I guess it just goes to prove that not even my six month blog drought is deep enough to withstand the charm of Naseeruddin Shah. For half of the summer and all of the fall, nothing on screen moved me enough to wade back into e-critiquing. So much for my plan of being a household name. But then, one weekday, my intrepid film-buddy Jessica and I went to see David Kaplan’s delightful film, Today’s Special and Voila! I am catapulted out of my literary lethargy by a knowing smile and a certain twinkle in the eye. Mr. Shah comes on the screen as a charming NYC cabbie with a heart of saffron, and within a few well-modulated words, has me punching Jessica in the arm (Sorry, Jess) and whispering “Isn’t he great!” as if the high school quarterback just smiled at me in the hallway.

This started out as a review of Today’s Special, but as it is now, unfortunately, out of most of our theaters and awaiting a much deserved appearance on DVD, I won’t be making much more than a token recap here. In what seems to be director David Kaplan’s first full-length feature, and writer/star Aasif Mandvi’s first filmed screenplay, the two spin a much more mature attempt at romantic dramedy than I would have anticipated. It’s a warm, sweet, leisurely-paced love fest of food, family and finding your gifts. Check out the trailer.

Aasif, who has a very familiar face from years of work in television, seems, at first to be an unlikely romantic hero, quiet and unassuming, and his character begins in a very tense emotional place, but you really grow to care about him throughout the film. As Samir, he’s a dedicated sous chef in a tony eatery in Manhattan who runs a tight ship, yet seems in a personal straight jacket, unable to find the key to break him out of his boss’ shadow. When he’s passed over, yet again, for a promotion, determined to make Fate find him, he up and quits, ostensibly to go off to Paris to polish his French cuisine. But Fate, in the form of his father’s tandoori restaurant back in Jackson Heights, has other ideas. Instead, it turns him reluctantly back towards home. To get there, he steps into the cab of my man Naseeruddin, eh, I mean, Akbar, who offers to help Samir find the perfect blend of masala spices to make a young chef’s dreams of success (and romance!) come true.

But unfortunately for Aasif, as he’s done in many films before, Naseeruddin Shah pulls all eyes to him with his understated suavity and Akbar’s sexy experienced attitude. It then becomes a bit “Samir, who?” after the door of that chili-bedecked taxi opens to us. But in Aasif’s defense, it’s nothing that he’s doing or not doing. Naseerji has been slowly gathering speed as he rolls along, role after role (some 160 now, according to IMDb), achieving some sort of gravitational pull of his own on our emotions…You just can’t look away. Example, a scene from Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1983).

Even in early films, in smaller roles, like Gohar Mirza of Umrao Jaan (1981), he added a jovial appreciation of Rekha’s obvious charms that said, “Of course she’ll notice me”. And we did. His wonderful portrayal of Gulfam Hassan, the Ghazal singer in Sarfarosh (1999) had so many layers and complexities that I felt like I was seeing more than one person. Amazing. As with many of our cinema heroes, the eighties and nineties threw many an odd film in Mr. Shah’s path, yet even in a goofy production like Tridev (1989), he could emerge relatively unscathed, with tongue firmly in cheek, even sporting a Crocodile Dundee hat with a red fluffy plume…no mean feat.

If I were theorizing, I’d say the secret must be that he takes each role not as a step in a body of work, but as a unique piece unto itself, and he tunes his performance to that center, true to the director’s ideas. The result being as varied as the films he chooses. How else could he do equal justice to the loving father of the bride in Monsoon Wedding (2001), the free spirited prisoner in Teen Deewarein (2003), the pot-addled sculptor in Being Cyrus (2005) and then galvanize a courtroom in Khuda Kay Liye (2007) as a Muslim seer with a truly holy outlook. It’s a gift.

Yes, I’ll admit as a reviewer, I’m biased. I can’t help responding to an always adroit line reading added to a large dollop of adorable. Like Akbar, Naseeruddin Shah always has all the right ingredients. Yes, I know my cinema fixation is over sixty…I say, “Who cares?” And also, I riposte, “Why don’t you tell Big B that he’s over the hill, while you’re at it!” Some men wear mileage like a very jaunty classic fedora which will never go out of style…here’s hoping someone similar tilts his brim my way. Keep them coming, Naseerji!

Reviewer’s Note:
Oh, I almost forgot…how could I??? As this blog is supposed to coordinate things I like with things you can enjoy in Washington, I am happy to announce Naseeruddin Shah’s theater company, Motley is coming to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this March. The festival, Maximum India, is chock-full of wonderful artists, actors, dancers and musicians celebrating the vast and complex culture which is India. It runs from March 1st to March 20th. Motley Theatre Group is performing Ismat Apa Ke Naam celebrating the works of writer Ismat Khanum Chughtai on March 5th and 6th, for three performances. I’ve got my tickets; act quickly before they are gone. And Mirch Masala (1985) starring Smita Patil, Naseeruddin and Om Puri is showing on closing night! Here’s the schedule: Maximum India