IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF HIS LOW-VOICED, staccato sentences, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is interrupted by a somewhat famous actor, who gets up from an adjacent table in the coffee shop where we are talking and strides over dramatically, hands slightly upraised in a posture that manages to blend benevolence with reverence. Nawaz scrambles to his feet, and is immediately folded into an effusive and somewhat awkward embrace, with the top of his head reaching the middle of the actor’s chest. “Masha’Allah, what work you’ve done. Madarchod, mazaa aa gaya,” declaims the actor in his impressive baritone. “And behen ki that poster, what an idea, blew my fucking mind,” he continues, referring to the election-style posters for the mob drama Gangs of Wasseypur II (GOW) pasted across the city. The audience of coffee shop patrons drinks in the scene, and Nawaz, released from his grip, nods, smiles, humbly puts his hand to his heart, and murmurs his thanks. Finally, with a pat on the back in farewell, the actor leaves, and Nawaz sits down and resumes fiddling with the menu that has been his main preoccupation since he arrived for our interview. He looks up to give me a sheepish smile, and I ask if this sort of thing happens to him often. He shrugs, his nonchalance belied by the glint of mischief in his much-discussed eyes. “It happens sometimes—now.” Almost 12 years after moving to Mumbai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui has finally, in the language of his peers, “reached” Bollywood.
“WHAT DO YOU NEED TO BE A HERO HERE? You need to be six feet tall, fair. You need to be able to dance and maybe ride a horse. You need to have rippling muscles and know how to fight. The only thing you don’t need to know is how to act,” Nawaz says. “That you can do without.” After a gruelling few minutes of monosyllabic responses and grunted , interrogative “Aen?”, Nawaz has been goaded into a full, magnificent rant by one of my questions—something to do with stars and acting. “That requirement I just don’t fit. That’s a fact. And another fact is that I had given up on the idea of being a hero, or even acting. Flat-out given it up,” he continues. “I had settled with the idea that I would do a few bit roles, take some workshops and be content with this-—the rest was beyond my reach.” It was at this point, he says, that the ‘new wave’ of filmmakers who were brave enough to cast without what he calls “the baggage of a star cast” found him. “I just fitted into the madness.”
But that, of course, is both too simple and too modest a telling of the story. In the past four years, he has gone from playing minuscule roles in big films to being cast as the lead in what can broadly be called ‘Hindies’—alternative, low-budget Hindi indies—like the two-part Gangs of Wasseypur, Dekh Indian Circus, as well as the very un-Bollywood Miss Lovely, not to mention playing significant roles in films like Kahaani and the upcoming Talaash. He was at Cannes this year with two of his films, GOW and Miss Lovely, dressed in a suit he had had stitched by a local tailor after two fashion designers turned him down. “It looked really good,” he says sincerely. In a strugglers’ subculture obsessed with “tod denge, phod denge, raj karenge bhai (we’ll wreck, we’ll clobber, we’ll rule, brother)”, he is seen as someone who has not just broken through, but shifted the system, even if ever so slightly. In the words of his longtime associate and GOW director Anurag Kashyap, he is someone who “will make his own space”. When they talk of ‘raaj karenge’, these days, they probably mean à la Nawaz.
The day I meet Nawaz is the day the monsoon hits Mumbai. The sea is churning up massive, white-topped waves, and the breeze has drawn out the nattiest patrons of the coffee shop in Mumbai’s starry western suburb of Versova, where Nawaz has chosen to meet. He walks in unnoticed, remarkable only for the way he differs from the coiffed, with-it crowd. He is slight, dark and speaks with an air of raffish courtesy; the kind of person who, when he has to order coffee, prefers to walk to the counter rather than wait to be attended to by the hovering waiters. It is easy to see why he is so often described by directors and co-actors as a “blank slate”, an “invisible man”, a “chameleon”. It is also easy to understand why so many of his associates describe him as “very simple” or “unassuming”. But scratch the surface and the actor’s tics appear—the preening of a lock of hair every so often, the gentle but resolute dismissal of questions about his personal life, the stepping out to give a quick TV byte in the middle of our interview and the wry observation that “all media just ask the same questions”. At one point, exhausted by his short answers and long silences, I ask him why most people have only good things to say about him. He gives his actor’s laugh, with the head thrown back theatrically, before replying quite seriously, “Maybe because I just shut up and do my work.”
NAWAZ’S FIRST JOB WAS AS A WATCHMAN in Shahdara in northeast Delhi. “I had come to Delhi in 1992, after finishing my graduation from Haridwar, to look for work. Someone got me into an agency there and I had to pay a deposit to be recruited. But I was supposed to keep standing through my shift, and I would end up sitting down. Someone complained that this guy is very mariyal (weak, droopy) and I was fired,” he recalls. “And then when I went to ask for my deposit back, they refused. That’s when I went off the idea of doing a job.” For a farmer’s son from Budhana, a small village near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, the options were limited. He ended up “wandering the streets of Delhi, awara [a tramp]”, he says, until a friend took him to see his first play at the Mecca of theatrically inclined souls, Mandi House. “I went away thinking, this is a pure form. If the actor is good, he’s getting a good response, if he’s bad, he’s getting the response for that too. There are no intermediaries, no connections involved. Just merit. This is worth doing.” The decision that followed marked him for a different path than those taken by his peers and siblings. (Of his six brothers, one is a lawyer and another a journalist in Dehradun, while one has followed Nawaz to Mumbai to work in television.) It also led to a long period of financial and emotional hardship, and journeys that took him from home to Delhi to Mumbai.
“You know how things are there,” Nawaz says, nodding in acknowledgement at our shared roots in the northern badlands. “Other people I met in Delhi theatre circles had grown up watching plays or at least films. Hamaari taraf [our side], all that happened was honour killings and dacoities in the winters.” Budhana, according to him, “is the kind of place where you have to go to the nearest town to watch blockbusters from 10 years ago. The kind of place,” he adds, “where if you wear a pair of pants instead of a lungi, people will tug the waistband and say, ‘Eh, what the hell is this all about?’” One can only imagine the kind of digs an aspiring, unsuccessful actor in Mumbai would have inspired from the local wits. “My father would get fed up and say, beta, people keep asking us, ‘What is he trying to do there, he doesn’t have the looks to be a hero, just find something else to do.’” But he didn’t.
“For a while I just watched plays, around 200 of them, from all over the place. Then I joined Sakshi Theatre [Group], where I made my first appearance as a tree. Two-and-a-half hours on stage with my arms upraised,” he says, laughing. “It was no joke.” In 1993, he joined the National School of Drama (NSD), training and performing with teachers from across the world, as well as overcoming the culture shock of being in a big city. “Dimaag khulta hai,” he says of his years at the institute. “It opens your mind”—a phrase he repeats often, and the repetition and his way of saying suggest that this experience is something he has recognised, and cherishes, and seeks to recreate.
A little over a year after graduating from the NSD, Nawaz moved to Mumbai, landing almost inevitably in the overpopulated space of struggling actors in shared houses across the city’s suburbs. A lot of his “actor-ka-baggage” fell by the wayside, prompted by poverty and the punishing demands of the city. “I would move often, staying here and there with friends. All that stuff about craft-vraft was forgotten,” he says, laughing. “The only thing that mattered was getting my share of the rent, that was R250, at the end of the month.” Often, he couldn’t even manage that. To make ends meet, he started doing ‘junior artist’ roles—the parts played by extras—in ad films. “But there was also this concern that ‘How can we trained actors do this kind of stuff?’” he says. So, in a Pepsi ad with Sachin Tendulkar (“Have you seen it? It’s the one that goes ‘Sachin aala re’”) Nawaz played a dhobi working in the background. “Each time the camera panned my way, I would hide my face behind the clothes I was washing,” he recalls. “That way, we would get paid in the evening, and keep our illusions intact.”
SOME THINGS HAVE SPILLED OVER from Nawaz’s life and into his films. One of his most talked about scenes in GOW, where he tries to seduce his love interest only to be badly rebuffed, is actually a riff on his early adventures with love and freedom with a classmate in Delhi. “I put my hand on hers,” he says, recollecting the story, “and she started shouting at me, and said, ‘What are you doing, Nawaz? It’s illegal. At least you should take permission.’” Like in the movie, he was so startled that he started crying. And then she hugged him. “So there we were, hugging, and me sneaking in a few kisses too, while assuring her that the next time I would take permission.” The popularity of the scene, he says, is vindication against all the talk that actors like him can’t play romantic roles. “Who says there is only one way of doing romance?” he asks. Who, indeed. In the theatre in which I watched the film, the opening shot of the scene drew ecstatic sighs of anticipation from a group of college kids in the seats behind me. “Watch this scene, yaar,” whispered one young man to another, both of them huddled up close to their respective partners, “It’s so bloody real.”
Almost everyone who has worked with Nawaz talks of his ability to transform himself into the character he is playing. His directors inadvertently echo one another while describing how he sheds his shy, unassuming persona each time he steps in front of the camera. “For a long time, people would remember the character he played, but nobody would realise he was the actor,” says Kabir Khan, who directed him in New York, his feature on Muslims in post-9/11 America. “He has something of the quality of a chameleon in this regard. He becomes the character.” His role of the damaged Zilgai, a 9/11 detainee, was short but significant, Khan says, because he gave voice to the issues at the heart of the film. For his brief monologue describing his experience of torture, Nawaz prepared by visualising the journey of the character, and all that he had experienced. He gave the shot in a single take. “Later,” Khan says, “people would ask if I had used a real case for the role.”
The contrast of Zilgai with the tough-talking Khan, the arrogant Intelligence Bureau officer Nawaz plays in Kahaani, is a study in versatility. “Khan is the kind of guy who came up the hard way, he has a certain loyalty, smokes the same Gold Flake cigarettes he did when he was poor, and has an edge of insecurity,” says director Sujoy Ghosh.“Nawaz not only nailed the character, he added a lot of his own small touches, like the accent he spoke in—that took it to a different level.” The key for Ghosh, and for a lot of people since, was Nawaz’s eyes. “If you look carefully, behind the façade of a sweet, shy guy, there is a spark of anger in there. I think he tapped into this side of himself for Khan. Nawaz came up the hard way himself. He doesn’t take any of it for granted,” says Ghosh. Kahaani marked Nawaz’s first major success in a mainstream film. More importantly, it explored a side of him that the audience hadn’t expected, but loved. “When I offered him the role,” Ghosh says, “he said he was going to call his mother and tell her he had finally met someone who doesn’t want to cast him as a beggar.”
The only director to have worked with Nawaz more than once is Anurag Kashyap, whom Nawaz describes as a close friend. Kashyap, who had noticed Nawaz in a brief appearance he made in Sarfarosh (1999), gave him his breakthrough role as Asghar Yusuf Mukadam, Tiger Memon’s manager, in Black Friday (2007), his film about the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. (“Well, it was three scenes rather than my usual one scene, so we can call it breakthrough.”) Memorably, Kashyap also put him in an Elvis outfit, and shot him shaking his pelvis to the beats of the now iconic ‘Emotional Atyachar’ in his trippy Dev D (2009). “I cast him in the singing and dancing role as a challenge, and he was up for it, ” Kashyap says. “He’s a very emotional and sensitive actor. He doesn’t try to dominate the frame, or be the overpowering hero. He is almost like an invisible man, whom I can use in any role.” In the first part of Kashyap’s GOW, Nawaz’s character, Faizal Khan, enters the narrative only towards the end of the film, as a chillum-puffing lightweight whom nobody takes seriously. In the second installment of the film, due for release on 8 August, his character transforms and dominates the story as the most powerful badass in town. “To prepare, he lived on the location for a month and just observed people. His process is his own, and draws a lot from his life experiences,” Kashyap says. That’s why, Khan and Ghosh both say, he is an asset even to mainstream filmmakers and the stars he shares the frame with—he gives them a greater gravity simply by being around.
Or, as Reema Kagti, who has directed him in her upcoming thriller Talaash, says laconically, “He just does stuff.”
I ask Nawaz about this chameleon quality in his acting. He responds with a brief lecture on method acting, and on how each character has to be found “inside the actor”. Then he adds, a little pensively, “I feel life is full of so many situations where you have to lie, you have to act, that my time in front of the camera is my time for truth. That’s the only period when I am completely honest, completely in tune with the person I am. And when it’s over, I have to go back to the ordinary deceit and acting of being Nawaz.”
Huma Qureshi, his co-actor and love interest in GOW, describes him as “a miser in his social interactions”. After months of shooting with him on location, she ran into him in Mumbai and could barely recognise him. “Then I realised that in all those weeks we had spent together, I had not known Nawaz, but Faizal Khan,” she says. “He had been in character all along.”
MUCH OF NAWAZ’S SUCCESS flows from the successes of others—new directors, a more diverse arena for filmmaking, the profitability of other films and experiments. His success has also been good for others, magnifying the effects of this ‘new moment’ in Indian cinema. The biggest argument in their favour, Nawaz feels, is that such films have proved their worth at the box office.
Perhaps that’s why the idea of “mindless films” being the popular choice annoys him almost as much as being called the “next Irrfan (Khan)”. “When people say, ‘Please leave your brains at home for watching this movie,’ what do they mean? How can I leave my brains behind? And why should I?” he asks rhetorically, segueing onto the topic from the theme of entitled star-kids. (“It shouldn’t be like the Mughal dynasty, na? My daddy was an actor so I’m an actor.”) “And also,” he continues, “when they say, ‘We are making films for the public,’ who is to say this public won’t like intelligent films, if you actually give them any to watch? In fact, the public is already intelligent, that is why our kind of cinema is also doing well.”
OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, Nawaz will continue to be in the enviable position of being “all over the place”. He has eight upcoming releases, ranging from Dekh Indian Circus, in which he plays a mute father, to Talaash, in which he plays an underdog. There is also the much-anticipated Miss Lovely, where he plays one of a team of two brothers working as C-grade filmmakers in 1980s-early 1990s Mumbai. The film, directed by Ashim Ahluwalia, competed at the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, and received both lavish praise as well as criticism for its portrait of the city’s sleazy underbelly. “It’s my most real performance so far,” Nawaz says of his role as the younger, more naïve sibling who falls in love with an aspiring actress. “I almost play myself in it—it’s like ‘If Nawaz was here, what would he do, how would he react?’” The film is also special, he says, because “it is made purely on zidd (obstinacy), and the vision of the director alone.” For Nawaz, success means that while the ‘system’ is still powered by mindless films and stars who can’t act, there is also space for what he calls “our” films. And while he will always be an outsider in the world of heroes who lift weights and take dance classes, for now, Nawaz is content finally being what he set out to be—an actor.
I ask Nawaz if he has a life outside acting and film. “I have a lot of old friends who know me well,” he says. “Some relationships in this line can be formal, but until I can do maa-behen with my pals I’m not really happy.” As the already grey sky outside turns darker, Nawaz’s answers get terser, the fan shapes he crafts from the paper menu more elaborate. Does he have a mentor, I ask, trying to hold his flagging interest. He just shakes his head. Are there actors he admires? “There were,” he says, “but it’s not really healthy—actors shouldn’t copy.” Any favourite director he’d like to work with? “Anyone with an original vision”. A dream role? I ask in near desperation. “Aen?” he says, and I repeat the question, miserably conscious of its tinniness. He looks away, twirls his hair, sighs, looks back at me. “To be honest,” he says, “I don’t really think about
Taran N Khan is a filmmaker and journalist based primarily in Mumbai. She has also worked from Kabul, collaborating with Afghani filmmakers and TV professionals.