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The Art and Attitude of Nawazuddin Siddiqui

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The true grit. (Photos: Anushree Fadnavis)

A STEEL-GREY FORD Endeavor lurches into Juhu’s narrow lanes. Inside it is a celebrity. Occasionally, it runs into the jam of a traffic signal. Like always, there are the burly men you find around these parts of Mumbai—heavy arms, puffy chests, axiomatic t-shirts and crotch pants—streaming past the stationary vehicles, making their way to a gym or perhaps a coffee shop for a film-script meeting. It is a very Bombay setting: a trapped celebrity, the enforced intimacy of a jammed street, and no tinted windows to shield you. And, like always, heads emerge from various car windows for a closer look. Could it be? Could it not? Some of the muscular men turn around too. Necks crane out of auto-rickshaws, the findings now under wide discussion.

And then, suddenly, the heads withdraw. Maybe the focus of their curiosity, the man in the vehicle, looks far too ordinary even for the ordinary man everyone believes he is. The traffic signal turns green. The Ford Endeavor growls to life. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui—slight, dark and unassuming, sitting inside with his windows rolled up—disappears.

Mumbai is India’s most fabled city. As the myth goes, it is the city of enterprise and dreams. Crowded, dirty, hard and grim, yes, but where there are no entitlements, no privileges. Where, like the world’s other great cities, if you have it, if you put all you’ve got into it, you can make it. But like all good myths, it is a promise that is not meant to be fulfilled.

Except, in Siddiqui’s case, it has been. A poor man with no connections, no movie-star looks, with just the flimsiest of things, talent, has ascended the promised stage. Several celebrities invent their origin stories later, exaggerate their hardship, remember sleeping on lonely public benches and telling friends that they will one day appear on hoardings or own a mansion when they can barely afford their share of the rent for a single-room flat. But Siddiqui has done all of that. Among other famous newcomers to the Bombay film industry, Amitabh Bachchan had an impressive height and a letter of introduction from Indira Gandhi. Shah Rukh Khan had charm and grace. Kangana Ranaut, her beauty. Siddiqui had nothing apparent. He got roles as a security guard or waiter because he looked like one. Some like Ranaut might rightfully complain about nepotism in the industry and pull up people who made fun of her accent in English, but Siddiqui can barely even speak the language with any fluency.

There have been several good actors in the past. But, given a script or line, say those who’ve worked with Siddiqui, he displays an aggression that has become an audience expectation of him— he won’t just deliver his dialogue well, he will render it in his own Nawazuddin manner. The Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), for example, comes to life only once Siddiqui turns up as a Pakistani reporter who is constantly interrupted while he delivers a ‘piece to camera’; few can forget the way he snaps at Salman Khan’s character, clad in a burkha, “Phir boli, begum?”

Perhaps his aggression comes from years of unfair neglect. Today, when he appears in a movie even with a Shah Rukh or Salman Khan, the loudest cheers are often reserved for his scenes. Mukesh Chabbra, one of Bollywood’s best known casting agents who has frequently worked with Siddiqui, says he used to find stardom aspirants at auditions saying they wanted to be the next Shah Rukh or Salman. “But today many of them actually say they want to be Nawaz bhai,” he says, “It’s quite astonishing when you think of it.” I saw this myself last year on a visit to a Govandi slum to report on a group of youths who produce their own version of the TV show CID for YouTube; most of them, armed with audition portfolios, said they aspired to be like Siddiqui when asked about their heroes.

In the past, talented actors have made careers out of dull roles as fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters. But Siddiqui has avoided this pitfall. He is wooed by filmmakers as well as stars because he brings a certain respectability to a commercial film. His scenes and lines are never snipped to accommodate a larger star. While appearing in big-budget films, he also continues with lead roles in smaller, more original projects. In an earlier interview to the comedy group AIB, he offered a snappy distinction: the big projects, he said, were exercises where they “urinate less and shake more”.

But he is more measured in his words now. “You know, I never really thought of money,” he tells Open. “Even when I had none, I used to think of it only for the most basic stuff like rent or food. Today, when I do these big films, it gets me visibility. You do a Salman or Shah Rukh film, and people from all over the world see you, know you. To me, a role is a role, a big or a small film. But I like doing these small films. I find it creative and I feel tapped. I feel happy to realise full roles. They don’t make much money. But in time, I would like these films to grow more and more.”

With the backing of some filmmakers, Siddiqui is now the face of India’s independent cinema. Several of his films— Kahaani (2012), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), Miss Lovely (2012), The Lunchbox (2013), Liar’s Dice (2013), Badlapur (2015)—have been among the most innovative to emerge from India in many years. Last year, he played a serial killer, and earlier this year, a teacher in love with an underage student. These are not films any safe actor would like to touch. Sometimes it appears he has a yen for unpleasant characters. “I don’t think about the audience at all, whether they will like the character or not. With me, I like to play these types of characters sometimes, you know, who are unlikeable and”—he turns an imaginary screw in his head— “deranged, so far from us. I am happy if they don’t like him. Rather, I want them to feel why he is like this,” he says. “Laughter and tears, these are the cheapest emotions for actors. I don’t like to go there.”

Somehow, biases against him still exist. Chitrangada Singh walked away from a film of his because she did not want to perform a kissing scene with him, according to Siddiqui and the movie’s makers. But perhaps even bigger than his success story is the idea of Nawazuddin in Bollywood—an unconventional movie star headlining major commercial and independent projects, for whom the loudest cheers are reserved.

Haen?” Siddiqui grunts. He sits cross-legged on a sofa. In his hands is a cigarette which he has been rolling and whose ends he has been licking with such love that you could mistake it for a joint. “Haen?” again. He is looking for something around him. And then he appears to tangle himself—hands first searching under his legs, exploring the space beneath his posterior, and then resting his cigarette on a table to push his head under it—until he emerges, untangled and unknotted, after what seems like an eternity with what he has been looking for, his red lighter.

He smiles in accomplishment and lights his cigarette. The whites of his eyes are yellow with tiny red clouds swimming in them. His face looks weathered and his hair is unkempt. “I haven’t slept for three days,” he says. And it shows. Later, while talking to another person, “I was falling everywhere last night. Khada nahin reh pah rahaa thha. (I couldn’t even stand.)”

I like to play these types of characters sometimes who are unlikeable and deranged, so far from us. Laughter and tears, these are the cheapest emotions for actors. I don’t like to go there

Siddiqui has been losing sleep for much longer. All his energy is being devoted, for several months now, he says, to one of his most ambitious projects—bringing to life Saadat Hasan Manto. The film’s director, Nandita Das, who has been working on the script for over three years and is currently shooting portions of it in Gujarat, says she had Siddiqui in mind for the role long before she had even begun to write it. She had marked him out as a major talent when she cast him in her first film as a director, Firaaq (2008). ‘They say if you get the casting right, 70 per cent of your job is done. And with Nawazuddin, that’s exactly what I feel. He looks and feels the part. And he has an incredible range as an actor,’ Das says over email. ‘But intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes.’

It was at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, attended by Siddiqui for his film Monsoon Shootout and by Das as a member of the short film jury, that the two began to discuss such a collaboration. ‘I warned him that it [would] take at least two years for me to finish the script,’ recounts Das, ‘He was excited, and assured me that he would give all the time and commitment to it, whenever it happened.’ The subject was so vast and challenging, she says, that it took longer.

Siddiqui has been spending much time in Gujarat for the film, though the next leg of the production will cover Manto’s time in Bombay. He began preparing to play the writer months before the filming started. He would dress in kurtas, his pyjamas hiked almost to his chest, as was the style those days, to get a feel for what he calls the physicality of the character. He littered his bedroom with books to picture what it might be like to live a literary life. And he has been reading, he says, whatever he can find about Manto to acquire his tics and mannerisms. The writer did not feel the need of quiet places, he learnt, and he would always finish an entire short story before taking a break. “I had read some stories of Manto as a youngster. But nothing like this. I have tried to familiarise myself with him as much as I can,” he says. “I usually try to prepare myself in some way before I take on a character. Unfortunately, there is no video or anything of Manto for me to go by. So, at best, what I realised I could do is to prepare by making myself feel as close as him, to understand him through his behaviour and that period of time, and try to feel like what Manto would do here or what Manto would do there. So it is all about me understanding that time and his likely characteristics and playing it accordingly,” the actor says.

In the last two weeks of the shoot, Das says Siddiqui has been able to create several moments of pure magic. ‘I brought in my research from books and many gems from Manto’s family. Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent and together I think we have managed to bring out many subtleties and nuances to the character,’ she says. ‘Not to mention his natural instincts. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto—deep sensitivity and intensity, anger and a straight faced sense of humour. These innate qualities in Nawaz have helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly. There have been many magical moments... so far. And I feel that our actor-director relationship has struck a perfect chord. I think this is so important in a film like this.’

And now here Siddiqui is—having landed in Mumbai yesterday after two weeks of being Manto to play a dancer all night for the cameras of a more commercial project (Munna Michael), only to return home at 5 am to an awake year-and-a-half-old son who refused to let him out of his sight all morning—at his office at noon, tired and sleepless, rolling yet another smoke as he deposits the remains of the last one in a glass full of cigarette butts.

Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto, deep sensitivity and intensity, anger and a straight faced sense of humour. These innate qualities have helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly

A Bollywood celebrity is an easily distinguishable creature. He walks with a swollen chest flanked by tough men whose job is to regulate admission to the celebrity’s sanctum sanctorum. The celebrity will growl in menace or let his eyes shine with benevolence for the slightest reasons. He will wear dark aviators in dark clubs and grow ecstatic at the sight of another celebrity at a party. But Siddiqui is different. When he meets you for the first time, he has an expression of mild apology and embarrassment, as though he expects his visitor to be astonished by his feeble appearance. He is even frailer than he looks on the screen. He is dressed in tight pants and a grey t-shirt that could have been picked up at a thrift store, perhaps. He seems awkward about his fame. He slinks and slouches into backgrounds and shadows, looks and finds corners to vanish into, and when he in on the move, he is never at the centre of his troop of men, merely among them. He doesn’t attend parties, has stopped attending award functions –“Sab bikau hai (Everything is on sale)” – claims to have never danced in his life, except for a scene in an upcoming film, and when he is with his friends (like Anurag Kashyap), he says, hours go by in which the only words exchanged are requests to pass the lighter.

When Siddiqui moves, he does it in small measures, rarely moving an arm or hand to emphasise a point. When he shakes hands with strangers, he uses two hands, almost appearing to bow—and often placing a hand on his heart afterwards in added respect. When we travel to a press meet, one of his staffers hands him a pair of dark glasses, as if reminding him to look like a celebrity.

According to Geetanjali Thapa, who acted with him in Liar’s Dice, Siddiqui is so quiet that sometimes people will not even notice him on the set. “He is so shy and unassuming,” she says, “sometimes people see straight through him. You look around to find him and you realise that he has always been there unnoticed.” But then, switch on a camera, and he undergoes a radical transformation.

There is a squat that he does in some of his films, like Badlapur or Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). It is nothing significant. It is usually a scene where his character is observing an object or waiting for something to happen. It is a small gesture in a frame where more important events might occur, but it is exactly what you would see someone do at a roadside curb or north Indian farm. No actor quite nails it like Siddiqui.

This is not an eye of detail that film school equips you with. It comes from contact with the world out there. Siddiqui calls it the art of just hanging out, looking at life, and this is perhaps the foundation of his work. In Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees (2017), where Siddiqui plays a righteous policeman and crackles in every scene he appears in an otherwise boring film, he perfects the police salute. An Indian policeman, when he salutes a superior official or minister, doesn’t just click his heels to attention. He also rises briefly on his toes before assuming stillness, something Siddiqui does to precision.

And this is just one of many little ways in which he has enriched cinema depictions. When I bring this to his notice, he laughs, throwing his head back as if to ventilate his entire being. “I think we have been very bad with policemen,” he says. “Policemen are always getting emotional and all in our films. He is getting caught up emotionally in his cases. Arre, crime, murder, these are daily things, yaar. [In films], he sits with his legs on a table. Tell me?” he asks. “Which cop have you seen that puts his legs on a table? I mean, come on, I don’t know how actors can play a character like that.”

In his years of struggle, he says, he had little work and much time on his hands to spend on observing people around. He would take note of a wide range of behaviour, which he would often use for the camera. In The Lunchbox, for instance, he based his character—a chirpy but occasionally annoying individual whose incompetence initially angers the protagonist played by Irrfan Khan—on a roommate he once had. After the film was released, Siddiqui received a message from that friend. “He said, ‘I saw the film’. That’s it—nothing more. No ‘I liked it’ or ‘hated it’,” Siddiqui says and laughs. “I don’t even know if he is happy or upset with me.” For Raman Raghav 2.0, where he plays a serial killer, he had nobody to fall back on and so he spent several days walking alone in the woods of Lonavla, mouthing his lines over and over until he began to feel like the character. During preparation, he says, he would often feel feverish. On one occasion, his wife walked in on him flat on the ground muttering something. He had fainted, it turned out. “She says I was reciting my lines,” he says. “She was scared. I was scared too.”

When I do these big films, it gets me visibility. You do a Salman or Shah Rukh film and people from all over the world see you, know you. To me, a role is a role, a big or a small film

Siddiqui’s childhood and early youth wasn’t as poor as many make it out to be. He laughs his big laugh again, revealing small endearing teeth. “People look at me and think I must have been very poor.” Siddiqui came from a family of land-owning farmers— zamindars, as he points out—and he was raised in the small town of Budhana, a place famous for ganna (sugarcane), genhu (wheat) and guns. As the eldest among nine children, he says, his fondest memories are of watching Ram Leela enactments in his village, followed by imitations of those same scenes with his siblings at home. He would go watch films in a nearby town that had a tin shed which screened C-grade fare via a video player.

He became a chemist in Vadodara, before pursuing Theatre at the National School of Drama and becoming an actor in street plays. But he needed money and couldn’t summon the courage to ask his parents for it. While using a urinal in Delhi, he stumbled upon an advertisement for a security guard’s job, and he took it. He was fired a little more than a year later for sitting down too frequently at work.

“We were all such big fans of Nawaz when he used to do theatre. He was one of those really talented actors who could do any role,” Chabbra says, who worked with Siddiqui in some plays in Delhi. “When he moved to Mumbai, all of us were sure he was going to make it. He was so talented. We would always ask people in Mumbai how he was doing. We were always keeping an eye out for him.”

The eyes of Delhi’s theatre circuit were exactly what Siddiqui wanted to avoid while he did odd jobs to start with—playing filler roles for TV commercials and films. Whenever the camera would pan towards him, he would hide his face. When he played a pickpocket who is beaten up in Munnabhai MBBS (2003), his father, he says, was heartbroken. “Back home, they are very Jat types. They like maar-dhaar (action) types. Dharmendra is their favourite actor. How could he like seeing his son beaten up on screen?”

Siddiqui would walk several hours to get to distant film locations because he had no money for bus tickets. He would travel ticketless by train. He and his roommates would sleep around a cellphone “the size of a brick”, waiting for calls they would not answer but run to the nearest PCO booth to call back (since incoming mobile calls were expensive). Sometimes friends would play pranks on him by sending messages in the name of Subhash Ghai to his only luxury then, a pager.

He was later employed by studios that recognised his thespian skills to conduct workshops for young stars they wanted to launch. He conducted classes for Ranveer Singh before he made his debut in Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), the TV star Rajeev Khandelwal before he appears in his first movie. When someone asks him why he wasn’t picked by these studios for a film, he raises his hands, shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Because of the way I look, I guess.”

Batch after batch of NSD actors would turn up in Mumbai annually for a cinema career, Siddiqui says. Their dreams unfulfilled, some of his friends and roommates simply had to return home. Two even died, he says, and at least one went mad and missing. His own hair would fall in clumps, he remembers, from lack of nutrition. “One day, I even got this crazy idea that I was going to die. So I spent the entire day outside, observing everything, the buildings, the people, the cars, everything, taking all the sights in, because I thought I was going to die.”

Fellow actor Manoj Bajpai, who had done theatre performances with Siddiqui in Delhi, recounts those days: “We were all like that. Happy to get work. Happy to get one good meal, and two of those would be a luxury.” During a sudden monsoon shower in that phase, Siddiqui along with the actor Rajpal Yadav and some other struggling actors once took shelter under an awning at Andheri railway station. The five of them soon began to nudge each other.

“Isn’t that that guy?” one of them asked.
“Which guy? That guy?” somebody else pointed.
“Ya, but who is he?”
“Isn’t he the writer of Satya?”

It was Anurag Kashyap, then known in film circles as the writer of the hit film Satya and a frequent collaborator of Ram Gopal Varma. The shower had begun to subside. And Kashyap, revealing a tiny umbrella, made his way out of the shelter. Siddiqui recounts this tale with fondness. Kashyap and he would become great friends later. And, according to Siddiqui, it is Kashyap who brings out what he believes are his best performances.

The five struggling actors ran after Kashyap in the rain. Drenched to the bone, they asked him for work. Kashyap told them about an audition for what was going to be the film Shool (1999). Each of his friends got a small role in the film, except Siddiqui. “I was so unhappy and jealous,” he remembers. But he hounded the director, E Nivas, and his assistants so much that he was given the brief role of a restaurant waiter who has to jot down an order from the two leads, Manoj Bajpai and Raveena Tandon. “We told him, ‘Don’t do it, it’s too small a role’,” Bajpai recalls, “But he was adamant. He wanted to do it badly.”

It was for the money, Siddiqui says. It would fetch him Rs 1,500. For several months after that, he would walk every few days from his rented accommodation in Goregaon East to an office in Juhu to get the promised money. “But the assistant director would say the movie was having money issues. And they couldn’t pay me Rs 1,500,” he says, “But he would always give me lunch.”

Gradually, Siddiqui moved from one-scene roles to two, impressing directors who would remember him not by his name but as the guy who did the interrogation scene in Black Friday (2007) or the man who recounts his torture in the film New York (2009), until he finally began to get prominent roles, even leads.

In Ms Lovely, an art-house film about C-grade horror cinema, one of his earliest films as a protagonist, he was most worried about a scene where he had to kiss his female counterpart. He had never kissed a woman on her lips before, he says, not even in real life. Having only pecked girls on their hands or cheeks, he began to tremble with fear at the prospect. Anxious about his breath, cursing himself for smoking so much, he began to walk around the sets before the shot in search of some sort of mouth freshener. And then Niharika Singh, his co-star, appeared with a mouth freshener and a smile. She had learnt of his predicament from others on the set.

On a street close to his office a few weeks ago, Siddiqui saw two men running towards the vehicle he was in. It could have been just another day. After Gangs of Wasseypur and other films, people had begun to recognise him in public. Some people would cock an imaginary gun and wink at him. A few would shout out ‘Faisal’, the name of his character in Gangs..., as he passed by. But on that day, one face seemed highly familiar. It was E Niwas, the director of Shool. “I immediately stopped the car. He wanted to ask me to play a character for him in his next film,” Siddiqui says, “I told him, ‘Of course I will do it, no question about it’.”

“Life can be very strange,” he says. “One minute you can be here, next minute there.” One minute he can be a waiter. And the next, Manto.