The Nawaz casting coup

Director Watkins on why he signed  the Miss Lovely actor for McMafia

By Amit Roy
  • Published 12.02.18
Casino showgirls in a scene from the fourth episode of McMafia. Courtesy BBC 

James Watkins isn’t just being polite when he describes Nawazuddin Siddiqui as “one the best actors in the world”. 

Perhaps unusually for an Englishman, Watkins, director of the eight-part BBC global crime drama, McMafia, was already familiar with Indian cinema — at least the non-Bollywood part — and had long admired Nawaz’s style of acting. 

“I had seen Miss Lovely (2014) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and the early movies that he has done — what an astonishing actor,” Watkins recounts. 

Watkins, 44, best known for directing The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, had wanted Nawaz from the start for the crucial role of Mumbai gangster Dilly Mahmood.

“Let’s try and see if we can get Nawazuddin Siddiqui,” was his challenge. “And we weren’t sure whether we would be able to get him because he is always incredibly busy. I went out to Mumbai and met him and we got on very well. He read the script and was interested. All the best actors in the world focus on the truth of their character and that’s what we talked about.”

Cricket bat “signed by Virat Kohli” as a weapon of persuasion;
Dilly picks up a hacker who can tell him where Benny’s drugs consignment is located;

Contrary to expectations, the bat finally ends up with the hacker’s son as a “gift”

Nawaz was “interesting in terms of an Indian actor because when you go to Mumbai and talk to people out there, he has got this reputation because he is very real. He does the Bollywood thing as well — he also does social realist films, (with) very internalised, very nuanced acting — he is not just a song and dance movie star. I had seen his work and wanted to work with him.” 

If there is a lesson for Indian actors with ambitions of working in the west, it is that the Bollywood style of (over)acting does not cut it with western directors.

“I enjoy watching Indian movies — the cinematography is really, really talented — I don’t have to watch the Bollywood stuff, but more of the Gangs of Wasseypur sort of films,” says Watkins. 

The experience of shooting all over Mumbai mainly with an Indian crew and working with Indian actors was a very positive one for Watkins and his small core team from London.

So far six episodes of McMafia have been broadcast, with the fourth given over substantially to the shockingly violent battle between rival gangs, one led by Dilly Mahmood, and the other by Benny Chopra, for which Atul Kale was cast. The plot involves smuggling heroin from Pakistan across the border and finally through Mumbai port. In one scene, Mahmood menacingly waves a cricket bat “signed by Virat Kohli”.

Watkins believes McMafia, which is being marketed by Amazon Prime to more than 200 countries and territories worldwide, will allow Nawaz “to showcase his talent to a wider audience”.