An hour before midnight is not quite the time for an interview with an actor. But with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, anything is possible. Busy as he is with a spate of films, the actor can only spare time late at night. And when he does emerge from his room, he looks exhausted.
And, no, he doesn’t look like a star. But Siddiqui — five feet and seven inches tall and dressed in a dark grey T-shirt, blue jeans and a black jacket — is happy that he doesn’t. “I would be happy if people just called me an actor.”
And an actor he certainly is. Till a few years ago, few filmgoers had heard of Nawazuddin Siddiqui. But 2012 catapulted him to fame, with his roles in Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur and Talaash being hailed by critics and viewers alike.
Siddiqui has just returned home after a shoot in Panvel for Ketan Mehta’s Mountain Man. He plays the real life character of Dashrath Manjhi — a villager who toiled with a hammer and chisel for 22 years to construct a passage through the Gehlour hills in Bihar, reducing a 75km-long route to a mere kilometre.
“It’s an honour to play the character of a man who had such perseverance and willpower,” Siddiqui says.
When it comes to perseverance, the 37-year-old actor has not been lagging behind either. His own journey from a village called Budhana in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district to Mumbai can be the subject of a story. Born into a poor farmer’s family, he was the eldest of nine siblings — seven brothers and two sisters.
After school, he went to Gurukul Kangri University in Uttarakhand to study chemistry. He even worked for a short while as a chemist in a Vadodara-based petrochemical company. “I realised that this was not my real interest,” he says.
That his passion lay in acting became clear to him after he moved to Delhi, lured to the city by friends who were already there. Some of the friends were keen on theatre, and Siddiqui found himself watching 70 plays in six months. He spent time hanging around at the National School of Drama (NSD) — which he subsequently joined — and took part in plays staged by the Sakshi Theatre Group, working with people such as Saurabh Shukla and Manoj Bajpayee, who went on to make a name for themselves in Mumbai.
“I developed an interest in acting but didn’t know if I too could act,” he says leaning against a mounted poster of Charlie Chaplin. He started working backstage. “I used to clean the sets and serve tea to the artistes,” recalls Siddiqui, who even took up a job as watchman to survive in the city.
Meanwhile, he did bit roles in plays — in Badal Sircar’s Baaki Itihaas, he had to say just two words: “Woh ayegi (She’ll come).” In Uljhan, based on Vijaydan Detha’s novel, where Manoj Bajpayee was the protagonist, he played a tree. “I had to keep my hands up for two hours,” he says.
Siddiqui admits that he saw few good films growing up. It was much later, when he had started acting, that he watched the best of world cinema. Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is still one of his favourites.
But the boy from Muzaffarnagar dreamt big. It was while studying at NSD that he played the role of Mikhail Borkin in a Hindi adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Ivanov. “It was then I realised that I could do intense roles,” he says.
Siddiqui is now known for just that — his intense roles. He made his mark as the surly inspector A. Khan in Kahaani, the gun-toting Faisal Khan in the Gangs of Wasseypur series and the lame Taimur in Talaash — all box office hits of 2012.
“I disconnect myself from the rest of the world to concentrate on the character,” he says.
But Siddiqui, who grew up in a district known for its high crime rate, had never thought that he would become a household name one day. Neither did his parents, who travelled several kilometres to a town nearby to see him in Kahaani. “They still cannot believe that I have finally made it,” he says.
For the actor, too, the change is overwhelming. Good times then were the days when he had enough money to eat a piece of chicken or mutton in one of the food stalls in Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid area. But he saved some money and decided to move to Mumbai — where the action was.
He tried for roles in television series, but was not very successful. “In the new millennium’s mega serials, even beggars had to look good. That clearly meant that there was no chance for me,” laughs Siddiqui, who describes himself as a “dark and ugly” actor. “Even fairness creams couldn’t bring me any luck.”
Ironically, it is this rustic look that’s become his trademark. “Bollywood has always pampered heroes and treated actors as second class citizens. But, of late, it has realised that there has to be space for actors who can connect with people,” he says.
These days, Siddiqui even has a fair number of women fans who find his looks appealing. “I have been thinking for the past few months that perhaps there is something in me,” he smiles.
But he can’t forget those days when he queued up in front of production houses — too shy to ask for a role. “I used to stand silently in one corner and wait for the producers to notice me.”
He did get a few blink-and-miss roles — such as that of a waiter in Shool (1999), of a small-time criminal in Sarfarosh (2000) and a pickpocket in Munnabhai MBBS (2003). He finally caught the eye of the industry with Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2007) and Aamir Khan’s 2009 film Peepli [Live].
Siddiqui, who used to share a small room with three others in Vanrai in Mumbai’s western suburbs, now lives in a one-bedroom flat in Zohra Nagar with his wife Anjali, their two-year-old daughter Shora and his brother Shamaas Nawab. A chain smoker who goes through a pack a day, Siddiqui makes sure that he doesn’t smoke in front of his daughter.
“I can’t give much time to my family now. This often irritates Anjali,” he says. Anjali emerges from the kitchen to voice her discontent. “He tends to forget things these days,” she says, while Siddiqui nods. His living room is sparsely furnished with a wooden table and two chairs and a plasma television.
The man who once couldn’t afford to take a bus is now the proud owner of a chauffeur-driven Ford Ikon. But he says he is not greatly enamoured of any of these comforts. “I can go back to poverty if a situation comes. I have sailed through the worst days of my life and I am prepared for any crisis,” he stresses.
The actor believes he is a “misfit” in Bollywood. “And, I don’t want to become a stereotyped Bollywood actor,” he declares.
Even if he wanted to, it’s unlikely that he would. Siddiqui recalls trying to get a designer suit made for him to wear at Cannes last year, where two of his films were being screened. The designers turned him down, he laughs.
He also remembers the time when he couldn’t afford a cellphone and kept a pager for communicating with filmmakers. “Once, I received a one-line message on the pager saying ‘Please call immediately’. It was signed Subhash Ghai. I was thrilled. I was in a bus and got down immediately to rush a telephone booth to call him — only to discover that a friend was playing a prank on me. I felt miserable.”
But now his smartphone doesn’t stop ringing. At present, there are at least 11 films waiting for release including Shoojit Sircar’s Shoebite, Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout and Anurag Kashyap’s Lunch Box. Siddiqui admits that he earns up to Rs 4 crore for a film.
Filmmakers who had earlier rejected him saying that he was not “hero material” are now making a beeline for him. “After Wasseypur, I have got at least 200 offers,” says Siddiqui, who is now acting in theatre director Barry John’s film on Phoolan Devi’s killer Sher Singh Rana.
Dibakar Banerjee has offered him the lead in his next film about the life of a struggling actor. “He wants to know more about my life in Budhana to incorporate all that into the film,” he says. Siddiqui also says that he’d like to work for Bengali films and is in talks with director Buddhadeb Dasgupta.
His work in Prashant Bhargava’s Patang (yet to be released in India) has won him critical acclaim. American critic Roger Ebert invited him to his film festival Ebertfest in Chicago last year. “That’s when I realised that I was being noticed,” he smiles.
After the festival, he celebrated his success in his own way. From Chicago, he went to New York for a holiday. “One night, I went to 10 restaurants to eat and drink,” he says. “I was thrilled that I could afford it.”
Good food — including the biryani of Calcutta — is his weakness. “I love the potato that you get in the Calcutta biryani,” he says.
It is already 1am and little Shora is still up — restless to be with her father. I am offered the chicken that Anjali has cooked, but I have to make my way back too. I leave behind a smiling husband and a doting father. I hope there is potato in the chicken — Nawazuddin Siddiqui sure deserves it.