Naseeruddin Shah is one of India’s best actors, even an actor’s actor, a thinking man’s actor, and one of my personal favourites. So one was disappointed to hear him make the same clichéd statements of mild victimhood that one gets to hear so much of these days.
In an interview to India Today TV, where he was asked about criticism of his views on Pakistan at a Mumbai discussion on a book by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri, he said: “My name is Naseeruddin Shah and I believe that’s why I was targeted. It really pains me to say this. I have never been aware of my identity until now.”
To say the least, this is disingenous. While it is no one’s case that some of his critics may have been venting their spleens only because of his identity, surely he cannot assume this to be the whole truth. After all, it was his host Sudheendra Kulkarni who got his face blackened by Shiv Sena thugs and he was not targeted for his identity, but his views on Pakistan and for inviting Kasuri over.
Indian views on Pakistan and Pakistanis are invariably coloured by our neighbour’s consistent sponsorship of terrorism on our soil. And the Shiv Sena, not known for its gentle argumentative powers, was trying to show the BJP up as soft on Pakistan. This is not to justify its acts, but to point out that a former BJP man got physically assaulted in this case while Shah received only verbal trolling.
The short point is, at least in this case, Shah was not criticised or trolled for merely being someone with a Muslim name.
Also, his claim that he was made to feel like a Muslim for the first time is clearly miles away from the truth. If any Indian claims that he was never made conscious of his religious or caste identity, he is lying or living in La-La-land.
In India, our politics is steeped in caste and communal identities, and most parties are identified with these groups. It may sound nice to say I have always thought of myself as an Indian, but the reality is your sub-identity is always noted, even if it does not always matter.
In 2014, whenwas being subtly promoted for his humble caste origins, wanted to know his sub-caste. In Tamil Nadu, if you are a Brahmin you will be called out and identified. In the last Mizoram elections, some candidates wanted to assert the state’s Christian identity. In Kerala, every caste and religious group has its own political party. In Shah’s own Bollywood, the fact that the box office is dominated by three Khans is often mentioned to point out how secular the film industry is. Of late, several Muslim parties are trying to seek the community’s vote by touting their Muslim credentials. So sub-identity is never too far away from our thoughts as Indians.
If I say or write anything about the utility of reservations in uplifting Dalits, my caste origins are enough to make my arguments almost worthless. One of the things being used against the BJP in Bihar is Mohan Bhagwat’s mild statement about the need to rethink quotas. His reasoning does not matter, only his identity as a Sanghi does.
If Naseeruddin Shah has any doubts on why we are never able to dissociate ourselves from our birth identities, he could have asked his interviewer about it. Rajdeep Sardesai was roasted on the social media for mildly remarking earlier this year that two fellow GSBs (Goud Saraswat Brahmins) had been elevated to the cabinet (Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu). It may be politically correct to say I am nothing but an Indian first and last, but few people actually think this way in real life.
In which world is Shah living in that he claims, in all innocence, that this is the first time he was being made aware of his identity? If he has been making his living in India – which he appears to be – he is clearly wrong.