By Mitali Chakravarty
He is a well-known figure on television. He is a prominent actor in films… a good friend to famed actor Nasseruddin Shah and actress Ratna Pathak. He is kind to young filmmakers who start their career and does short films for them as he recently did in Singapore. He starred in Kitaab and Filmwalla founder Zafar Anjum’s first short film that has been shown to the public — a fourteen-and-a-half-minute movie called The Sacrifice with a talented actress from Singapore, Renita Kapoor.
And yet this man has a secret, a small office in Mumbai where he spends time by himself and writes. Meet Shishir Sharma, the character actor who can be seen on stage in theatre, on the silver screen, both in Indian television and cinema.
And what does the actor write?
You would think… it would be something for the screen or maybe about his life. But no, he writes about his parents and his father’s past. For spoilers, the story starts as a romantic one. Picture this: 1951 — in sepia tone — A young man in his early twenties goes off to get milk as does a fifteen-year-old girl. This would be a common thing but, wait, the story does not end there. The two meet and they travel in the opposite direction from their home on train to spend time with each other unbeknown to their families and, a few years later, they are married, and they have their first child — Shishir Sharma.
Talking to Shishir Sharma was not just a privilege but like a walk through the annals of Indian theatre and film history. His parents were involved with theatre and films, including the Leftists IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association founded in 1943 to bring cultural awakening among Indians during the independence struggle). Though his father earned a living through his small business, the interest in theatre and films stayed. He was even part of the production unit of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) when the legendary film Garam Hawa was filmed in 1970s, says Sharma. Based on an unpublished story by the noted Urdu writer, Ismat Chugtai, this award-winning film gives a poignant telling on the impact of the 1947 Partition.
Living in Mumbai moving around with friends Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak, Sharma was cajoled into theatre in 1974 by a person no less than Satyadev Dubey, an Indian theatre director, actor, playwright, screen writer and director and winner of numerous national awards ultimately crowned by the fourth highest civilian honour in India, Padma Bhushan. He had trained outstanding actors like Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar and, later, Nasseruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak and Neena Kulkarni, says Sharma. He was picked together with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak. He tells a story of how Dubey came into Pathak’s house and found the three friends having a meal. He asked them to join his group. Sharma refused initially but eventually gave in.
From theatre he moved to television in 1993 with Swabhiman that came after Buniyad, both popular television serials in the early days of soaps in India. They were very well paid in those days, says Sharma.
Satyam, his first film was in Telugu. That came after some more years. Sharma started acting in a number of Telugu movies. And he actually has a Telugu tutor coming in to teach him the language. “All the characters I play are not really Telugu. They don’t want the pukka (pure) Telugu accent.”
Then came more films, this time in Hindi; among them, the national award-winning films, Uri and Raazi, and short films, like Roganjosh, where he and Naseeruddin Shah, were back together. Roganjosh, written and directed by Sanjeev Vig, won the Best Filmfare Award in the category of short films and is an emotional telling of how the terrorist bomb blast of Bombay Taj in 2007 destroyed the lives of everyday men and women. He was picked for this movie, Sharma says, because of his forty-four-year-old friendship with Naseeruddin Shah. Their mutual camaraderie was an asset to the film. Though Sharma adds, he mostly does short films with young film makers to help them. “I have been acting in short films because I feel young film makers need a chance.” Otherwise they just waft around and do not get work. A short film does not pay unless it is sold.
But theatre continues his first love. Sharma is still doing theatre. “Because of theatre I am what I am today. There is a lot of focus, a lot of concentration and a huge amount of discipline that I attribute to theatre… to read your scripts, memorise the lines, don’t get the script on stage and come on time. Most importantly, concentrate on the character that you are playing.” He adds he does not get much time for theatre nowadays as he has to meet his film and television commitments. In Singapore, he has been doing workshops with Filmwallas and training people for theatre. The short film, The Sacrifice, evolved out of those, he says.
When asked if he likes reading, Sharma claims, “I am not an avid reader. So, I prefer reading screenplays.” However, he turns voluble about the choice of books he would like his workshop participants in Singapore to read. “Why is everybody not reading Indian writers like Munshi Premchand, Bhavani Prashad Mishra and Nirmal Verma?” He claims these are finest of writers in Hindi. He recounts how ‘Bade Bhai Sahab’ (Elder Brother), a story by Premchand, is always a hit with audiences.
However, sometimes, he feels, films tell the story better than books. He quotes the film Raazi, based on the book, Calling Sehmat, which he claims was not as powerful as the movie. Calling Sehmat, a novel in English by Harinder S. Sikka published by Penguin in 2018, was translated to Hindi for the movie. It is based on a real-life incident, recounted to the writer by the spy’s son who manned the Indian army during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Sharma played a Pakistani general, the spy’s father-in-law in the movie, Raazi. Having enacted a similar role in Uri, does Sharma fear getting typecast?
“In Uri, I played an Indian army General. In Raazi also, I played an army general. But both were distinctive roles. Every role has its own value. There is no typecast. Unless, you keep redoing one role like Iftekar …There is nothing called typecast if you treat the characters as individuals.”
He continues talking about his latest film Raazi and concludes his discussion with an astute observation on the plot of the story in which the wife (spy from India) betrays her Pakistani husband and his family: “Every family or every country has a black sheep. Every Indian or every Pakistani cannot be good or bad. That film showed you a Pakistani value of a family and it bonded brilliantly, it was cast brilliantly.”
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and Editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Kitaab.
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