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Verve People
March 12, 2013

Little Big Man

Text by Rukhmini Punoose. Photograph by Ritam Banerjee. Styling by Shirin Salwan.

Small-built – almost puny – in real life, his towering talent overpowers the silver screen. The man, who hails from a farming family, has journeyed far from being a watchman to an award-winning actor whose performances in films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Kahaani and Talaash have garnered only bouquets. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has scripted his own success story, his only tools being the strength of sheer resilience and his chameleon-like transformation into his reel alter egos. Rukhmini Punoose explores the mind of the man of many roles

There is a scene in Gangs of Wasseypur where Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Huma Qureshi are romancing on a park bench. He plays Faizal Khan, the son of larger-than-life gangster Sardar Singh, but his body language while sitting next to a girl he is completely smitten by is obsequious and horribly awkward. His eyes dart around nervously until he finally musters up the courage to place his hand discreetly over the girl’s on the bench. She gets ticked off and admonishes him saying, “Did you ask for permission before you held my hand? Do you think you can put your hand anywhere without asking for permission?” A visibly shaken Faizal Khan deflates completely and starts to cry. Even the girl is startled at his tender heartedness and hurriedly thrusts her hand into his while cajoling him to stop crying.

The scene in the film cannot be longer than a few minutes but it’s long enough to demonstrate to a thirsty audience that an actor is born. (Apparently, this is a true story and it really did happen to Siddiqui in Delhi and he was distraught enough to cry when he was reprimanded by a girl for not asking her permission before he held her hand!)

The 38-year-old Siddiqui’s chameleon-like transformation between the two parts of Gangs of Wasseypur, where he plays a shy, reticent, chalice-toting ganja-addict in part one, then in part two, morphs into kingpin Faisal Khan with raw power exuding from every pore, is a small demonstration of this man’s range. And it doesn’t just stop there.

His rendering of Taimur in Reema Kagti’s film, Talaash, where he plays a pimp’s lackey, is as much of a jaw-dropper. According to him, Kagti’s brief was that he had to be a ‘sadak ka keeda’ (road insect). So Taimur limps, has the slightly diffident body language of someone unaccustomed to ever being in a position of power. Contrast that with his role in Kahaani as Khan, the brash, self-assured, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Intelligence Bureau officer, who swaggers into a room like he owns it and you’ll understand why it’s easy to moon on about his range.

What makes Siddiqui’s story particularly captivating is how someone raised by farmers in Budhana, Uttar Pradesh, in a 60-member joint family, with eight siblings of his own, could get here. And by here I mean, walking the red carpet looking very dapper in a steel grey suit at Cannes for his film Miss Lovely.

His family grew sugarcane and wheat and he states firmly that he is excellent at tilling the land and understands everything about farming, even if he isn’t particularly drawn to making it his career. But, even then, as a farmer, when the village would gather on the banks of the river to watch C-grade Hindi films on a purdah, the young Siddiqui would sidle pass longingly as he wasn’t allowed to watch.

He went on to graduate in Chemistry from Haridwar and then worked briefly at a petro-chemical factory before he quit. Then came a fallow period where, despite all his efforts, he was unemployed for two years. It was during this phase that a friend took him to see his first play called Uljhan with Manoj Bajpai in it.

“I was very impressed,” says Siddiqui. “It seemed to me that theatre was the purest form of art. There was no corruption in it as there were no retakes and once you did your scene it was right there for the audience to react to.” Desperate to be a part of this art form, he took up a job as a watchman in a factory in Noida to support himself, so when his duty finished at five in the evening he could devote his time to theatre. “There is no shame in any honest work for me,” he says. He wasn’t a particularly good watchman however, being puny, undernourished and unable to stand for eight hours under the burning sun. So it was little surprise that the company’s owner saw him wilting away and ordered him out of the job saying, ‘koi energetic bande ko leke aao’ (get an energetic man).

By then plays had become such a passion for him that he begged Manoj Bajpai to help him apply and prepare for the admission procedure at the National School of Drama. The irony is that after Bajpai’s coaching, Siddiqui got in, but although Bajpai himself applied five or six times, he never managed to get admitted! Siddiqui attributes everything he is as an actor to his training at NSD. “The NSD pays for your food, hostel fees and even gives you a scholarship so all you have to do is focus on learning. It was an amazing place. I was exposed to Russian directors and Chekov and the Stanislavski method of acting. I learnt how to internalise a character’s world and separate his physicality from his mindset. These are tools I use for every character I play,” he says.

In person, the actor is exceptionally soft-spoken, gentle and respectful. Sitting comfortably perched on a chocolate-coloured bean bag in his sparse living room with a diwan in the corner his trusty cigarette never leaves his hand for too long. There are large photographs of his two-year-old impishly pretty daughter, Shora, on the walls. You can hear her in the back room throwing a tantrum and his beautiful, tall, swan-like wife, Aliya, trying to placate her as she glides in and out of the kitchen serving us green tea.

Their home is in a slightly run-down building with peeling cobalt blue walls and the narrow stairwell has seen better days. A lone black-and-white laminated image of Charlie Chaplin is the only decoration in his simple living room. Apparently, this poster was bought when he was at NSD and has travelled with him everywhere and through all the years of struggle where he shared tiny rooms with five or six strugglers and did bit parts in movies like Sarfarosh, Munna Bhai, Black Friday, Dev D (he was one of the singers in the song Emotional Atyachaar), Peepli Live, in multiple television serials and blink and you’ll miss parts. “In my journey,” he says seriously, “the most incredible part is that despite the tremendous struggle, I never went mad. People were quitting and going back all around me and it was demoralising. Some days I was depressed and frustrated as hell. I knew I could act but I was just not getting noticed. I would sit in my room for hours and hours angry and frustrated, honing my craft but I was only getting called for one scene parts. I was constantly being told that I’m not hero material, I’m not tall or fair or good-looking. I hadn’t come here to be a hero or a star, just to be an actor. Acting was my passion and I wasn’t being given a chance to act.”

Consequently, Siddiqui is far more ready to attribute director Anurag Kashyap for the recognition and success that eventually came his way than he is willing to accept that God or any form of divinity has any hand in it. “I don’t believe much in God,” he says with a tiny amount of cynicism creeping into his soft brown eyes for the first time. “At many points in my life, people advised me, ‘ki tum ye bhagwaan pe chod do’ (leave it to his Almighty).Luckily none of the things I left to God, worked out. Luck has never supported me. Everything in my life, I have got, I have had to work extraordinarily hard for. When I realised I can’t trust in God to give me anything, my attitude became, “Kaise nahi milegi, I won’t give things the option to not work out. I’ll work so hard, it has to work out.”

Those times of intense struggle taught him how to live without any money and compress his needs down to almost nothing. “I travelled in trains without a ticket, regularly had baths in different friend’s homes, ate meals wherever someone would give me food, even had to smoke only when I was offered a cigarette. I can never forget those times,” he says. And it’s not like he could turn to his family for support. A point he makes with a droll twinkle in his eye, “When you have eight or nine children, you don’t get too bothered by how or what they are doing.”

When you hear of his background and his struggle, you are even more taken aback to hear him say that he has no material desires. That though he has now received over 175 scripts (of which he has signed only two films), has awards pouring in, got several films on the floors, and has earned his stripes as an actor, he doesn’t crave a big house or a car and has no desire to move to a new flat. He says with disarming honesty that his needs are very few and he likes to keep it that way so that he is never forced to accept roles he doesn’t believe in just to buy a new car or a better flat. He concedes on probing, that his wife, Aliya, is different though and wants to travel the world and has a few more material needs than him. “Those I will fulfil but it’s easy to get corrupt here and I don’t want to lose my bearings or forget where I came from and what I actually need.”

Nothing brings the fire into his eyes faster than when he’s talking about his work. His eyes practically smoulder with a strange light when he discusses the kind of films he’s getting and how challenging the roles are. “My directors are squeezing every ounce of me, which is great because I have about a thousand more characters inside me all dying for a chance to get out. I’m very observant and I’ve seen all kinds of people even in my village and I want to play complex, really fleshed-out roles. This is not to say that I’m not open to playing an out-and-out commercial character but I want it to be believable, it can’t be a bematlaab ka role.” He dreams of playing characters like Colin Firth’s role in The King’s Speech and Javier Bardem’s part in No Country for Old Men and The Sea Inside. Even though understanding foreign accents in these films can be challenging for Siddiqui, he follows the film by closely watching the way the actors emote and their body language.

He has several interesting roles coming up that he can devour; Bombay Talkies with Dibakar Banerjee, Shoebite with Amitabh Bachchan, Barry John’s Sher Singh Rana, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely and Prashant Bhargava’s Patang, which has opened in the US and Canada with rave reviews from the acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert who awarded the film four stars. One of the roles he is most looking forward to is Ketan Mehta’s Mountain Man as it is based on a true story about the extraordinary strength of human will. Siddiqui plays Mountain Man or Dashrath Manjhi, a poor labourer whose injured wife died because he couldn’t get her medical aid in time as his village was too far from the nearest medical centre and had a mountain blocking the road. This man spent the next 22 years of his life chiselling away at the mountain till he completely demolished it so no one else would suffer the same fate.

With all of this, Siddiqui has a lot to look forward to, but the only thing he desperately craves right now is solitude. “I want to take a 15-day break to Jaisalmer, sit on top of a hill and just spend some time alone to internalise the huge changes in my life and really absorb it all.”

After all, there’s a lot to contemplate in his journey from watchman to Mountain Man. Siddiqui has come such a long way, his only tools being the strength of sheer resilience he has displayed in slowly chipping away every obstacle, till he has a clear path ahead of him. Not very different from the character he is playing.

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