By Mitali Chakravarty

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Shishir Sharma

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 Based on an unpublished story by the noted Urdu writer, Ismat Chugtai, this award-winning film gives a poignant telling on the impact of the 1947 Partition.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.

By Aminah Sheikh

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

It’s tempting to blame it on inner impulses that would devour me if I didn’t, but that wouldn’t be the whole story, especially with non-fiction. Simply put, I’m better at writing than I am at most other things I’ve tried my hand at (though not necessarily better at writing than most other people), and the act gives me pleasure of a laboured kind. That’s more than what you can say for most kinds of work, and believe me, the complete act of writing – from conception to execution to almost-perfection – is work.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

Speaking Tiger has just published my second book, Thamel:Dark Star of Kathmandu, a biography of the tourist quarter that grew out of a medieval Buddhist settlement in Kathmandu. Writing about a place like Thamel is not, on the face of it, an urgently necessary task. At least not as obviously so as a book on our relationships with Nature (my next writing project). Nonetheless, I feel it’s useful to obtain an understanding of the totality of the environments we have spent significant time in – past, present and future. This is what Thamel means to achieve, as much as the book on Nature: to deepen our understanding of our built and natural environments, and thereby of ourselves, so we can reconsider and improve on our interactions with them.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I’m no fan of bald writing that means to drive home a social message, nor lazy writing dragged along by a pacy, racy narrative. With both fiction and non-fiction, I hope to provide serious reading pleasure, without being carried away by either the message or the medium.

Who are your favorite authors?

Those I haven’t read – names I know, names I don’t know, names that haven’t seen the light of day. They represent the titillating totality of my ignorance.

An ancient law that criminalises opinion has been used to suppress a scholarly work on Hinduism. G Vishnu deconstructs the Wendy Doniger controversy in Tehelka

The HindusSome are calling it the silencing of liberal India. After a four-year court battle, Penguin India that had published the The Hindus: An Alternative Historyin 2009, succumbed to pressure and agreed to settle out-of-court with Dinanath Batra, the Delhi-based petitioner who had sought to get the book withdrawn. The 683-page tome of scholarly and allegedly revisionist observations on evolution of by , a US-based scholar on religions, now stands withdrawn (though it’s available on the Internet).

A letter to Penguin India (Roy’s publishers)

arundhati_roy“Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done—at your out-of-court settlement with an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit—in which you seem to have agreed to take Wendy Donniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History off the bookshelves of ‘Bharat’ and pulp it. There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay.