Shah was and educated at the National School of Drama in Delhi.
Like many of the other actors of his genre, Naseeruddin Shah was first noticed by Shyam Benegal. He acted in Benegal's Nishant (1975), Manthan and Bhumika (1976). One of his most intense performances was given in Saeed Mirza's Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (What makes Albert Pinto angry?, 1980). In the movie, he plays a garage mechanic from Goa who dreams of the expensive cars that he repairs but that are far beyond his reach. The film is set in a Catholic setting, primarily because Mirza did not have the courage to tackle Muslim issues. Naseeruddin Shah has also acted for other New Indian Cinema directors including Mrinal Sen (Khandan, 1983) and Sai Paranjpye (Sparsh, 1979).
Besides these serious roles, he has a penchant for comedy.
His roles in Ketan Mehta's films and also in films like Mandi, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, and Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho (1983), have endeared him to the Indian public. He has also not shied away from accepting roles in mainstream Hindi movies where he has played a variety of characters, though his slight frame has ensured that he is most often cast in a comic role. However, directors also utilize his great acting talent when a character role has to be played.
Naseeruddin Shah has also played and directed English and Hindi plays. This is not unimportant, since many of the most brilliant film actors came to the cinema after a long stint as theater actors. With his wife Ratna Pathak, Naseeruddin Shah continues to act regularly in plays, often at Shashi Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre.