Naseeruddin Shah made his feature film debut, in 1975, with the legendary director Shyam Benegal’s drama film Nishant. Co-starring an ensemble of arthouse actors like Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Girish Karnad, and Shabana Azmi, the movie is considered to be a milestone in Indian parallel cinema. Shah reunited with Shyam Benegal in his next directorial venture Bhumika, where he again starred with his Nishant co-stars, Smita Patil and Amrish Puri. The movie went on to receive two National Film Awards and widespread critical acclaim, giving Naseeruddin Shah an image of a ‘serious’ actor.
The year, 1980 proved to be a landmark one for Shah, as he starred alongside Shabana Azmi in the feature film Sparsh. Directed by Sai Paranjpye, the movie received several accolades, including a National Film Award for Best Actor for him. He soon came to be recognized as the face of non-commercial cinema in India and this image was further cemented with films like Chakra (1981), Umrao Jaan (1981), Bazaar (1982), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Masoom (1983), and Ardh Satya (1983).
Another feather in his cap was added with Goutam Ghose’s drama film Paar. Based on the rural exploitation by landlords in Bihar, India, the movie along with Naseeruddin Shah starred Shabana Azmi and Om Puri in the lead roles. Essaying the role of a laborer, Naseeruddin Shah won his second National Film Award for Best Actor. Breaking away from his image of a parallel cinema actor, Shah, in the following years, experimented with commercially successful films like Karma (1986), Tridev (1989), Chamatkar (1992), and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993). In 1994, he played the negative role of Mr. Jindal in the blockbuster film, Mohra. Co-starring Raveena Tandon, Sunil Shetty and Akshay Kumar in the lead roles, the film went on to become the second highest grossing movie of 1994 and Naseeruddin Shah made a successful foray into the other side of the industry, bagging the Filmfare Best Villain Award.
In 1999, he played the antagonist in another crime thriller Sarfarosh. Directed by John Matthew Matthan, the movie followed the story of a young medical student who quits his studies to join the Indian Police Service to wipe out the terrorists, who murdered his brother. Naseeruddin Shah won nationwide critical acclaim for essaying the role of Muhajir and again took home Filmfare Award for Best Villain. The actor, subsequently made his Hollywood debut with Stephen Norrington’s adventure film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In spite of being a commercial success, the movie was a huge failure, critically.
In 2006 came his third National Film Award for portraying Guruji in the coming-of-age sports drama film Iqbal. Directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, the movie stars Shreyas Talpade in the titular role and follows the tale of a young boy from a remote Indian village, whose passion for cricket, makes him overcome all his hardships. Iqbal was a huge hit both critically and commercially, receiving the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues.
The year 2007 saw Naseeruddin Shah, venture into Pakistani cinema with the drama film Khuda Kay Liye. Starring Shaan, Fawad Khan and Iman Ali in the lead roles, the movie was screened at numerous international film festivals, winning praises all over. He further starred in Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live, Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots and Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture.
In 2016, he paired with Kalki Koechlin for Anu Menon’s drama comedy Waiting. Screened at the London Asian Film Festival, the movie opened to positive reviews by the critics, with performances of both the protagonists being particularly praised. His 2017 releases include Shaad Ali’s romantic drama film OK Jaanu, starring Aditya Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor in the lead; and Aparnaa Singh and Nishant Tripathi drama film Irada, co-starring an ensemble of actors like Arshad Warsi, Divya Dutta, Sharad Kelkar, and Sagarika Ghatge in lead roles.