant', 'Aakrosh', 'Sparsh', 'Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai', and 'Ardh Satya' says.
"My life has been as fascinating as fiction and there have been so many characters in school and my family as well. I might just write stories about some of them," says Shah, who excelled in literature and composition in school.
His school life saw him living in an imaginary world with no real friends. He could not understand a thing in class and it was mainly movies, annual school plays and observing characters around that he found interest.
"The teachers were contemptuous. But they were interesting characters. I used to love watching them," he says.
"We saw a lot of movies also ranging from 'Mickey Mouse' to 'Citizen Kane'. Every Wednesday night we used to watch movies. Otherwise the school was sheer misery. Physical discipline was very harsh. We got walloped at the drop of a hat," he recalls.
"I was not a bookish person. In school I only read Billy Bunter and Beatles, film and sports magazines and comics. I started reading much later in life. I stumbled upon J D Salinger's 'Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction' when I was in FTII. It is a description of a funeral and I was falling over myself laughing after reading it. And since then I developed a fondness for reading," he says.
Shah said that theatre is something that he never ignored.
"I have devoted every moment I could to theatre. A lot of our plays have been prepared on movie sets, rehearsals and readings were done in the make-up rooms. In between shooting 'Mirza Ghalib' we prepared a play called 'Odd Couple' in the make-up room. There has been no stage in my life when I abandoned theatre and did not do any play," he says.
According to him, all his education has happened by the plays he has read and done.
"Because doing a play involves study of a different kind as well. If you are doing 'Antigone', then you read about the playwrights of that time. Or if you are doing a Samuel Beckett, it's better to read about his plays. I found this a very adorable way of educating myself. I read the stuff which I love and it helped."
Though he didn't have a role model in Bollywood, he tried modelling himself on various Western actors.
"The first was Spencer Tracy. Then there was Gary Cooper and Stuart Granger and Anthony Quinn, Steve McQueen, Jose Ferrer, Peter O'Toole and Rex Harrison followed."
But if there was one person who made a mark on Shah, it was Geoffrey Kendal, the English actor-manager who delivered Shakespeare performances throughout India.
"Geoffrey Kendal is definitely the last word," he says. He feels there is a real dearth of good writers in the Hindi film industry and is concerned about the "rehash" going on.
Shah has great regards for "tremendously talented, hardworking and persevering actors" like Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee and wishes them strength and gain in popularity so that it can be proved that actors too can become popular stars.
He regards his role of zamindar Amrish Puri's brother in his debut film 'Nishant' as his best.
"I empathised closely with the character. The moment Shyam (Benegal) narrated the story I was sure that I could play and I knew the character very well," he says.