New Delhi: As a child growing up in a farmer family in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Nawazuddin Siddiqui never visited a proper film theatre. The only cinema hall accessible to him played B and C-grade films.

Today, riding high on the critical and commercial success of films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Badlapur, Kick, and The Lunchbox, among others, he juggles various exciting projects and heralds the dawn of an era where an actor has come to be known not for his looks or pedigree but for his skills before the camera. As he readies for the release of one of the toughest portrayals of his career in Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi-The Mountain Man, Siddiqui has come a long way. He speaks on why Manjhi stands out among the many complex roles he has played so far and the exciting juncture he is at in his life and career.

Most of your roles have been complex. What makes Manjhi tougher or different, if it has been so for you?

It was difficult to play this man whom you wouldn’t ordinarily imagine as an actual person you would meet in real life. It was tough to get into his mind, to try and think of why he broke a mountain for 22 years. It seems impossible but I had to make it look believable.

How did you play him then?

I met and stayed with his family, the people who knew him and could explain small details about him, his behaviour and habits. I watched videos because visuals make a huge difference. A biopic should be as close to the actual person as possible, not your own interpretation. You need to immerse yourself and get lost in who he was.

Are you a director’s actor? How was your equation with Ketan Mehta?

I am, absolutely. I shared a great equation with Ketan. We had lots of discussions and it was wonderful to know that we were on the same page. I was completely ready to go by his interpretation of Manjhi. For example, I thought this would be a calm, resilient person and wanted to underplay him. Ketan wanted him to be loud, colourful and full of life. Apparently, his voice would echo around the village he lived in. He was constantly telling jokes, he was an entertainer.

I begin by drawing from the director’s reference points. Then, I internalize and connect with the character. Even for Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I was given a basic sketch of who this guy was. I took it from there.

You describe yourself as a simple and reticent person who loves what he does and does what he loves. What’s your view on the numbers game and promotions in the film world?

I’m not okay with these things at all. How do you tell people again and again in different ways that the film is great? But I’ve learnt that it’s important, especially where small films are concerned. It’s a formula and the audience expects it of everyone. If a film isn’t appreciated, it obviously means audiences didn’t get the message or that it didn’t reach them well enough. For example, a film of mine called Miss Lovely wasn’t promoted and I was very unhappy about it. I don’t enjoy this at all though.

The numbers are okay. What matters more to me is that people should like and appreciate the film. Like for Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it’s great to have viewers come and say that it’s a positive film or that they realize people across the border in Pakistan are the same as us when we’re conditioned to believe they are different. We’re all ordinary beings with the same dreams, fears and insecurities.

You’ve been part of the industry for so long. How do you think it has changed?

The studio system is great. They take risks and push small films ahead. What I’m also enjoying at this point is that I get to play these new, unique, exciting characters because there is a demand for them. I happen to be in the right place at the right time making use of this time.

What do I not like? The promotions (laughs). It becomes very mechanical.

Is there a role you really want to play?

I don’t have a dream role as such. Because I believe if you nurture something like that and don’t get it, glimpses of it start appearing in other characters.

I do want to do something on the lines of Mughal-e-Azam though.

Do you watch new films? Any that you may have liked particularly?

I watched a couple of films recently: The Theory Of Everything, Birdman and Whiplash. I want to watch Masaan, I’ve heard so much about it.

I’m going to visit the theatre when I get some time soon. Nobody notices me in the crowd. Chupke se nikal aata hoon, meri personality merge ho jati hai (I slip in and out quietly, my personality merges with everyone else’s).

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