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Happy birthday Nawazuddin Siddiqui: From indie films to blockbusters

Nawazuddin Siddiqui isn’t just moving from indie films to blockbusters; he now has a stronger image-building machinery, the approval of top directors and smarter survival techniques for Bollywood. We explore the actor's journey on his 41st birthday.

brunch Updated: May 19, 2015 09:16 IST
Nihit Bhave
Nihit Bhave
Hindustan Times
Nawazuddin Siqqidui,Nawazuddin Siddiqui birthday,Happy birthday Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Nawazuddin Siddiqui isn’t just moving from indie films to blockbusters; he now has a stronger image-building machinery, the approval of top directors and smarter survival techniques for Bollywood. We explore the actor's journey on his 41st birthday.

"Yeh white shirt aur blue jeans theek hai na?" asks Nawazuddin Siddiqui addressing a roomful of people about his attire. His manager, his PR rep, and (I assume) personal assistant all nod in affirmation, and rightly so. The photographer sets up the lights.

There were a thousand questions to ask Siddiqui – the tremendous reaction for Badlapur; his next indie, Haraamkhor; his next big film, Raees with Shah Rukh Khan; the fact that he’s cemented his place in Bollywood over the last two years; and about moving up in life. Styling and looking "theek"– that’s the last thing I would have thought of asking.

Of course, even good actors want to look great!

Turns out, it’s only his "second or third" photo shoot in a career spanning 16 years, and the 40-year-old star is all geared up. He mentions that he plays the flute (who would have thought, right?), and confidently starts posing (playing) under the poster of The Godfather. He’s a natural – both at posing and playing. He had to go somewhere for a meeting, but that can wait, it seems. He’s clearly having a lot of fun!

This man, newly styled, learning to be comfortable with the camera, is a transformed Nawazuddin Siddiqui. If there’s one thing he doesn’t mind, it’s putting in effort, whether it’s for accessorising or for acting. Because he’s chasing a single goal: excellence.
A changed man

When it’s excellence one is seeking, keeping a certain kind of company is a must. No wonder then, that you are greeted by Guru Dutt, Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole and Daniel Day-Lewis – all paused in intense scenes from their respective cult movies – framed and hung from whitewashed walls, at Siddiqui’s tiny Andheri office.

"These are the people to feel jealous of. They are ones who did real work, good cinema," he says. "Great things are happening in the West even today. Look at some of last year’s films: Whiplash, where the actor put in months and months of prep work to convincingly play a drummer. Or The Theory Of Everything, where every muscular movement in Eddie Redmayne’s body was a masterclass in acting."

It’s surprising to see an Indian actor name O’Toole and Day-Lewis as role models. Most Bollywood heroes look up to Amitabh Bachchan or Dilip Kumar. These icons were never on Siddiqui’s radar.

"I was introduced to cinema by C-grade films that played in my village, Budhana, in UP," he recalls. "Only films by Dada Kondke, Mahendra Sandhu and Kanti Shah were available. The next round of films I watched was in the National School of Drama. I was suddenly introduced to Orson Welles, Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro. I missed all the Bollywood films and legendary actors in between."

But there is no regret. Watching those films and learning those lessons at the NSD have made him the actor, and the man he is today.

"His process is always on," says Huma Qureshi, his co-star from two of his biggest hits, Badlapur and Gangs Of Wasseypur. "And he immediately stops you if you disturb that process. Like on the sets of Gangs…, everyone called him Nawaz bhai, so I did too. But he would scold me for calling him bhai. ‘How will I look into your eyes romantically now?’ he’d ask. He says funny things like that all the time!"

His talent for drawing a laugh developed early at NSD, with roles in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy Of Errors. "I used to be the best comic actor in my batch," Siddiqui says. "Everyone knew that my comic timing was impeccable. But I was typecast as a comedian after 50 or 60 roles and there was always an intense desire to do more – to branch out into [more serious] drama."

As luck would have it, he would achieve the status of an all-around actor with his last NSD play before he graduated in 1996, a retelling of Anton Chekov’s classic, Ivanov.

The director wanted someone with dramatic eyes, so he placed all the headshots of the student-actors in a row. "He covered the tops and bottoms of the shots, just leaving the eyes exposed," Siddiqui says. "That’s how I was selected – just based on the intensity of my eyes in my headshot."

Ivanov bumped him up to the league of ‘serious actors’, effectively ending his stint in comedy. Even in Bollywood, Siddiqui has largely stuck to dramatic characters. "I’ve been offered comedies, but nothing seemed to match my taste," he says.

"There are thousands of ways to make people laugh – satire, black comedy, slapstick. But it’s all about cheap laughs in Bollywood – we stick to making fun of a person’s flaws: Koi kaala hai, toh uska mazaak udao, koi naata [short] hai toh uspar hasso."
Turning the tide

Siddiqui has been at the receiving end of such jibes about his own appearance. His looks proved to be the biggest barrier between him and his dreams. "Everyone wanted to see a good-looking hero romancing a good-looking heroine," says film critic and trade analyst Komal Nahta.

Siddiqui admits: "Meri toh na height thi, na looks aur personality." He laughs as he recalls instances where he wasn’t even allowed to enter audition venues because of his looks. "They’d stop me at the gate and question the fact that I was an actor. I had to do a little audition for the gatekeepers to make them believe that I was there for a role. That’s when they’d let me in." It did not affect his determination. Siddiqui went for "three to four open auditions every day" and took up every two-bit part that came his way.

Turning his back on an audition was not an option. "The village I come from is the most ruthless, lawless land one can encounter. And it’s still that way – I heard of five or six murders in Budhana just a couple of weeks ago," he says. "I moved [to Delhi and then Mumbai] for a better life."

Siddiqui revealed his ambitions to his parents only after getting into the NSD. "I told them the course would land me a job," he recalls. "And that was good enough bait for them. Educated parents can give career advice to their children, but my parents were farmers. They didn’t have a big reaction."

The reactions came later. When all they saw was their son getting beaten up by goons in movies like Munnabhai MBBS and Sarfarosh. Where Siddiqui comes from, it’s shameful, laughable even, for a man to be defeated in a fight. "My father said, ‘Hamesha kyun pitkar aa jaate ho, kabhi maarte kyun nahi?’"

So when Siddiqui moved up in life, his father was the first person to witness it. "I took him to watch Gangs Of Wasseypur," Siddiqui says with a hint of vindication in his tone. "And showed him just how many people I could beat up at once. I was the hero there, the one who was beating, and not getting beaten!"

Siddiqui’s staggering success has not swayed his humble family much. "They come to Mumbai for a couple of months, get bored of this fast life, and leave," Siddiqui says. Other people from his village are more impressed. They now flock to the nearest cinema hall in Muzaffarnagar to see their "very own star".
The Theory Of Success

Siddiqui’s star status has come after 16 years of struggle. "I used to be an extra, and even in Gangs Of Wasseypur, there were 50-60 actors on the sets, so vans were shared," he says. "But with Kahaani, I got a separate vanity van and felt like I was the star of the film."

When Sujoy Ghosh wanted to cast him in the role of an Intelligence Bureau officer in this 2012 suspense-thriller, Siddiqui was perplexed because he always imagined IB officers to be suave men. "I asked Sujoy repeatedly whether I was the one he wanted," he says. "I even asked him to come and see me in person once."

But Ghosh was looking beneath the surface. "Physically, Nawaz might not have been the right fit," he admits. "But he was so strong mentally; I could see the struggle he had been through on his face. I wanted him to channel that rage, that rawness into my character." As the film turned into a hit, Siddiqui’s nagging insecurities about his looks started melting away.

His unconventionality seemed a perfect foil for the films he was cast in, Nahta believes. "Daring subjects started seeing the light of the day. If it hadn’t been for stories like Kahaani, Gangs… Badlapur or The Lunchbox, actors like Nawazuddin would have never made it."

Whatever the reason, Siddiqui is a star today. The village boy – one of nine siblings – has taken Bollywood by storm. The man who "effortlessly merged into a crowd" before, stands tall now. The only criticism he has attracted has been for now accepting potboilers like Kick, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and Badlapur. Has he become a sellout?

"At NSD, they taught us that there are over a thousand personality traits within a person, and as an actor, you must try to tap into each of them with your choice of roles," he says simply. "So I’ll take up characters that appeal to me. A lot of people have been telling me that I can’t dance. You never know, I may choose to dance around the trees next!"

Huma Qureshi backs this theory. "Look at how times have changed," she argues. "People once said a light-eyed, fair hero and a voluptuous heroine wouldn’t work. But ‘unique’ is the flavour of the season. And as actors, our only job is to embrace the challenges that are thrown our way, irrespective of budget and box-office."

Then there’s the fact that his big-budget movies benefit his indie films immensely. "If 100 people watch those big films, and five of them follow me to a theatre for an experimental film, that’s a risk worth taking." Nahta says this is the same strategy that Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi followed in the ’80s.

Towards the end of the interview, two assistants tell him about a new project, a cop-drama co-starring Randeep Hooda, and dismiss it as a "two hero film". Siddiqui smirks, proving the theory that has helped him reach this far: "That’s not the reason to reject it," he tells them. "It’s the fact that I’ve played a cop in two successful films and it’ll be repetitive."

Learning from the best
He’s carved his own niche today, but here’s what Nawazuddin Siddiqui learned while working with the Khans of Bollywood

Shah Rukh Khan:
Whenever I think about Shah Rukh Khan, his fan base comes to mind. The man has sustained his fan following through roles and genres. I want to have his longevity in Bollywood.

Salman Khan:
He’s so laidback on the sets of his films; his behaviour is almost child-like. But when the camera comes on, it’s unbelievable to see him transform into his character. It was interesting to see a superstar not stress about things.

Aamir Khan:
It was only on the sets of Talaash that I realised how much attention he pays to every single aspect of filmmaking. I want to be attentive like him.

Photos by Natasha Hemrajani
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First Published: Apr 10, 2015 19:02 IST