The short, gaunt man opposite me absently plays with his empty glass, looks up at the waiter, and says almost apologetically, “Another vodka, please.”
Recognition has slowly started dawning among the waiters and guests at the restaurant in south Delhi’s Saket. They realise that this unremarkable man in a black cotton shirt and grey trousers is Nawazuddin Siddiqui — new India’s unlikely superstar, arguably this generation’s most explosive acting talent.
Six of his films got national awards this year. He got a special jury award. His name has started being whispered even at the gates of the Best Actor category of private film awards, a place so far kept reserved for the strictly glamorous.
But the greatest reward for Nawazuddin has come silently. Millions of youngsters have started worshipping the man who played the coldly lethal Faisal Khan of Gangs of Wasseypur, the hotheaded intelligence officer in Kahaani, the odd-jobs man in a brothel in Talaash. An intelligent and growing audience holds him in cult-like admiration. On Facebook, Twitter and at cafeterias and office watercoolers, the name Nawazuddin is taken with much fondness and awe.
His admirers look at him as the ordinary guy who gatecrashed the world of Bollywood’s princes, and is changing the game. In 1999, when Nawazuddin did a two-minute role in Sarfarosh, 12 out of 10,000 Indians had a mobile connection. Suraj Barjatya syrupy Hum Saath Saath Hain was the biggest grosser.
Since then, buoyed by a liberalising economy, small-town India of MS Dhoni and others stormed cricket and every other field. Today, there are 80 cellphone subscriptions for every 100 Indians. Movies like GoW, Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani and Vicky Donor have pleasantly surprised the box office.
The large, aspiring population that acquired cellphones and decent jobs understands better Nawazuddin’s hard-fought journey to stardom. Nawazuddin got out of his little-known hometown Budhana in Uttar Pradesh, studied science, worked as a chemist in Baroda, got bored in a year and quit. He was then introduced to the joys of theatre in Delhi by friends. He joined the National School of Drama, arrived in Mumbai as a struggler, lived through small roles and the indignity of rejections for a decade, and snatched success when opportunity peeked from the window.
In between, he worked six-hour shifts as a watchman at a Delhi plastic factory to supplement his theatre income, and served as waiter in a Mumbai restaurant for a couple of days when work stopped coming his way.
“India is changing, and so is our mainstream cinema. All sort of actors are coming from small towns and making a place in Bollywood, which till recently was chiefly a bastion of film families. Young directors and producers are making movies with interesting storylines, and these movies are making money. And it’s this money that will lead to more such films,” says the 38-year-old.
He says the number of such movies will only grow.
“Audience taste is changing. Thanks to internet and other technology, youngsters are now exposed to world cinema. You can easily download a movie,” says Nawazuddin. “The potential is immense. When Kolaveri D was leaked on the internet, a few young netizens liked it and started spreading it. Even the rickshawwallas caught on. It’ll take time, but the same will happen to small-budget, intelligent movies. It’s already happening.”
As India changed, Nawazuddin’s Budhana in UP’s Muzaffarnagar district saw a cinema hall come up in the makeshift screen where C-grade movies played.
“C-grade movies play in that cinema hall now,” he says, smiling.
In the last decade, the district’s sugar belt got a new sugar mill, the Indian government’s ambitious highway development project in 2001 hastened urbanisation, coaching classes and stores have come up, and the groundwater level has fallen sharply. Youngsters dream of better gadgets and cars, leave home for better jobs.
While he was scouring Mumbai’s studios for work, Nawazuddin, eldest of seven brothers and two sisters, would tell his family he was studying. He lived with four or five others in a small room in Goregaon (east).
“There were so many rejections that I started compromising. I’d take up any role. In a serial or movie, I’d be asked to be the crowd. During the shoot, I would try to hide my face so that nobody recognises me being part of a crowd,” he says. “I didn’t fit their preconceived notion of how an actor should look. They’d say: ‘Actor hai? Dikhne mein toh lagta nahin hai.’ (You’re an actor? You don’t look like one).”
For a day’s work in Sarfarosh, he got Rs. 800. “A star’s son or daughter starts with a couple of crores right from the debut film.”
The struggle reached a point where he started contemplating to quit. “But I do not have any skill other than acting. So I had to stay put,” he says.Nawazuddin was in Budhana when he got a call from director Anurag Kashyap, who had earlier cast him in Black Friday and Dev.D. “He said, ‘Mumbai aaja. Tujhe jaisa role chahiye hai mere paas hai.’ (Come over. I have a role that you’d like.),” says Nawazuddin.
Gangs of Wasseypur changed everything. Nawazuddin researched the place and its people for over two weeks before playing the don Faisal Khan.
“During the shoot, Anurag asked me not to act like Faisal, but feel like Faisal. I couldn’t sleep. I practised thinking that I am powerful, not acting powerful. It wasn’t satisfying, but I realised that the director sees something that as an actor you don’t,” he says.
Nawazuddin recalls how during the shooting of the last scene where he is spraying bullets into Ramadhir Singh. “A number of thoughts were crossing my mind — a relief that the shoot was getting over, fear that this was my last chance, my make-or-break movie.”
While GoW introduced a new cinematic language and, along with Kahaani and Talaash, made Nawazuddin a household name, he finds stardom boring.
“I concentrate on the process. It’s very interesting. Stars become conscious of their image and style and try repeating it. It’s boring. If I repeat five or six same type of movies, I might want to quit,” he says.
Suparn Verma, director of his newly released movie Atma, says Nawazuddin still has a childlike openness and even stage fright.
“But when the lights come on and the camera rolls, Nawazuddin Siddiqui turns into a different animal.”