You started your career with very minor roles, did you ever imagine you’d be playing the lead in a project some day?
No, I never thought so. Even earlier, when I was doing one scene per film, I was happy as an actor. I just wanted to keep getting work because I had done a lot of theatre and was used to working constantly. Be it street plays or shows in somebody’s house, I liked being busy. I didn’t even think of being a star. I was doing Hindi theatre and there wasn’t much money in it. So after a point, I thought I’d struggled a lot and started doing street plays after the National School of Drama. When that wasn’t enough to survive, I thought I’d go to Bombay and do a TV serial. That too didn’t happen because most people thought I’d require extra lighting because of my complexion.
What was your first impression of the industry when you came in? Were there scripts being written for people like you?
No, I only got fillers for the first five-six years. After that I realized I should at least get two scenes in a film. So I started saying no to one-scene roles. It took me another five years to go from two to three scenes. Finally, there were different kinds of films that started to get made—independent, small-budget. So I started getting decent roles. Like Ashim Ahluwalia, who made Miss Lovely at that time, or Anusha Rizvi, who made Peepli Live and was looking only for theatre actors. Then there was a festival film called Patang that I did where the guy from abroad (director Prashant Bhargava) was looking for actors but had no budget. We were obviously always available. So I did a few films like those which went to festivals and got a lot of acclaim, and by 2012, I had three major films— Gangs of Wasseypur, Talaash and Kahaani. Then things got smooth.
In the 10 years you’ve been around, do you think things have changed for actors like you?
Definitely. Now you’re a respectable part of a commercial mainstream film. That is not something you could imagine a decade ago. We lived by a certain cliché—tall, fair and handsome. That has been broken to a large extent, though it still persists at some level. But now you need good actors in commercial films too.
Did you consciously decide to balance commercial and offbeat cinema?
Yes, absolutely. I signed Freaky Ali after a lot of thought. I do not want to be known as an actor who does these indie films—anyway they don’t run. I want to do films that may be small-budget but make some money. Like Raman Raghav, it was a Rs3 crore film, including print and advertising, and it made some Rs7-8 crore in a week and its job was done. If that doesn’t happen, you’re in trouble. So the point of doing films like Freaky Ali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan or Kick is mass reach. Then if I do these independent films, there will at least be some interest at a basic level. Otherwise they come and go, and no one notices. They may get awards and appreciation but they also have to recover their investment, right? This class division bothers me—the point I’m trying to make (through a film) should reach everyone. If you want people to come watch your film in a theatre, you have to make sure your presentation appeals to the classes and masses. The Lunchbox and Bajrangi Bhaijaan are examples of meaningful subjects that were also presented well.
What is your favourite part of being in the movies?
Making them. I’m fascinated by how a scene is shot—the fact that I may have thought of it one way, the director another way and when it comes together, we achieve some of it, miss some stuff. It’s a process and joy that remains unparalleled. I don’t enjoy the marketing and promotional bit at all. Par agar na karo promotion, koi dhyan nahi dega aapki film pe. It’s become so important, kya karein? I always wanted ki film karo, kone mein chhip jao ja ke. People may appreciate or abuse it, but it’s become such a huge nexus. If superstars can go promote their film all over, who are we?
What is the feedback you get on the expectations people have from a Nawazuddin film today?
There is so much awareness now. Thanks to globalization, people know about world cinema and understand performances. So, the feedback is based on the nuances of acting—not on the clothes you wear and so on, though that is some kind of style too.
When you go out, you realize people want to see actors as much as stars. I must have done a 100 roles on stage so even if I do a 100 films, I won’t be scared. I may reach a saturation point which is when I may go back to my village, live among people and observe them, unlearn, relearn. There is something an actor must do to drive himself. But right now, I’m ready for all challenges, I’m enjoying myself, I get the chance to play all kinds of roles. There can’t be a better time than this.