The colours and prejudices of Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s memoir, now withdrawn from circulation, is thin and unpretentious. It is largely anecdotal, and has some riveting pages about the puny, desperate and hairpin-bend life of an actor trying to make it in Mumbai. Or to just make it.
Siddiqui made it to the big league, and his wiry, intense darkness and the spark with which he portrays amoral characters became saleable in a film industry that encashes largely on the fair, the one-dimensional, and the Punjabi.
His success story alchemized on the vibrant film fringes of the early 2000s, after which he got a standout role in a multi-crore Salman Khan megahit. The book pithily lays out the agents of this alchemy, with co-author Rituparna Chatterjee. They conjure a curiously painful—and at the same time hilarious—sub-world of actors endlessly preparing for auditions in corners of Mumbai’s Yari Road, the seat of Bollywood casting.
That’s one reason to read the book, modestly and boringly titled An Ordinary Life: A Memoir. The other reason is its candidness—with a few exceptions, Siddiqui narrates his life story almost with a resigned shrug, without frills or apologies. No character in his life of 43 years is tremulously confronted. Characters are robustly and intelligently detailed. Considering even the most powerful in Bollywood are politically correct and have no sharp or consistent opinions on how the film industry works, this memoir has a refreshing bluntness, which also reveals some of the actor’s own stunning prejudices. While not as entertaining and well-written as the last great actor memoir to have come out in India, Naseeruddin Shah’s And Then One Day: A Memoir (2014), Siddiqui’s book does have some painfully earnest parts, and it’s never fawning or sugary.
I have, of course, read the original version; the actor and his publisher, Penguin Random House India, decided to withdraw the book after a short Twitter storm, followed by Siddiqui’s apology. A Delhi lawyer filed a complaint with the National Commission for Women on behalf of a co-actor because he “outraged the modesty” of the actor by describing their relationship. Another actor has sent him a legal notice after the book’s withdrawal, demanding Rs2 crore as compensation for defaming her.
These relationships take up a few pages in the book, but it is indeed a cheap shot to settle personal scores in an autobiography. The outrage of the women is understandable. But the book is about so much more.
The fact that Siddiqui included some details of his relationships with women is not surprising. It is his memoir, and his view of the people in his life. Autobiographies are often about that. Not the best of examples, but in Songs My Mother Taught Me, Marlon Brando unleashes the mess in his head on his readers, which includes sexual exploits worthy of a bad B-grade script. Joe Eszterhas, a Hollywood writer known for angry, misogynistic fantasies (Basic Instinct, Sliver), wrote a best-seller titled Hollywood Animal, which offended nobody although it had something foul to say about almost everybody he met in LA. Should these books have been withdrawn?
Memoirs of famous Indians, especially those of actors, are usually polite and tediously self-ingratiating—Dev Anand’s Romancing With Life is a perfect example. And most biographies are hagiographies—none of the books written on Amitabh Bachchan, for example, goes beyond what’s admirable about the star’s life.
Siddiqui, too, is not entirely free of glorifying his own life, and the few details about his romantic life are the worst parts of the book. Poor me, I did not know what my girlfriends wanted, he seems to say. Inadvertently, this is also a pathetic way to establish that he had finally arrived as an actor, as a man in the film business: Far away from, and many years after leaving, his west Uttar Pradesh village Budhana, he finally had a girlfriend with whom he could have roaring sex that involved a boa. And we really didn’t need to know who these women were.
But there are parts in the book that are more infuriatingly Indian. The way he was beaten up by his mother throughout his childhood, and his subservience to her all his life: “Sometimes she hit me with an electric wire. Sometimes she hit me with chimta, a pair of tongs. And sometimes her asbestos hands were enough. I was beaten for many, many years, until I was about 15-16 years old. But at the same time, she loved me fiercely, always wanting something greater for me than Budhana had to offer.”
Then, his agonized obsession with his own dark skin. Recalling an incident from early childhood, he writes, “For the first time, I became conscious of my colour. I did not know then that this would happen many times throughout my life.… Like my eyes were gorgeous even though my colour was not.”
Or worst of all, how he realized women are “human beings with countless characteristics”: “I did not know how much of an impact having a daughter would have on my perspective.… I have begun to view women in a new light, as a human being with countless characteristics. Because before that, given my own village background, I had a country bumpkin attitude. My hopelessly shallow perspective about women confined them to merely the sum total of their roles.” A reminder that such “country bumpkins” overpopulate our country.
The fact that Siddiqui and his publisher decided to withdraw the book is slightly more unfortunate than some of these confessions. Offence routinely stops Indians from expressing themselves, in this case personal offence. Potential defamation shouldn’t discredit an entire creative enterprise. What Siddiqui and his publisher display by withdrawing this provocative account of an outsider burning his way into a nepotistic, ruthless film industry and establishing his brilliance is self-censorship. And that is criminal.
An Ordinary Life: A Memoir is now withdrawn from circulation, which his publisher Penguin Random House plans on re-releasing.