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Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s long climb to the top

Even if you haven’t seen Bajrangi Bhaijaan, you have probably heard of the Chand Nawab scene. A reporter for a Pakistani TV channel stands on a busy railway platform and tries to deliver a “piece to camera" about people visiting their homes for Eid. However, his flow is repeatedly interrupted by people who keep wandering into the frame. Though it comes bang in the middle of the most commercial contemporary setting possible—a Salman Khan film—the scene has something of the spirit of classic silent comedy, where the set-up, more than the punchline, is everything.

There’s an awful cam print of the scene on YouTube. When it starts, you can hear the people in the hall cheer. It’s a Salman Eid release, but everyone’s thrilled that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is finally on screen. Their faith is repaid in full by the actor, who more or less takes over the second half.

Though they are being taken through one of the friendliest Pakistans ever committed to film in India, the audience still needs a guide, and Siddiqui is the perfect person for the job. His asides are brilliantly laconic—he silences a burqa-clad Khan up with a casual “Phir boli, Begum?"—but he can also shift the tenor of a scene from comedy to pathos with less apparent effort than his co-stars, Khan and the young Harshaali Malhotra. I have heard more than a few people say that the film really began for them once Siddiqui turned up.

That someone like Siddiqui is eliciting cheers at all is a bit of a miracle. He should, by rights, have risen to “character actor" and stayed there, like Raghubir Yadav or Deepak Dobriyal. Many of his films have had limited releases; some, like Dekh Indian Circus, have never been seen by the public at all.

Yet, by some twist of fate, he has become a leading man. This is in part due to his choices: after his career-making turn in Gangs of Wasseypur, he has balanced arthouse projects like Miss Lovely with more accessible non-mainstream fare like The Lunchbox and occasional forays into commercial cinema (Kick, Bajrangi Bhaijaan). But his popularity with the public, which extends from indie aesthete to small-town cinemagoer, is also a measure of the man—viewers look at him and see someone who is an outsider, self-made, relatable.

The timing of Siddiqui’s rise to fame has also been fortuitous, coinciding with a moment of visible ascendancy for indie cinema. Put in plainer terms, Siddiqui is the face of independent and left-of-mainstream cinema in this country. His career began in earnest with Peepli [Live] in 2010—though some will insist that it all started with that scene in Black Friday (2004) in which he is being interrogated in a jail cell, his desperation palpable in spite of the distracting, lurid red lighting. Since then, he has appeared in Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur, Miss Lovely, The Lunchbox and Badlapur—some of the most challenging, innovative films to emerge from India in the past few years. That list might have included his largely unseen films Monsoon Shootout (which went to Cannes but hasn’t released here yet) and Liar’s Dice (which screened at Sundance and had an extremely limited release in India in 2014).

Then there’s the merely good and not-that-great stuff that he has enlivened with cameos and supporting turns. In Talaash, his turn as the streetwise Tehmur enlivens the otherwise dour proceedings. In Chittagong, he finds time amid the chaos of the freedom movement to awkwardly fall in love. He was scary in Aatma, and an entertaining borderline psychotic villain in Kick. And his bravura performance as a struggling actor who is given a brief moment in the sun (a theme that must have resonated with him) elevated Dibakar Banerjee’s segment above the other three in Bombay Talkies.

***

When we met Siddiqui, he was busy doing interviews for his latest release, Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi: The Mountain Man. The film tells the real-life story of Dashrath Manjhi, a villager whose grief moved him to carve a road through a mountain over 22 years. It has been a couple of years in the making. Mehta, who came up during the parallel cinema movement, shot the movie in early 2013. It was then embroiled in legal wrangles, and is only seeing the light of day now. (Ironically, a preview copy of the film appeared online a week before the scheduled release. The same thing had happened with the Malayalam film Premam and the Kamal Haasan-starrer Papanasam earlier this year.)

A still from Manjhi: The Mountain Man.
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A still from Manjhi: The Mountain Man.

Siddiqui was offered the role by Mehta in 2012. Gangs of Wasseypur hadn’t released at the time, and he was only beginning to get recognized because of his roles as the scarily intense Intelligence Bureau officer in Kahaani and the local journalist in Peepli [Live] who develops a crush on the big-city reporter. Still, he was hardly a household name at the time.

How Siddiqui went from unknown quantity to movie star is one of the more improbable success stories in Bollywood. He was born in 1974 in Budhana, a village in Uttar Pradesh. His father was a farmer, and Siddiqui grew up with nine siblings. In a 2012 interview to DNA, he said: “In my village, only three things work: gehu (wheat), ganna (sugarcane) aur gun."

He shifted to New Delhi after college; his first job there was as a watchman. He developed an interest in theatre and enrolled at the National School of Drama, graduating in 1996. He worked in Hindi theatre for a while, then moved to Mumbai.

The decade that followed was a hard slog. Siddiqui worked in TV, in B- and C-grade films, in cameos and bit parts. Breaking into the Hindi film industry without any connections or benefactors is tough enough, but to do it as a swarthy, ordinary-looking guy was almost unthinkable. But he kept at it, turning up for a minute here, a few seconds there in films like Sarfarosh, Shool (sharing a scene with future Gangs of Wasseypur and Chittagong co-star Manoj Bajpayee) and Munna Bhai MBBS.

Gradually, the roles started getting meatier. That decade of struggle—highlighted in every Siddiqui profile ever written—keeps him on his toes even today. “It was difficult to keep up the effort when nothing was happening," he said. “Even today it’s difficult to believe that things worked out. When people say I’m a star, I don’t believe it."

Manjhi was a challenge for Siddiqui, because unlike nearly all the other characters he has played, this one was based on an actual person—someone who was quite well known by the time of his death in 2007, and more so after the TV show Satyamev Jayate dedicated a segment to him.

“You have videos of the man, you have people who knew him," Siddiqui said. “So, I had to become him physically, understand his mindset." In preparation for the role, he met Manjhi’s son, daughter-in-law and fellow villagers. “They would tell me how he was larger than life, how he used to say everything loudly. I based my characterization on what they said."

It was a difficult shoot. Mehta had decided they would shoot in Manjhi’s village (Gehlaur in Bihar) and in the neighbouring rocky terrain. This meant camping at Gaya overnight, waking up at three in the morning and travelling for a couple of hours to reach the village. To add to everyone’s worries, the area was known to have a Naxal presence.

After concluding what he described as “the toughest shoot of my life", Siddiqui had trouble detaching himself from the character. He took off by himself, travelling to places like Sam in Rajasthan to clear his head. He likes to travel, he said, especially to places where people don’t recognize him. When I asked him if that happened less and less nowadays, he just smiled.

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When we met Siddiqui, it had been two weeks since the release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Kabir Khan’s film had already passed the Rs100 crore mark; it has since grossed an astonishing Rs600 crore worldwide. For Siddiqui and Manjhi, this is perfect timing. “I feel happy because my smaller films coming up will get more of an audience now," he said.

I asked him if he had seen a noticeable increase in his following after Kick—his first film with Salman, in which he extended the tradition of indie actors playing masala-film villains. “Definitely," he deadpanned. “Working with Salman should have this advantage at least."

Siddiqui was careful to give credit for the Chand Nawab scene—based on a real-life video that went viral—to the film’s director. “It was Kabir’s idea," he said. “He had seen the video and decided to incorporate it in the film." Keeping in mind the complexity of the scene, with all those moving parts, Jaisalmer station had been booked for the entire day. Shooting started at 9am. An hour later, they had wrapped up the scene. The first take was perfect.

“In the film, you have the end bit, but we actually shot the whole thing," said Siddiqui, referring to the original video, in which Nawab’s agony is prolonged over five minutes. “It was a very difficult scene. You had to be very sure of when you were to forget your lines and start over. I must have seen that video a hundred times at night. When I did it in the morning, I had seen it so much that it got done in one take."

Seeing a video a hundred times over might sound like an exaggeration, but in Siddiqui’s case, it is probably true. When he gets a script, he says he tries to internalize the dialogue until it seems like the words are coming via the character, not a screenwriter.

“One should go to the line through the character," he said. “You should see their lifestyle in the way they speak." In several of his films, it may seem like he is ad-libbing, so offhandedly are some of the lines delivered. This isn’t the case, he said. “The easier it looks on screen, the more hard work goes into making it so."

Siddiqui had been cast by Kabir Khan once before, back when he was still a bit-part player. The film was New York (2009), which examined the fallout of 9/11 from the perspective of Indians living in the US at the time. Siddiqui played a man who is wrongfully detained and tortured on suspicion of being a terrorist.

Curiously, even in that film, the highlight of his performance is a piece to camera of sorts. For nearly two minutes, he describes the horrors he was subjected to in jail, slowly breaking down, moving Katrina Kaif’s interviewer (and, most likely, the viewer) to tears.

In a recent TV interview, Khan said that people used to come up and ask him whether that actor in his movie was an actual 9/11 detainee. More importantly, this brief scene—along with his appearances in Black Friday (made in 2004, released in 2007) and Firaaq (2008)—meant that directors had also started asking, Who’s that guy?

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Siddiqui’s first film this year, Badlapur, was an illustration of the sort of creative risks he is willing to take. It is safe to say that very few roles like this have been attempted in Hindi cinema before. Escaping with his partner after robbing a bank, Siddiqui’s Liak throws a young kid from the car they have hijacked and shoots the mother. And he shows no particular remorse when the father confronts him in jail.

Director Sriram Raghavan said he had Ratso from Midnight Cowboy in mind while writing the part, but even Dustin Hoffman didn’t have the scales loaded against him to the extent that Siddiqui does here.

For a while, the film looks a straightforward revenge story, like Raghavan’s own Ek Hasina Thi. But something strange starts to happen. As the father, Raghu, is increasingly warped and curdled in his plans for revenge, Liak becomes—almost imperceptibly—more sympathetic. You see him attempt a prison break, which is comically foiled. He ages. He turns philosophical. He is diagnosed with cancer.

By the time he is released, the audience is at least partly on his side. It sets the stage for a gesture of forgiveness that is one of the great endings in modern Hindi cinema.

Over the phone from Lonavla, where he was conducting a film workshop, Raghavan said that the handling of this very gradual shift was something that he and the actor had discussed at length. “It was tricky," he said. “It wasn’t like we decided that this was the moment where he would start changing."

Siddiqui felt the same way. “The transformation is supposed to be so smooth that you don’t know when it is happening. The change should be in the back of your mind—always in the background."

Siddiqui was Raghavan’s first choice for Liak; coincidentally, the character was initially named Nawaz. Initially, when he was told about the film, Raghavan couldn’t tell whether Siddiqui “loved it, hated it, or even understood it"; the actor confessed that he was worried whether audiences would accept his character or end up despising him.

But he accepted the role, and Raghavan soon realized that he had found the right man for a tricky part. “I had given him the freedom to try things out, throw a line. Most of the time, he would surprise me. I was seeing Liak come alive." Later, director Ramesh Sippy told Raghavan that he felt viewers were reacting to Siddiqui the same way they had reacted 40 years earlier to Gabbar Singh in Sholay.

During our brief chat, Raghavan mentioned something that seemed to speak to the self-effacing nature of Siddiqui’s fame. When asked how the actor was on set, Raghavan said: “He is invisible. Before the scene, I would look around and say, ‘Where is Nawaz?’ He would be standing there, two feet away."

This is entirely believable, not just because Siddiqui is slim, slight and quiet, but also because he is no one’s idea of what a movie star looks like. But he looks very much like a small-town gangster, a struggling actor living in a chawl, a villager taking out his grief out on a mountain—the kind of characters one rarely used to see on the big screen.

He could well surprise us and play an urbane city-dweller one day, but for now, it’s enough that he is touching a chord through his explorations of ordinary lives so often ignored or airbrushed by Bollywood.

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