Nawazuddin Siddiqui: An ambitious actor and a reluctant star
It takes Nawazuddin Siddiqui just 20 minutes to get ready for the shoot in a patch of open space in the heart of the Versova Koliwada (fishing village). Unfortunately, the place stinks. I wonder if he’ll back out. But no. Nawaz walks right in, does exactly as the photographer orders, and continues to do what he needs to do despite the scorching heat and his not exactly summery designer suit.
“Photo shoots are also acting, and you need to be serious about them,” says the actor. “If you focus on other things, your craft suffers.”
Nawazuddin started his career as a junior artist. Today, he is one of the top actors of the Hindi film industry, and all that matters to him is his craft. “Mai toh jaisa tha, bilkul waisa hi hoon abhi bhi (I have not changed),” says Nawaz. “I wear similar clothes to those I wore as a junior artist, but today people think my clothes must be fashionable since I am wearing them!”
Under his skin
Although Nawaz is a star today, you certainly wouldn’t know it by his behaviour. “Stardom doesn’t suit me,” he shrugs. “I can play the character of a star very well, though, and you would be convinced that I live that life. I am good with characters.”
Nawaz is undoubtedly one of the finest actors India has ever produced. He can convincingly play Saadat Hasan Manto, a rebellious and controversial author, and equally convincingly become Bal Thackeray, one of India’s most polarising politicians.
“It is the fight and the challenge to reach to the core of a character and make it as real as possible on screen that delights me, not the money or fame,” says Nawaz. “Even my bit roles – in six years I did so many films in which I had just one scene that I used to call myself the one-scene master – I did with similar zeal and sincerity. If success has changed anything, it has given me the power to choose better films.”
He recalls how Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), his breakthrough movie, catapulted him to the league of India’s best actors almost overnight. “I got at least 250 film offers. Producers sent me blank cheques,” says Nawaz. “One thing I learned from the rise and fall of my seniors in this industry is that when you are faced with such sudden and huge success, instead of going on a signing spree, it is better to pause. If I had signed those films at that time, I am sure my career would have ended within a few years. Instead, I signed smaller films. The success of GoW definitely provided me with options.”
With a number of commercial hits to his credit, Nawaz has unwittingly become part of the glamour world, but he doesn’t care for it. “The more I see that life from a close proximity, the more convinced I am that I don’t want that for myself,” he says. “I find that lifestyle very fake. I am a simple person and I am comfortable as I am.”
No man’s hero
Nawaz still leads a humble life. But this doesn’t mean you will spot him at the nearby tapri, enjoying his morning tea. “People recognise me and it is risky to roam around in public. But then, I am mostly preparing for some role, or busy shooting, and there isn’t much scope to go out,” he shrugs.
These days, most of Nawaz’s journeys are within himself or into the minds of the characters he is playing. “My reference points for building a character are real people,” he says. “Twenty years of struggle introduced me to so many different characters that my memory bank is well stocked: I have enough resources for the next 15 years! That’s because I was jobless for a very long time, and all I did then was observe people.”
Nawaz did not grow up wanting to be a star; all he wanted was to act. “Sirf yeh tha ke koi role mile, to uske peechhe padh jao, bas (I only wanted to focus on any role that I landed),” says Nawaz. “I always wanted to do theatre, and I was doing that in Delhi. But there is almost no money in theatre. So I shifted to Mumbai in 1999, hoping to earn a living by acting in television serials, and doing bit roles in movies. I just wanted to keep acting.”
Becoming a Bollywood star was beyond the realm of his dreams. “When I came to Mumbai, nobody could have imagined a Bollywood hero who was just 5 foot 6 inches tall, dark complexioned, and looked the way I do. And I didn’t believe in magic. So I didn’t really have a reason to be delusional about my prospects in Bollywood,” he laughs.
When he came to Mumbai, Manoj Bajpayee, his senior at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, had already broken the glass ceiling in Bollywood for unconventional-looking leading men.
“I remember I had a tiny role of a waiter in Shool (1999), where Manoj was paired with Raveena Tandon,” says Nawaz. “I had just a one-line dialogue, which I forgot when I saw him under the spotlight! However, Manoj moved to Mumbai after bagging Bandit Queen (1994). I had no offers and no money. I did whatever roles I got. I didn’t have a big dream or a strategy in mind. At that point, I could afford neither. It was about survival. To be able to act, you need to first be alive. So the struggle then was not to bag a film but simply to get one square meal a day.”
Fake calls and food
Within 15 days of arriving in Mumbai, Nawaz was flat broke. He was living in a tiny apartment in Goregaon East, sharing a room with six other men. “We were struggling actors, all jobless, all broke. Most days we didn’t have money to buy proper food, but we would talk about acting and movies and cheer one another up,” recalls Nawaz.
“Every morning we would walk to various production houses and casting offices armed with our bio datas and pictures. We would put those in the letter boxes religiously, and the watchmen would even more religiously take the whole bunch out and throw them in the dustbin. This was a regular affair.
“We all had pagers in case there was a casting offer. But no one ever got a call. Out of frustration, I would often go to the nearby telephone booth, call myself on the pager and leave a message saying: ‘Call me immediately, Subhash Ghai’!”
It sounds like fun now, but then it really was about empty stomachs. “We had gone without food for a long time,” remembers Nawaz. “A friend in casting told me there was an ad film being shot at Goregaon Film City and they might need extras. We walked for almost three hours to reach Film City, where they were shooting inside a bus. We were asked to be part of the crowd. My friend read a newspaper, while I acted like a man taking a nap. The idea was to do the role, but not to show our faces. We needed the money, but didn’t want our colleagues from NSD to spot us doing these ‘crowd’ roles!
“Anyway, we got Rs 2,500 each for that, but since we were not members of the junior artists association, we had to pay their coordinator a bribe of Rs1,000 each. But then we went to a restaurant and drank and ate as if there was no tomorrow. The bill came to a whopping Rs2,200, we didn’t care. We even took an auto back home, which left us with Rs 100. We felt like kings. I remember that day vividly, because it was after a very, very long time that we had had proper food.”
King of the heap
Clearly, Nawaz’s journey has been a quintessential Bollywood rags to riches story. A farmer’s son from a small village in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, who left a career in chemistry for the National School of Drama while working as a watchman to make ends meet; whose financial constraints made him leave theatre and relocate to Mumbai; who made his film debut in Sarfarosh in 1999 with a blink-and-miss-it role, is today sharing the limelight with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan.
However, the pay cheque still does not matter to Nawaz. The complexity of the character is the deciding factor. Success has given him that freedom. Today, if instead of dal chawal he is hungry for meatier roles, it is because he can afford it.
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From HT Brunch, April 8, 2018
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