It is as hard to pick the best performances of Naseeruddin Shah as it is to pick a cluster of stars from the sky as the “best”. What I can tell you is that if you’ve missed the 5 performances below then your existence as as movie lover is incomplete.
1. Sparsh (1979): Many have played blind. But none as the one who can see right through human hypocrisy. Naseer as the the self-respecting , self-sufficient visually impaired Annirudh Parmar is the best portrayal I’ve seen of a blind man in cinema from any part of the world in any language. This incredible performance has become a reference point for all actors playing blind. Stumbling over furniture to look blind went out of fashion after Naseer’s Sparsh.
2. Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1979): I love watching Naseer do accents. Because he doesn’t “do” them . He embraces accents like long-lost brothers. As the angry Albert Pinto, Naseer was spot-on with the Catholic colloquialism. Like Meryl Streep, Nasser never loses hold of an accent. The language doesn’t betray the character for even a second. But why is Pinto so angry? Look around you. The issues that angered him are more relevant today than ever.
3. Masoom (1982): It isn’t easy making the father of an illegitimate child look sympathetic. But DK’s anguished outburst when he tells his rightly unforgiving wife, “Kya karun? Should I kill myself?” reverberates across the frames of this sublime lyrical take on infidelity and forgiveness. Not often does Naseer get a chance to play an urban upperclass gentleman with problems that Pinto or Parmar wouldn’t entertain if they can help it. Naseer’s scenes with his screen-son Jugal Hansraj reminded many years later found an echo in Liam Neeson and his little son in Curtis Hanson’s Love Actually.
4.Paar (1983): It’s a pig’s life for the economically backward Naurangia in this powerful parable on poverty. Naseer and Shabana both won richly deserved National awards for portaying a desperately poor couple herding pigs through a dangerous river. For Naseer this was the first part in his career that required him to make physical preparation. Bare-chested and defiant he rages against the river currents like a penniless King Lear raging against the winds.
5. Pestonjee(1988): The best Parsi accent I’ve heard, better than even Boman Irani’s genealogically bequeathed Parsi accent. Naseer was Piroj Shah, the fumbling loser who watches the love of his life marry his best friend. It’s a sad droopy listless character, surrounded by an aura of doom. Naseer plays Piroj with an air of tragic inevitability, as if he knows this man won’t be happy in life. But Piroj is capable of unexpected courage under pressure. Naseer could, and did, bring layers of character to his personality.
As I read the above list I suddenly realize that Naseeruddin Shah’s co-star in all of them was Shabana Azmi. They are indeed the First Couple of neo-realism in India, though in real life they are not friends.