Character actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui stars in eight new films. Here he tells Sunaina Kumar just how long it’s taken him to become an overnight sensation
ONE OF the most delightful moments in Gangs of Wasseypur is borrowed from the life of Nawazuddin Siddiqui. When Faizal (Siddiqui) dares to touch Mohsina’s (Huma Qureshi) hand as they sit by a pond, she nearly manipulates him to tears with her outrage. Anurag Kashyap was amused enough by the incident to put it in the film. After his mother learnt of his indiscretion through an interview, she admonished her son for his inappropriate behaviour. “I told her that was some time back, ab main poora bigad gaya hoon,” he laughs.
Siddiqui, 38, never imagined he’d be facing the conundrum he is now — excessive attention, especially from women. His phone buzzes constantly with messages from fans and he’s thinking of changing his number. For someone used to blending in, the attention can be discomfiting. “I’m a common-looking person, when I walk by, I do not draw a second glance.” There were times when he’d go for a walk to ponder on a role and end up miles from his home or the set. Other times he would take the local train and watch the stations whiz by. He now needs to plan his wanderings in a chauffeur-driven car, as he’s started drawing curious stares of recognition.
He plays the lead in the second part of Gangs of Wasseypur, releasing in August. In September, Dekh Indian Circus, a satire set in Rajasthan, which has garnered raves at international festivals, will release. Last month, another critically acclaimed film, Patang, was released in the US. This year, we will be seeing a lot of Nawaz. Eight of his films are lined up back-to-back, including Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely; Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong; Liar’s Dice, a thriller set in a small village; and Lunch Box, a film by Anurag Kashyap protégé Shlok Sharma. In every film, he plays the lead and each film is at least twice removed from the world of commercial cinema. There is the occasional nod to Bollywood in his filmography with a role in the Aamir Khan-starrer Talaash and a horror film with Bipasha Basu.
Siddiqui has been labelled the new indie darling, the superstar of niche cinema and, more often than he cares for, the new Irrfan Khan. Certainly, there is an Irrfan-shaped hole to be filled in the industry with the actor increasingly looking westwards. The rise of Nawaz is closely connected with the rise of small, independent cinema flourishing away from Bollywood. A case of cometh the hour, cometh the man. “There is a new generation of directors who are making small films (in terms of budget) and Nawaz can carry those films on his shoulders,” says Mangesh Hadawale, director of Dekh Indian Circus. He feels every actor has an obvious strength — good looks, great body or dancing skills — Nawaz has none of these and that is his greatest advantage.
‘In my early films, I was either a thief or a beggar. People felt,‘Yeh gareeb dikhta hai, isko gareeb ke roles do’,’ recalls Siddiqui
The recognition, of course, did not come overnight; Siddiqui had been waiting for 15 years. He first appeared on screen as a petty criminal in Sarfarosh (1999). There were other abridged appearances in Munnabhai MBBS, Black Friday, New York and Firaaq. In those days, he’d shoot for crowd scenes in ads for which he was paid Rs 500, like the Pepsi ‘Sachin ala re’ campaign where he appeared as a dhobi. He’d hide his face from the camera so that he would not be dubbed an “extra”, and could call directors on the side. “In my early films, I was either a thief or a beggar. People felt, ‘Yeh gareeb dikhta hai, isko gareeb ke roles do’,” he laughs.
Almost a decade later, he stood out in Peepli [Live], playing the upright journalist. Things picked up steam with Kahaani where he portrays the gruff officer, Khan. Sujoy Ghosh, the director of Kahaani, says, “My character had to look like he had come up the hard way, whose arrogance stemmed from merit. Nawaz brought in a Haryanvi twang, a constant smirk and an intimidating body language. As an actor, he’s been shaped by the hard times he’s faced.”
Belonging to a family of farmers in Burhana, a small village in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, Siddiqui grew up amongst nine siblings. In his native Burhana, there is only one theatre that plays C-grade movies. When Kahaani released this year, his parents had to change two buses and travel 40 km to see their son on the big screen. They came back happy to see him in the dapper uniform of a police officer.
His earliest memories are of waking up at 4 am to help his father on the farm before going to school. He studied science in college and briefly worked as a chemist in a petrochemical company. The boredom of the job brought him to Delhi where he drifted towards theatre, obsessively watching plays for a year and sustaining himself as a watchman in an office. He was associated with Sakshi Theatre Group with Manoj Bajpai and Saurabh Shukla, till he was admitted into the National School of Drama. After doing street theatre for about four years in Delhi, he moved to Mumbai in 2000 in a batch that included actors Vijay Raaz and Rajpal Yadav.
Ashim Ahluwalia, one of the earliest directors to cast him as a lead in Miss Lovely, says that he found in Nawaz an actor who was crushed by not getting his due. That is when he chose to do interesting roles in offbeat films. Ahluwalia feels that Nawaz has now become a role model for character actors.
The years and years of theatre have lent him a poetic flourish when he speaks. “I’ve not been lucky,” says Siddiqui, “I’ve struggled a lot and the lesson is to not give up hope and always work hard. Be ready. You might get your chance when you least expect it.”
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.