After a long and hard struggle, 42-year-old Nawazuddin Siddiqui has found his space in all kinds of cinema. From playing bit roles in critically acclaimed films such as Black Friday (2007), the actor from UP’s Muzaffarnagar district has moved on to power-packed performances in movies like Badlapur (2015), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) and Raees (2017), among others. The actor has now slipped into the role of author Saadat Hasan Manto for a biopic directed by Nandita Das, and is gearing up to star in James Watkins’s new thriller series, McMafia, for BBC One.
ALAKA SAHANI: You are playing Saadat Hasan Manto in his biopic. What’s his relevance today and how are you approaching the role?
For me, Manto is very relevant today because through his writing I can express things that are on my mind. His writings touch upon several topics that we wish to talk about, but are unable to. Though I had decided against doing any ‘characterisation’ for this role or changing my body language much, there will be some ‘Manto-eeyat’. We are working on the look. Also, we can’t have present-day conversation patterns, as they spoke good Hindi and Urdu back then. I am trying to project his humour and command over the language. The latter is something we are losing today. Command over language is in someway linked to the sharpness of thought. We are working on a few of his traits, such as the way he sat while writing; once he started writing he wouldn’t stop till the very end.
SHAJI VIKRAMAN: Do you think there is a resurgence of interest in Manto’s writing today?
During my National School of Drama (NSD) days I had started reading Manto’s work. However, I did not have much idea about him. There were stage productions based on Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht. Nandita Das, who is directing the biopic, started talking to me about Manto’s personality, thoughts and attitude around three years ago.
KAVITHA IYER: You mentioned that there are several things you wish to express. Can you tell us about them?
When we are asked tricky questions during an interview, we give cliched answers. Obviously, no one wants to be caught in a controversy. At NSD, we were told that in the olden days, artistes and performers were kept away from residential areas. They were considered to be people with azaad khayaalaat (free thinking), and the society feared they would affect others with their thoughts. I believe people like me are bhaands (entertainers) and we should stay a little away from society. There are better commentators than us on television panels.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: It isn’t necessary for artistes to just talk about work.
We will take another century to reach that stage. I save my angst for the characters I play. Many people harbour such angst. Thank god I am an actor and I have a way to channelise my angst.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: What impact did Manto have on you?
There is a speech by Manto: Mein jo dekhta hoon wahi likhta hoon. Of course, in some way his attitude and thinking inspire me.
ANUSHREE MAJUMDAR: In old Hindi films there was a connection between language and expression…
We have lost that laye (rhythm) of speaking. Today, speaking in broken Hindi is considered fashionable. Very few realise that their expressions would improve once their language improves. I usually ask for scripts in Devanagari. That way, it takes me less time to remember the script. I believe all fine actors are good with the language. And regional language and dialect, such as that used in the Gangs of Wasseypur, have a rhythm of their own.
TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA: How important are looks, as compared to acting talent, for bagging lead roles in movies?
The industry does believe that looks are very important. It is difficult to get roles just based on acting. For example, when I had just started out, I had come with a lot of theatre experience, but there was no way for the man taking the audition to know that. He would just think that I don’t look like an actor. He might not even know what good acting is because mediocrity is at such high levels now.
DIPTI SINGH: You began with small roles in Sarfarosh (1999) and Black Friday (2004), and it has been a long journey since then. In an interview you once said that initially people said, ‘He looks poor, so give him the role of a poor person’.
Yes, people used to decide these things based on my looks. They would give me small roles, and I would think that my time would come too. However, I never dreamed of getting big roles, I just wanted to work, whether it was on TV or in theatre and films. I was happy with small roles. You are only disappointed if you have big dreams.
ALAKA SAHANI: But there did come a time when you decided against doing small roles.
I did small roles for five-six years, and then I decided that I had had enough of roles which called for just one scene. I would now only do roles which required at least two scenes. Then I got Black Friday, in which I had three scenes. I was happy.
PRIYANKA SAHOO: What do you look for while selecting projects?
The director should be good, even if he or she is new. A bad director can ruin a good script, while a director with a good sensibility can elevate an average script. A lot of things change when you are on the sets. Anurag Kashyap doesn’t have dialogues in his script, so when he gets to the sets, he looks around and decides what to do. We then improvise the dialogues and that ends up being very good.
SHAJI VIKRAMAN: Many actors in the Hindi film industry come from established families, and then there are outsiders such as you. What was it like to begin as a rank outsider?
It is a very difficult system. Often, when you are playing a supporting or negative or comic role, nobody cares. But the moment you start doing lead roles, people sit up. Ultimately, you do get acceptance, but it comes much later. If a film is made with me, and has a budget of Rs 40 crore and another Rs 20 crore is used for the promotions, then I will feel like I have succeeded. For many new stars, their first movie is made at Rs 30-35 crore and another Rs 15-20 crore is spent on promotions. If you promote a movie, people will watch. The problem for our kind of films is that there is no promotion. There is an audience, but the films need to reach them. But is there anyone to promote these films?
NEHA KULKARNI: What is your stand on the censorship vs creativity debate that is going on in the film industry now?
If there is too much interference, it is difficult for filmmakers to be creative. But now even the audience refuses to watch certain films. For example, for the first time with Raman Raghav 2.0, I saw that the audience that came out was cursing the film, especially women, who were saying that they don’t want to watch something this dark.
RADHIKA RAMASWAMY: I have heard that you did a lot of odd jobs at the beginning of your career.
I used to do theatre, but since there is no money in theatre, particularly in Hindi theatre, I had to do odd jobs. I would work from morning to evening and then go for rehearsals. I chose this profession, so I had to do what was needed.
KHUSHBOO NARAYAN: You have worked on all kinds of films, from short films such as Star (part of Bombay Talkies) to commercial ones such as Kick. How do you balance the two?
I’m an actor and an actor is given a task to do in a film, and whether it’s a commercial project or not, one does it. Outsiders make these categories — indie, commercial etc. Even in theatre, there are all kinds of plays. There are musicals and then there are also realistic plays. You do them all, and same is the case with films. I had made these categorisations in theatre, and I’m not carrying a flag for indie projects in cinema. There are lots of commercial films also that are very good, and then there are so-called realistic films which are fraud. A lot of casual acting passes off as natural or realistic acting. The fact is that we don’t know what realistic acting is. It’s actually quite difficult.
SADAF MODAK: What are some of the most challenging roles that you have essayed so far?
They’re all challenging. You can’t keep doing roles that are in your comfort zone. In fact, what I want is that all my roles should be outside of my comfort zone, such as Raman Raghav 2.0. I can never relate to that man’s thoughts on any level, but I have to make him believable and for that I have to get inside his head. Every character requires preparation and one method isn’t applicable to all. You can’t apply method acting to every character.
ALAKA SAHANI: What is your understanding of method acting?
They are exercises. Actually, people see it as ‘getting into the mood’ of the character. When we were new to the city as struggling actors, I saw this one actor — I won’t mention his name — who had just got a role. For 15 days, he had been sitting angrily, in the same clothes, because that’s what his character was supposed to be like. When I asked him what he was doing, he said that he was in character. Then we went to the shoot, and he was standing there ‘in mood’. Just as he was supposed to say his dialogue and start walking, he fell into a ditch. In method acting you should be aware of the things around you. It’s not like you get into the ‘mood’ and then go into a trance.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: Last year, you couldn’t participate in the Ram Leela in your hometown Budhana, Uttar Pradesh following opposition by the Shiv Sena. How have things changed since then?
After the Ram Leela incident, my confidence really grew. Besides the people who were opposed to my being part of the play, everyone else — the organisers, the audience — was on my side. I was happy that people from every community were with me. I thought we needed a little more preparation so I stepped back and said I would do it next year. Sometimes after watching TV, we think that the world is over. But when you go out and actually talk to people, you realise there’s a lot of love.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: When you are on screen, you own it. But now, during this conversation, you don’t seem at ease.
In real life, I have to do more acting than in my films. I have insecurities. I have to think about how I will present myself and what impression people would have. When I’m in front of a camera, I can say what is true and no one can stop me. I’m most comfortable in front of a camera.
SRINATH RAO: Are there any characters that you would like to play in the future?
I don’t know myself what character I want to play. I just try to see how many facets of myself I can tap into. It is said that there is a whole universe within every human being. There are a thousand characters within you.
MANAS MITUL: How do you approach a character? Towards the end of Raman Raghav 2.0, there are homosexual overtones to your character. Do you suggest such behavioural traits to the director?
I get feedback from all the people who have read the script and what they think of the character. Then, I try and think of how to make the character my own. If, for example, a director wants something out of a particular situation, then I try and think of ways to stretch what he wants; how extreme I can be in that scene without losing its essence. In every scene, there are a lot of possibilities. Give a five-minute scene to another actor, and there will be a big difference between his performance and mine. I try and connect a scene to other experiences of my life. For example, in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), at first I wanted to act as Al Pacino did in Scarface. After two days, Anurag Kashyap (director) sat me down and scolded me. I spent the night sleepless. Then I got rid of the Al Pacino hangover entirely, and replaced it with my observations regarding two or three people from my village.
BHARAT SUNDARESAN: In most of your films, you end up going to prison.
The ones with prison scenes have become more popular I think. For Badlapur (2015), we shot in Nashik jail. It was fun. I developed a rapport with the prisoners.
KAVITHA IYER: Has playing dark characters affected your personal life in any way, ever?
Yes, it happens when you study a character intensively or get obsessed with it. During the making of Raman Raghav 2.0, I fell sick within one week of shooting and was hospitalised. The stress had taken a major toll on me. I was told that I was repeating my dialogues in the hospital bed.
MANAS MITUL: Do you think stories from smaller towns are getting enough space in our films?
A number of independent films are being made on interesting subjects. Popular films are now set in smaller towns. It is like let us play the emotional card and the film will be a success. People these days don’t really like to watch dark movies. We’ve tried to experiment with different genres for the past couple of years, but it is not the best time for these kind of films.
PRIYANKA SAHOO: What do you think of the new Chief Minister of UP?
We hope that he carries out the development work he promised during the swearing-in ceremony.