The reticent Shah of films and stage

- June 24, 2023
| By : Mohd Shehwaaz Khan |

Theatre and film actor, director Saleem Shah opens up for the first time on his life struggles and relations with cousin Naseeruddin Shah

The veteran actor has played roles in films like Sarfarosh, Fanaa and TV serials like Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii as well as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Th

In a house packed with audiences in New Delhi’s Alliance Francaise, a single character on stage had the audiences glued upon him. They would laugh with him on his perfect comic timings, and feel melancholic on his gloominess. His expressions of joy or grief, were so natural that it didn’t feel like he was ‘enacting’ them. In between scenes, his collar mic went off. Before audiences had complained, he roared his dialogues with a unique baritone. It could reach even the last audience in the hall. 

After over an-hour plus of the play, this mid-height, powerful actor was standing in gratitude, receiving standing ovation that wouldn’t stop until 10 minutes. He had nothing to say, beyond a “thank you” with moist eyes and folded hands. 

We went to meet this artiste par excellence in the green room. A bee-line of fans was waiting for its turn. He greeted them all with warm smile, salaam and namaskar. As soon as he saw us, he hugged us tightly. Said nothing. Tears rolled down his eyes. 

We knew it wasn’t for the applause he just received. It was for that grief he had been holding patiently for so long. He had gone through a massive personal tragedy, the news of which he had received before going on stage – loss of new-born twins. His wife Roohi was unconscious in the hospital at Aligarh, her native place. 

No one spoke. But all of us wondered on how he could act so faultlessly even when he had the news. We saluted him in silence. He quickly managed his tears, and smilingly asked us how we were? Advantage of being a supremely fine actor? A loner who shares his grief with no one. Yes! 

This artiste was Saleem Shah. A man who excelled in smallest of the support roles he got in Hindi films, or that of a hero in poetic saga of India’s finest shaayar (poet) Asrarul Haq ‘Majaz’ on Doordarshan, or any character by other directors. Shah’s flawless diction, deep baritone and ability to get into the skin of any character quickly, has often earned him favourable compliments, at times, even against his cousin, veteran Naseeruddin Shah, though they never shared a frame. 

Shah was in Delhi this week to stage his play titled Riktta, at Natya Kumbh, a festival of plays at LTG Auditorium. 

The play Between You and Me too was based on the ‘metoo’ crusade that happened the world over. The story revolved around a rape accusation on Sahil Kukreja, a senior banker, by his former female colleague, Nikita Damania. Penned by Mrinal Mathur, the 75- minutes’ kafkaesque comedy had Shah, Vani Kumar and Jay Singh as actors. 


Too little is known about Shah’s life for he shares “no personal stories with the media”. However, he obliged on the basis of mutual respect and a long time dosti

He goes, “My life was never a bed of roses. I come from a family of divorced parents. My childhood was different from the so-called normal childhood. So, perhaps, there were a lot of pent-up emotions, which needed to be released.” Shah’s mother brought him up single-handedly. For whom, “I was her whole world. I owe my values, integrity, principles and standing with respect that I am today, is all because of her.” Shah chokes with emotions. 

Though he says he regrets that he “couldn’t follow her words in letter and spirit”, still certain things that she taught, perhaps got ingrained in him. These were compassion, keeping things transparent and integrity.
“Ammi kehti thin, kabhi koi kaam andhere main mat karo, jo karna hai, din ke ujaale main karo. (My mother used to say, never make darkness your ally.) I have always followed it.” 

However, he says the level of her compassion was unattainable. 

He cites an example. “I used to send her pictures from Mumbai and other places by courier. Once I called her up to ask if she had received them. She said, ‘Yes, I have. Courierwala is here, having a meal.” 

Shocked I asked, “Meal? I asked. She said, ‘Yes, you know he has three sisters, he comes from a financially weak background, works odd jobs’. I haven’t reached that level of compassion, yet.” Bed-ridden in her last five years, she expired in 2007. 

“That was the end of my life, part one,” Shah recalls adding she wanted him to get married, a wish he avoided till 44-years of age. 

But six months after she expired, her last wish was fulfilled “and I don’t know, how!” 


For a 1965-bor n Shah, a mechanical engineer from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), stage was perhaps a way to catharses. 

“I can’t say what triggered the actor in me. Passion for theatre was like ishq, that no one can tell, why and how it happened!” 

Shah is not formally trained in acting. 

He wanted to join Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD), so he had applied for it. He had thought that he will leave his engineering mid-term and join NSD. 

“But as luck would have it, during that year (1985), due to unrest at NSD, that year was counted as zero. Mohan Maharishi was then its director. Then, Pandit Satya Dev Dubey had a great influence on me. But here too, I couldn’t do any play with him. He teasingly adds, “matlab mein ghode par nahi chadh paya, par unke sath baraatain bohot attend ki hain”. 

Since he couldn’t formally join any acting school, he started watching a lot of plays and attending rehearsals including NSD repertory. 

“When I was in college in Delhi, I was witnessing lot of plays, including Dubeyj i’s. NSD repertory was at its peak. Amal Allana had staged Mahabhoj, Ranjit Kapoor had revived Om Puri’s old theatre group called Dishantar. The finest actors in film industry today like MK Raina, RK Raina, Om Puri, Surekha Seekhri among others, used to do rehearsals at repertory, and plays at the time I used to attend. These gave me a lot of direction about how to be on stage, the diction, delivering monologue that I was particularly interested in.” 

Notably for some six years, Shah was also the secretary of AMU’s famous Drama Club. 

“AMU’s prestigious Kennedy Hall was my breeding ground. I used to spend lot of time in preparing for the plays. Knowing the perennial hooters, I literally used to be on my toes. As a result, the only group which would bring lot of national and international awards, was my mine,” Shah recollects with contentment. 


One wonders that despite the theatre and film world accepting his impeccable skills at acting with films like Mammo, English August, Sarfarosh, Fanaa and many more later, and television series Bharat Ek Khoj, Byomkesh Bakshi, Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi, Kahani ghar ghar ki, Virasat, Adalat among others, Shah didn’t seem to get his due for quite long. He shares the reasons. 

“Then, there was also a ‘camp’ system in films. Roles were given or not given according to which camp you were in — Subhash Ghai camp, Manoj Kumar camp, Ramanand Sagar camp, or lesser known like Vimal Kumar camp. So getting work in films was very tough then.” 

He tried getting into theatre. That too was very tough. So, he formed his own theatre group. Those days, getting actors was not easy. Television serial boom had started. Most of them were rushing to do television. 

So, “initially I did most of the monologues”. However, “those days stalwarts like Sayeed Mirza, Azeez Mirza and Kundan Shah were making serials. They got me work. Then television serial Just Mohabbat came up. Soon, films like Sarfarosh and Lagaan came up, which changed the trend of filmmaking and viewing. This was a great departure from formula films with unnecessary songs and comedy.” 

And actors like him got better roles to play. 

In some time, Shah got “heavily sucked into television”. So, from 1999 to 2007, he couldn’t do proper theatre. 


The tabloid media has often come up with gossips about how Naseeruddin Shah never helped his cousin in the film industry and that Saleem is a better actor. 

SELF-MADE: Salim Shah in a scene from Bhel Poori. Shah has never sought any help from his more celebrated cousin, actor Naseeruddin Shah

Shah stoically says, “Naseer bhai has been my inspiration and will always be. The career he chose, became my driving motive. That way, he has been my mentor, philosopher and guide. He worked very hard to reach where he is today. In my farthest dream, I can’t think I am a better actor than him. He is too big for me to think of any comparison at all. I am humbled, no one so far told me that I am a bad actor. But this is true that when I entered the film industry, he had categorically told me not to expect any help in b o o s t i n g m y c a re e r e ve n obliquely. He had advised me, ‘I have also worked very hard to reach where I am today. Work hard to make your own space. Then that space is your safe haven than favours. In fact, don’t even mention that you are my cousin. But wherever you need any advice on anything, I am always there’. This was fair enough. I did exactly the same. However, when prodded by the media, I couldn’t deny my blood relation with him.” 

Shah asserts this statement should officially put all gossip media to silence now. 


Though slightly worried about the longevity of OTT’s honeymoon with viewers and if quality deteriorates with platforms giving nod to any and every project, Shah is making hay while the sun on it is shining. 

He would be seen in two webseries on Amazon. One is produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani, and named Janta Band, he shares. 

Then, a short feature called Riktta, directed by Ankoor Venchukr, has been doing rounds in the global festival circuit, garnering rave reviews and awards. 


 Despite giving his life time to theatre and films, Shah has been less written about by star-driven media. He laughs at it, answering though a song from Amar, a 1954 film: 

Na milta hai ghum to barbadi ke afsane kahan jate? (where would sorrows go if there was no gloom)