As I pause and consider the career of the great Naseeruddin Shah, I marvel at the fact that there are so few actors of South Asian descent that have been able to dabble in so many different "spaces" in the cinema. Bollywood? Check? Art-house Parallel? Check. Hybrid/Crossover? (Monsoon Wedding, duh.) Hollywood!? Yup, although perhaps not positively so (see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) If I were an Indian actor working today, I would be most envious of the roles and accomplishments accorded to Shah - what a varied and unique career (in addition to being a great artist)! This is not to mention his work on the stage (from where he started off), of which I cannot speak of myself, despite many others having done so (and at great length.) As for his on-screen efforts, I could name several that I consider close to my heart, but it's undoubtedly his crotchety but loving patriarch stretched thin in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding that is his most memorable. And enchanting and heartbreaking and moving. When we first encounter Lalit Varma, the impression is perhaps not a very welcoming one - within minutes, he has already berated the wedding planner and called his Australian nephew an idiot repeatedly. Clearly, the man is under a great deal of pressure; his only daughter Aditi is to be wedded to an American-Punjabi, and the wallet is more strained than ever as a result. As relatives, in-laws and the wedding party parade into the household, Lalit and his wife Pimmi (the incomparable Lillete Dubey) must attend to many different problems and usually clash heads.
But despite his hardened exterior, Shah is able to demonstrate Lalit's humanity as well as his deep affection for his family - this is something that is never in question. The night before the big day, he stands over his daughter and his niece Ria (Shefali Shetty, who is also magnificent in this film) with Pimmi, trying to understand where the years have gone, and how these two little girls have become adults without him realizing it. "If only they are happy, then I am willing to take on every trouble in the world," he says softly, and we know this is true. A shocking realization late into the film absolutely shatters Lalit, and Shah goes from an authoritative and grand figure to the exact opposite. He is a broken man, the stress of the celebration and this uncovered secret weighing on his bruised back. "I'm falling Pimmi," he sobs in Punjabi, embracing his wife presumably for the first time in months (they sleep in separate cots), letting the outer wall crumble. Shah is so, so good in this scene, allowing us to see a side of this character that he has contained and suppressed for so long. It's a graceful and generous moment, for both the actor and the character he plays. And certainly in the film's climax (*spoiler warning*), Shah once again takes control in order to protect his family, but in a different sense. In confronting and challenging the man who abused Ria - the one family elder he has esteemed and trusted more than anyone - he also confronts his own sense of pride, masculinity and family honour. He overcomes that traditional familial respect in order to protect Ria and shield her from further pain. What a moment - as he does this, we have the sense that Lalit has finally understood what his priorities are. No longer is he concerned with peripheral expenses, social status or self-pride, but the happiness and well-being of those he loves most.
* By the way, as I clued you all in a couple of weeks (months?) ago, I have had to resort to cheating on the top ten due to coming across one performance that I had overlooked earlier and another that I had forgotten about completely (whoops!). For that, I apologize, since I really set out with the intention of avoiding ties altogether (even though I love doing them.) No matter, let's finish this up kiddies!