| Pic by Sanjit Kundu
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is on a roll. For years, the actor survived on one-scene roles before he could even graduate to meatier supporting roles. But now, the plot’s finally turned as the wide-ranging Siddiqui’s taking the lead to emerge as the hot new favourite of the Hindi film industry’s indie film directors.
Now he’s grabbing screen space everywhere. So, at Cannes, Siddiqui wowed international audiences with two diametrically different lead performances. First there was his performance as a director of C-grade sex-horror films in Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely. Also, he was a Bihari coal mafia don in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur — he’s the chief protagonist in Part 2 of this two-film magnum opus.
He followed up his triumph at Cannes by winning the best actor award at the New York Indian Film Festival for his role as a mute father of two in Mangesh Hadawale’s Dekh Indian Circus. And legendary American film critic Roger Ebert too has been raving about Siddiqui’s searing performance in Diaspora director Prashant Bhargava’s Patang.
“I never expected this,” says an overwhelmed Siddiqui, who struggled for 12 years against Bollywood’s fair-and-handsome-hero convention given his own thin, 5-ft-6-in frame. But now, after being acclaimed in supporting roles in films ranging from Black Friday and Peepli (Live) to Paan Singh Tomar and Kahaani (in which he played the arrogant intelligence officer) Siddiqui’s finally taking centre-stage. Take this: He’s got nine films as lead actor releasing in 2012 and 2013.
Apart from Gangs... and Dekh Indian Circus, there’s Monsoon Shootout by Amit Kumar, who earlier directed him in the award-winning short film The Bypass, and Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong. Plus, he has a prominent second lead in the Aamir Khan-starrer Talaash.
Kashyap, who likens Siddiqui to “what Dhanush is in the South”, says: “The way cinema is changing, characters have to become more real. And Nawaz is the new generation hero already.”
Certainly, Siddiqui is in high demand. Over the next few months alone, he’ll shoot four new films including the award-winning short film-maker Ritesh Batra’s Dabba (The Lunchbox).
The National School of Drama (NSD)-trained Siddiqui is quite reticent. But roll the camera and he immediately lights up. Says Hadawale: “You don’t realise when Nawaz has studied his character. Even the locals on the sets mistook him for a Rajasthani villager.”
Undoubtedly, with several young directors rewriting the script of Hindi cinema today, opportunities have opened up for Siddiqui. Miss Lovely’s Ahluwalia says: “Directors are backing actors today. The changing space has allowed for Nawaz to happen.”
Siddiqui too is pushing the envelope. “I only want to do cinema which challenges me,” he says. He’s not repeating himself either. If Miss Lovely’s Sonu is the frustrated brooder, Gangs’s Faizal Khan is “a dabbang character”, he says.
Adds Kashyap: “If you see Nawaz on the street, he’s almost invisible. And because he’s invisible, he can take on any role. He has an incredible screen presence.”
Siddiqui is also a proponent of method acting even if mainstream Bollywood mocks it. “Once I finish a role, I have to forget it completely because only then can you start the next one from scratch. I enjoy the process that takes place between two roles,” he says. That entails studying his character and even doing theatrical exercises. For Gangs..., he went to Wasseypur and lived amidst people who’re always “on the edge”.
|Siddiqui (far right) with his Miss Lovely co-stars Niharika Singh and Anil George
at Cannes, where he also wowed audiences with his performance as Faizal Khan in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (below)
Siddiqui grew up in a family of farmers in Budhana, a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh. “There was no electricity when I was growing up. Even now it comes for barely an hour,” he says. His sole entertainment then was mimicking the colourful members of his 150-strong joint family. He was also fascinated by nautanki performers. Later, he’d bunk school to watch C-grade films in the neighbouring town.
Nevertheless, his parents were ambitious for their son and felt he should be a doctor or engineer. “But no one was that educated in our village so we didn’t know how to become one,” he says. So, he graduated with zoology, chemistry and botany from a Hardwar college, which is where he also got drawn to parallel Hindi cinema.
After graduating in 1990, Siddiqui worked as a chief chemist in a petrochemical factory in Vadodara. But the hazardous nature of the job spooked him and he quit, only to “roam aimlessly” for a year. Finally, he got a guard’s job in a Noida firm but lost it after the owner complained that he was a weakling.
By then, a fellow guard had introduced him to theatre and he’d fallen under its spell. “I felt this is the purest work,” he says. After watching 50-odd plays, he joined the Sakshi theatre group before enrolling in NSD in 1993. “My life turned from there,” he says. Incidentally, he was typecast in comic roles in theatre. After graduating in 1996, Siddiqui did street plays and theatre workshops in Delhi for four years. But he struggled to survive subsisting on a biscuits-and-tea diet for years. “When I got fed up, I shifted to Mumbai in 2000,” he says.
Yet, Mumbai threw up a bigger struggle. He’d land one job in six months, taking even junior artiste roles for the money. “I’d earn Rs 1,500 for acting in a crowd scene and then vent my frustration in drink, blowing up Rs 800 by night,” he recalls.
His talent became evident after he did The Bypass in 2003 and Kashyap’s Black Friday. They became his calling cards yet for five years, he struggled to move beyond the one-scene roles. “I became depressed and frustrated,” he says.
By 2007-08, things began looking up. He landed his first lead in Patang and also did meatier supporting roles in films like Firaaq. Many of the films he has shot since then are releasing now. And the offers are pouring in.
Yet, Siddiqui’s aware of the lurking dangers. “The struggle is different now. There are so many offers that it won’t take a second to get corrupt. But this is also the time to save myself and make sure that I continue doing the kind of cinema that I want to do,” he declares. His growing fan club will hold him to that.