BENGALI MAESTROS ON THE FAMOUS 4!by Aparajita Krishna May 7 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 36 secs
Aparajita Krishna writes, “Like the persons quoted herein many of us live with the memories of those times in Indian cinema when art met commerce and crossed Uss Paar!”
The great quartet of Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Smita Patil, and their films of the 1970s and 1980s in particular, continue to be cine-syllabus and reference point. The foursome has also lent themselves to the very marked works of Bengali filmmakers and writers whose films in Hindi too got feted. The talks herein are anecdotes, nuggets coming from noted Bengali film personalities: moments from their films; their assessment related in particular to the Famous 4 - the actor-quartet.
The talk got recorded in and around mid- 2007, but for some reason remained unshared. I have over the years re-re-read them and realize how timeless the talks are.
Maestro Mrinal Sen had in his communication summed up the subject astutely. “The one who nurtured the tremendous movement (parallel Hindi film movement) was Shyam Bengal. Govind Nihalani and others like me who came later contributed enormously. To put it rightly, all four of them (Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil) were extraordinarily 'ordinary'! All great attainments! None of them had hardly any limitations.”.
Goutam Ghosh (Filmmaker/actor)
We always had small budgets, small means very ordinary equipment. But there was tremendous passion. Crossing the river in ‘Paar’ is a very symbolic crossing for all of us. We didn’t have any proper arrangement, but we jumped into the river without thinking about our lives. We had to cross the river. All of them (these actors) had the passion for good cinema.
I was in a double mind whether for my film Paar, I should take Om Puri or look for someone else. Finally, I decided - not Om for this one. Again, this is a character of a mushier fleeing from Bihar with his wife. And I thought of Naseer. He was very fair and Naseer had by that time put on a lot of weight. He said ‘If you give this role, I will do justice. Whatever look you want from me I will work on.’ He and Shabana Azmi were the main cast. Actually, before I left for my Bihar village schedule, I had originally thought of taking the real Mukhia from the village for the Mukhia’s role. I had seen him during our recce of the location. But he became so nervous. It is unbelievable now, but it was the passion of the times and particularly of Om, his genuine love for good cinema, because I sent him a S.O.S.
Those days there were no mobile phones, so it was difficult to catch Om. I said ‘There is a role for you, but not a big role. It is small and poignant. In the first part of the film the mukhiya is kind of a storyteller. I need a good presence.’ Om was then young. He was to play a middle age character. Unbelievable that without reading the script, without knowing the backdrop, he said ‘Ok I will come’. He managed his time and flew to Calcutta, took a train and came to the location. I briefed him on the character and introduced Om to an original Mukhia. After that I found the perfect Ramnaresh in Om.
Another very interesting anecdote: we were shooting in Jasidih in Bihar (now Jharkhand), a caste-ridden state, a lot of contradictions between the castes. So, we were not very vocal about our subject and characters. I remember that one evening a gang of 4 to 5 armed people landed in our camp and said ‘Gautam Saab chaliye, Om Puri, Shabanaji, Naseerji ko leke hum thoda kahin masti karenge.’ I said ‘Hum toh shooting kar rahe, kya masti karenge?’ Then Om said ‘Gautam don’t say ‘no’, we need their support. Kya hai? Maar toh nahi denge. Chalo na’. I said ‘Chalo chalo’. It was difficult to take Shabana. She is a lady. So, I said ‘Main, Om, Naseer jayenge.’
We went to their den, spent time just like they are friends. Finally, we realized that they were common men like us. We realized that they may be in criminal activities, but they are good human beings too. When we had some problems shooting those people gave us protection. As Stanislavski said, ‘Acting lies in the footpath’. You have to pick up things from the characters. No actor really becomes a character. An actor can give an impression of a character. For that you need experience (like this).
I remember during Paar I had asked Om to remember his experience of childhood in Punjab village. I told Naseer to try remembering the characters of Meerut. He belonged to Meerut. An actor can observe reality around the nature of characters and portray it very consciously. The characters have to be credible and merge with the environment. It’s not just your own performance, but how you interact with other actors.
We again worked together in 1993 in a film called Patang. In Patang we combined non-actors from Gaya (Bihar) with very professional actors like Om, Shabana and Mohan Agashe, but all of them were so convincing and mingled so extremely well with the non-actors. The industry people had discouraged us that you can’t shoot in Gaya - criminals infested it. But I was stubborn that I will shoot there only. There was lot of trouble and tension, but I saw the patience of Om, Shabana and Mohan. They were not afraid or nervous at all. I saw their mental strength. Though for some political reason the film was not released..
Naseer, Shabana, Smita and Om were the famous four/quartet of parallel Hindi cinema of the late 1970 and 1980s in particular. How would you assess their individual strengths and limitations as also in comparison to each other?
Naseer, Shabana, Smita and Om, are really a kind of a quartet of the parallel Hindi cinema of the late 1970s-1980s because they were so keen to do some good roles. I can give you a very interesting anecdote. In Paar my original cast was Smita. I knew Smita. Of course I had been to Kaifi Saab’s place with Sukhdev, but I had never met Shabana. I was a great admirer of Kaifi Azmi’s poems. I knew Smita through some friend-circle and later very well. So, I offered her the role in my first Hindi film. But unfortunately, Smita said ‘Gautam I don’t know how to swim’. I said ‘Impossible, then you can’t do it.’ I still remember Smita was in tears. She said, ‘Can’t you use a dummy?’ I said ‘It’s not possible. I can use a dummy, but you have to know a little bit of swimming.’ Finally, I had to unfortunately drop her.
I was in Delhi for the international film festival and one of my films in which I was an actor was shown. After the screening Shabana sort of introduced herself and said ‘Oh I like your performance - very good performance Gautam. Could we go and have some coffee?’ I said ‘Chalo’. The first thing she said, ‘I know swimming’ (laughter). Passionate about a good role. I said ‘How do you know about the project?’ She said ‘Shyam (Benegal) told me. You sent Shyam a small treatment. So, Shyam was praising it and said it was a very interesting role. I know swimming so why don’t you give me that role?’ So that was a passion for a good role.
Again, an anecdote with Naseer: Naseer told me ‘I know swimming’. But he did not know how to swim at all. Without informing anybody he quietly went to the Sea Rock swimming pool and learnt swimming just to get the role.
This quartet of Shabana, Naseer, Om and Smita, they loved good cinema. Also, they were very keen to do some exciting characters. They can mold themselves into the character they portray. India is a heterogeneous culture and they were very keen to portray different kinds of people from different parts of the country. That’s very interesting about these actors. I have seen that all of them were very disciplined actors, absolutely. I never had any problem with the schedule. Whatever I have asked of these actors they have done it..
Biplab Roy Chowdhury (director)
Shodh was my first Hindi film and I wanted Naseer to be acting as the main lead of Shodh. But Naseer turned me down several times. In fact Mr. Vijay Tendulkar guided me in my script writing for Shodh. We were in search of Naseer. I went to Naseer when he was shooting for Aakrosh near Bombay for a final yes. He said that for a stretch of a month he was not available. But I was very, very ambitious about my film. I asked Naseer, ‘Can you place anybody else as the hero of my film, since you have gone through the script.’ Naseer told me ‘Yes. I can suggest one who can fit into your story and he is my class-friend from NSD. He is Om Puri. He has just finished shooting for Aakrosh. Please meet him. I will certify Om in the role of Surinder in Shodh. In fact he will be much more fit than me.’
So, I went in search of Om in Bombay. Neither Naseer nor I knew where Om was staying. He was shifting from one place to another. Finally, I located him in a Christian hostel. He was suffering from jaundice and his food was coming from actor Rameshwari’s house. She used to cook for her friend Om. Om read the script of Shodh and said ‘Dada I will do this film. I will speak in Bengali a few lines to Masood, which he can translate.’ I saw Om Puri wearing a white pair of ked-shoes and he would not sit crossing his legs over one another because half of the sole of the shoes were not there. Finally, he was in my film.
In Shodh most of the artists were from eastern region. Their Hindi was not good. I was dubbing in Bombay. Om arranged everybody for the dubbing of the film. He got Naseer and many others for the dubbing: Neena Gupta, Rohini Hattangadi, Pankaj Kapoor, Madan Jain and others. I used to tell everyone that my dubbing artistes’ credentials are much more than the original artistes.
I used to stay in Aroma Hotel in Dadar. One fine morning Om came. He was staying at Churchgate at that time as a paying guest. He came in his half-sole shoes with his father and told me ‘Dada can you keep my father with you for this day?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ From that day onwards Om would drop his father at my place in Dadar Aroma Hotel in room no 24. And his father was so happy in that hotel. I told the hotel people that whatever he needs please serve him. While going back to his place Om would take his father from my hotel.
During acting in Shodh as a leading character, Om used to ask me, ‘Why is the script like this? Why am I kicking the boiling rice pot? Why am I doing this and that?’ I told him, ‘You just behave as what is written here.’ He used to ask ‘Why am I selling ghosts? ‘Ek bhoot ka keemat itna!’ I told him the main ghosts of our country right now are illiteracy, poverty. These are the main ghosts of the country.’
It was a wonderful story by Sunil Gangopadhya - Gorom Bhat O Nichhok Bhooter Goppo or Bhoot ki Kahani. The film got a proper release. It ran for 18 weeks in Calcutta. In a cinema hall like Jyoti in Dharmatala Street in Central Calcutta, the film ran for 18 weeks. It did good business in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in Goa even, and in Bihar - Patna. My film was tax-free. I am grateful to Naseer, quite a good friend of mine till now, for advising me to take Om in his place. He was absolutely right. All four (Shabana, Naseer, Om, Smita) would support so-called good films..
Sunil Gangopadhyay (Bengali author)
Shodh, the Hindi film was my story. Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Om puri were the foursome team and they were acting in very progressive Hindi films during the 1970s and ‘80s. The four of them were always individualistic and different. Nobody copied another. As for social participation via their films you have to remember that a movie is a director’s creation. We may like the actors, the role they are playing, but the credit goes to the director..
Samik Bandyopadhyay (Critic, writer)
A lot of us have almost grown up with the films of Om, Naseer, Shabana and Smita. That was one of the best parts of our lives when we watched them and enjoyed them. I have those memories still very strong in my perception of cinema.
I think this little-known film by Mrinal Sen called Genesis gave us a wonderful opportunity to watch the three (Shabana, Naseer and Om), virtually just the three of them, with MK Raina making occasional appearances in the scenario. Watching the three interacting and the drama of relationships and conflicts growing out of their interaction and fight was a wonderful opportunity. And what came through once again were Om’s holding back and a greater strength in his control over himself. It was left to Naseer to challenge, to fight, and to assail. It is left to Shabana to play almost the queen-bee controlling the whole situation, playing on the emotions of these two men..
Soumitra Chatterjee (Thespian Actor)
I like all four of them. Each has his/her own strength. Naseer is extremely good when he is given a role just away from the beaten track. He excels there. More it is away from the beaten track Naseer comes out in his elements. Shabana has great versatility - very versatile artiste. From a voluptuous seductress to a down to earth working girl, she can move from one to the other so easily. Smita was not depending on her versatility, but the intensity and the ability to look like a common Indian woman and make it real in all films that she worked in. It was a marvelous thing. And Om of course is parallel with these three. The only thing that sometimes comes in between him and the character is his very, very rich powerful voice. I don’t think anybody has ever said this about Om..
Sreela Majumdar (Actor)
Along with the so-called actors' quartet came a new crop of directors. And, the directors are as significant and important as the four actors you have named. None of the old established directors would have cast Naseer, Shabana, Smita or Om. Subsequently, all four of them played key roles in mainstream Bollywood films, but not the larger-than-life roles played by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hasan, Hema Malini or Rekha.
The quartet belonged to the same school of acting. All of them were powerful actors. I don't want to go into the so-called limitations because no one is flawless. Aarohan was one of my first films. And the very first film with Shyam Benegal and Om. When we went to shoot in Birbhum, a local turned up with a 100-year-old camera and demanded that Benegal appoint him as the still photographer. Although Benegal had brought a still photographer from Bombay, he did not disappoint the local enthusiast who ended up shooting a lot of stills. I have one in my possession - a B&W on location photograph of Benegal, Om, Govind Nihalini and me..
Utpalendu Chakrabarty (Director)
At that time the four musketeers, as I say, the four legends of new Indian cinema, that is Om Puri, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi - they extended their hands to co-operate with filmmakers who were committed to make films for the cause of development of society and Indian cinema.
In Chokh, Om helped me to revise the script along with my Hindi translator. Some actor’s voice, or oral acting, is very good but physically he is not very free - he is rigid, but that I didn’t find with Om Puri. I never make a difference between Om and Naseeruddin or between Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. Everybody acts in their own way, in their own style. Let me give an example: Kishore Kumar is a very famous singer. He sings in his own style, with his own attitude. On the other hand, Manna Dey sings with the schooling he received from his uncle (K C Dey). He is also a great singer but both of them cannot be compared with each other. Both are singing, but in two tracks. So, I cannot compare Om with Naseerudin or Smita Patil with Shabana Azmi. All are world-class artists. I can say that in West Bengal you will never find this kind of artist. That’s why nowadays one tries to bring artists living in Mumbai. But at the same time, I am afraid that people are running after the stars of Bollywood. They cannot be compared with these artists. So now I feel if I get a proper producer, I can again cast Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and others.
Naseer had said that art film directors take us, make us work and don’t pay us. My point is that I never trust the newspapers. They can twist and distort statements.
Why do I still believe in Naseer, Shabana and Om? Gautam Ghosh went to cast Rekha. She is a star. What is the result, feedback of ‘Yatra’? Then why not select Om or Shabana or a newcomer. The result is the same. You are investing 5 crores and somebody 1 cr. In spite of casting stars your film may not run.
Like the persons quoted herein many of us live with the memories of those times in Indian cinema when art met commerce and crossed Uss Paar!”.