Making The Cut
He stole scenes in Kahaani and Paan Singh Tomar; and stood out in supporting roles in such star-studded films as New York and Firaaq. His fans believe he’s one of the most under-rated actors in Bollywood, while film journalists have repeatedly called him the next Irrfan Khan, a comparison he’s understandably growing tired of. This year, 37-year-old Hindi indie darling Nawazuddin Siddiqui will finally get his well-deserved time in the spotlight, when a series of films featuring him in the lead will release. They include the eagerly anticipated The Owner, and three films that will be screened at Cannes, Miss Lovely, and mentor Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Parts 1 and 2. We spoke to Siddiqui about his journey from a small town in Uttar Pradesh to the international festival circuit. Edited excerpts:
How did you get from Buhana to Bollywood?
I’ve been based in Bombay for 10 years. I struggled in the beginning. I used to get called for one-scene roles. I tried TV as well, but there, even beggars’ roles were being given to six-foot tall actors. At the time, filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, who weren’t hung up on casting stars, were trying get a foothold. Fortunately, the film industry has changed during the last five to six years. After I did [the Kashyap-helmed] Black Friday, people noticed I was a good actor. I started to get work with similar types of directors, who made small budget films with solid content. In the last three or four years, I have done some ten films as a lead, but I struggled for six to seven years. Bollywood formula films were so strong that it was diffcult to break the mould. Anurag Kashyap started the movement. It was because of him other directors got the confidence to do things differently.
What attracted you to your role of a sleazy Bollywood producer in Miss Lovely?
At the time [I auditioned for the film], I didn’t have much choice [as far as my roles were concerned]. I just read the short passage about the character of a C-grade filmmaker called Sonu, gave the audition and got selected. When [director] Ashim [Ahluwalia] narrated the role to me, I started shivering because any actor would want to do such a role. I had no idea he would make such a great film.
You’ve been in several niche films, each of which has been critically well-received. Is it due to persistence or luck?
I don’t believe in luck. I consciously decided to do these kinds of films. Better than doing one scene in a commercial film, here you get respect and your directors appreciate you. I like working with directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Mangesh Hadawale [the director of Dekh Indian Circus], Nandita Das and Ashim Ahluwalia. Everybody has a young energy; they all have a knowledge of world cinema.
Have people like Irrfan Khan made it easier for people like you, who are actors rather than stars? Do the comparisons to Irrfan annoy you?
There have always been actors like that since the arrival of Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur. The difference was that their films did not have a wide audience. I don’t think the comparison [to Irrfan Khan] is appropriate. We have different approaches to the craft; we each have our own style. It is a bit disappointing that you get compared with somebody after you’ve put in 15 years of hard work and effort. At the same time, in my eyes, Manoj Bajpai and Irrfan Khan are the best actors in the country [right now].
You’ve said you want to move away from playing supporting characters. Tell us a bit about some of your starring roles.
There’s Dekh Indian Circus where I play the mute father of two kids in the interiors of Rajashtan. He loves them a lot and wants to show them the circus but doesn’t have the money for it. Then there’s Patang, by Chicago-based filmmaker Prashant Barghava. The film takes place during the Gujarat kite festival celebrations; it’s a family drama.
Who are the actors you’ve looked up to as mentors or for inspiration?
Naseeruddin Shah. He has at least ten films in which each of his roles is completely different. Sparsh, Mandi, Aakrosh, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Katha... [Before he arrived on the scene] people used to say you are good-looking so you can become an actor. He was the first one to show that you need to study the craft to become a versatile actor. As a child, when I would see his films, I knew there was something different about him; I didn’t understand what exactly it was so I went in search of it. I went to NSD [the National School of Drama in New Delhi]; I studied method acting. Superstars on the other hand do 30 films in the same style, using the same body language.
After attending American critic Roget Ebert’s film festival in April, you’re now off to Cannes for the screenings of Miss Lovely and Gangs of Wasseypur Parts 1 and 2. Did you ever think you’d reach this point?
No, I never did. If you do a Google search, you’ll see that there has not yet been an actor who has three films showing in the same year at Cannes. I’m feeling good. It’s a great time for good directors, our films are being appreciated worldwide. I’m sorry to say but it’s going to take a long time to rectify the image of Hindi cinema created in the West by the Shah Rukh Khan brand of films where the hero and heroine meet, dance, separate and reunite.