The date was September 24, 2016 - a few days before a campaign by Hindu activists forced Nawazuddin Siddiqui to pull out of the Ramleela programme in his native town. Brunch spent a day with the actor as he spoke about his deep roots in the small Uttar Pradesh village, and its rural environs.
Every morning, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui wakes up at 5. He doesn’t need an alarm - his body clock is set, thanks to 22 years of working in the fields with his family in the Uttar Pradesh village he was born in.
If he hadn’t caught the acting bug that took him first to the National School of Drama in Delhi and then to film auditions in Mumbai, chances are that Siddiqui might still be farming. He’s proud of his background and loves the slow pace of village life, escaping to his old home whenever he has the chance.
“I find my nirvana here,” the actor tells us as we capture images of him doing all the stuff he did growing up. “Most people go to ashrams or retreats to destress and rejuvenate themselves. But I come back to my roots, the place where I spent half my life. And when I return, I spend time in the farms, eating a stalk of sugarcane, driving a tractor and chilling with childhood friends.”
Siddiqui has eight siblings - six brothers and two sisters - and his childhood was a riot (in a good way). “We never felt the need for friends as we were more than enough among ourselves,” he says. “And I was always the ringleader when it came to playing pranks on others.”
Every now and then, Siddiqui’s father tried to set up a business to add to the family income. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much success, which meant that the large family was sometimes without any cash at all.
“I remember one occasion when there was nothing in the house, not even tea,” says Siddiqui. “My father just had a 10-rupee note which he gave me to buy sugar. It was evening and the streets were dark. When I got to the shop, I realised that I had lost the note. I went home terrified - we hadn’t had so much as a cup of tea for the last few days. My father came back with me, retracing my steps to search for the note and fortunately we spotted it under a cart. The moment I saw the note, it was like I got my world back.”
The incident stayed with Siddiqui his whole life. “I just couldn’t believe my father had no money,” says the actor. “I actually checked his kurta pocket that night when he was asleep, and was horrified to find it absolutely empty. It shook me. For the first time, I began thinking seriously about the future.”
Despite the family’s financial ups and downs, Siddiqui’s mother was determined to give her nine children a good education - whatever their future might be. And when Siddiqui first moved to Mumbai hoping for a break in television and films, she was the most encouraging person of all.
“She motivated me to have patience and faith in God’s will,” says Siddiqui. “She told me: ‘Even a pile of garbage has a change of fortune every 12 years. You have only been struggling for six years.’ She also used to recite a couplet to me: ‘Mita de apni hasti ko, gar kuch martaba chahe, ke daana khaak mei milkar gul-e-gulzaar hota hai.’ This was all very inspiring.”
Hearing him speak, you’d believe that Siddiqui’s life was rife with inspirations. He remembers the motivational messages schools tend to paste on their walls - things like ‘only hard work can change your life’ and ‘simple living, high thinking’ - and he also acts on them. And if he’s always punctual, it’s because of Premchand, his maths master at school. “Premchand was a stickler for punctuality,” Siddiqui says. “He’d be in school much before it opened for the day, even when he was sick or had an emergency at home. I used to go to him for tuition, and he insisted on punctuality. Even today I get where I have to be right on time.”
Movies were important to young Siddiqui: he was utterly film-struck, even though the village’s makeshift theatre, located next to the river, had only a single projector and a white sheet as a screen. “Behind the screen, you could see silhouettes of buffaloes being taken to the water, which became the backdrop to Mithun’s and Jeetendra’s dance sequences,” laughs Siddiqui. “Our seats were bricks - we sat on our haunches with our knees bent to watch the movies, sometimes for as long as five hours. No city person can sit like that for even five minutes.”
As Siddiqui takes us from place to place in the village, sharing memories of himself as a child and a young man, it’s clear that though he’s a resident of India’s maximum city now, he’s still very much a gaonwalla at heart. “When I work in the fields at the times I visit, I’m reminded of my humble beginnings, and that there is nothing better than hard work,” he says. “In Mumbai, you have to act in real life too. But somewhere, you have to be true to yourself. And this is that place for me.”
Cane & Able: Romancing the sugarcane
Loitering in the fields, pulling out a sugarcane stick from a stack and sucking on it is a quintessential experience in India’s sugar belt. In harvest season, most fields have a machine to extract gur (jaggery).
“It is immensely satisfying to have a sumptuous meal of fresh gur with roti and a glass of chaach (buttermilk) sitting in the middle of greenery,” says Nawazuddin, with a glint in his eye. When the trolleys loaded with sugarcane left for town, the actor and his friends, as kids, would pull out bunches of the ganna while the driver was driving slowly, he says. “Nothing can match the fun we had!” exclaims Nawaz.
A sticky, stony wicket: Nawazuddin’s gilli danda masterclass
“Depending upon how you hit it, the gilli can either go up very high or very far (if you hit it low). The important thing is to not let it be caught by your rival,” is Nawaz’s advice for those beginning in Gilli Danda.
Like most village boys, pehalwani, kabbadi and competing with neighbouring villages in gilli danda, were an integral part of Nawaz’s growing up. Clearly Nawaz takes his gilli danda seriously. He says his friends and he got tough competition from boys from the next village. “We had a good team and we placed bets on the sport. The losing team had to do anything the winning team desired,” says Nawaz.
He misses the excitement of playing outdoors in Mumbai. “Unfortunately, kids today only seem to be interested in the mobile phone or the Internet,” he adds.
Kite nights, strings attached: How to kindle a romance while flying a kite
He was passionate about flying kites in his younger years. And there were always some strings attached. Nawaz used kites to further a childhood romance.
“Just a few houses away from my house lived a girl I really liked,” he says. “I’d write messages on slips of paper and attach them to my kite. Then I’d fly the kite and dip it over her yard, she’d pull the message off, and I’d quickly pull the kite back. To get her replies, I’d have to repeat this exercise - but I had to wait for the wind direction to be right. One day, the girl’s father caught hold of a chit. So things became a little problematic for the both of us,” he says.
Eet ka jawab nahin: The humble brick makes for the softest seat
Nothing gives more joy to Nawaz when he visits a village, than hanging out at the local brick kiln (bhatta). It brings back memories of a time when the brick-making process piqued his curiosity. “Whenever I could, I would run out of my house and come to the bhatta to watch the bricks being baked. I found the brick-making process fascinating - how, after being burnt, the brick would come out strong. I liked to sit on the stack of bricks and look as far as I could. I’d do the same at a hillock near my school - just sit on top at leisure and enjoy the feeling of being on top of the world.”
From the reporter’s diary
Getting to know the real Nawaz: A day spent with one of Bollywood’s finest actors can throw up many surprises
In the case of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, meeting the actor in the rural surroundings where he grew up, was a unique experience for me.
Nawaz, as we lovingly call him at Brunch, seemed to be at his most relaxed. He happily spent time loitering around in the fields, chatting with the locals, and simply, soaking in the freshness of everything – something that, he says, he misses in Mumbai. Amidst it all, he shared several anecdotes from his life so far: Playing pranks on his siblings as a kid (he once broke his brother’s gullak and spent all his saved money); bunking school and cycling 15 km to watch some C-grade movie (and then getting a beating from his mom at night for it); doing just one scene in a film to being the lead actor in them.
At heart, Nawaz is a humble human being, who still loves spending time with his childhood friends, helping them in the best way he can and never letting the tag of a ‘Bollywood hero’ come in between them. We get a glimpse of this humility when we accompany him for the cover photoshoot.
All dressed up in a suit, Nawaz has no qualms walking in the heat, through narrow bylanes of a small village, stopping in between to talk to the locals who want to hold his hand or even picking up a small child who gleefully calls him Nawaz chacha. To see the crowd following him excitedly, I’m almost tempted to name him Pied Piper. Well, why not!
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From HT Brunch, October 9
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