There’s a famous story that filmmaker Anurag Kashyap likes to regale the media with. It involves Nawazuddin Siddiqui as one of the supporting characters. The year was 1998. Fresh off the critical success of Satya, which he wrote for Ram Gopal Varma, the upstart Kashyap’s name was being bandied about in Bollywood’s screenwriting circles. The story goes that Kashyap was at Andheri railway station persuading Rajpal Yadav (about to hit it big as Ram Gopal Varma’s in-house ‘Factory’ character actor) from leaving the city after what had been a life of prolonged struggle. There was also Nawazuddin Siddiqui there, along with other struggling actors. Kashyap “did not know me back then,” Nawazuddin recalled in a magazine interview last year. “In fact, he did not even pay much attention to me.” This is a classic Nawazuddin Siddiqui story as someone who can merge into the crowd, the easily missable, a minor detail, a side gag, his ordinariness so ordinary that he can slip by without anyone noticing him. But put him in front of the camera and this boy from Budhana (Uttar Pradesh) transforms that very ordinariness into some of the best acting you may have seen from a Hindi film performer in a long time. It prompts the question – who was the last such actor? Om Puri, perhaps.
Kashyap was on to something when he cast Nawazuddin as Tiger Menon’s manager in Black Friday, Kashyap’s very own breakout indie hit in 2004. Kashyap saw the future Gangs of Wasseypur star in a brief police interrogation scene in Sarfarosh. Aamir Khan played the interrogator (ACP Rathore). Incidentally, in Black Friday, too, Nawazuddin is in police remand room ratting on his boss Tiger Menon’s activities and Bombay bomb blast-related information to the cop played by Kay Kay Menon. Once again, so low-key was he that his Sarfarosh co-star Aamir Khan failed to recognise him years later during the audition of Peepli [Live]. The two worked together again in Talaash and Nawazuddin had to remind the Dangal star that they go back a long way.
The reason why Nawazuddin stands out is his ability to surprise the audience with his unpredictability, always a step ahead of them. As you watch him on screen, there’s nail-biting excitement as well as dark stirrings and discoveries. Even when he’s playing extreme antisocial/criminal and seemingly unpleasant elements like a serial killer, a psychopath, a gangster or any oddball you can name he brings something goofy and slimy to the character, making him the most watchable contemporary actor on screen.
Of course, much of that maturity of the craft comes from his own personal failures, disappointments, and the now legendary struggle. Most Nawazuddin Siddiqui story today glorifyingly centre on that struggle. Yes, he came from no tradition. Son of a farmer from a small UP town called Budhana, Nawazuddin’s hardship has made him a martyr of the arts, the superstar of strugglers. But we must also not forget the root of his craft. He’s a trained actor, one who interprets the medium in a deeply personal way and prepares for his roles meticulously. He knows how to nail down his character. What looks natural and effortless on screen belies the intense preparation and effort that goes into the roles.
Few actors in India have had as eventful a journey to the top as Nawazuddin. In the early years, Nawazuddin, a TV reject, was no more than a junior artiste on a film set. He agreed to even one-minute film roles hoping that the “one-minute role would lead to two-minute ones.” To get to character roles took longer than expected and an eternity before he became the leading man. Anurag Kashyap who was gradually warming up to Nawazuddin both as a person and actor cast him as a band-wallah in the hit Dev D song “Emosanal Atyachar”. In the song’s YouTube clip, every single commentator has mentioned Nawazuddin, especially underlining his long and arduous struggle. “Don’t underestimate the power of a junior artist,” reads one.
According to Nawazuddin himself, the turning point for him was Kahaani in 2012, starring Vidya Balan “as a hero.” The small-time crook of early films who was roughed up by cops was now playing an intelligence officer himself. As if avenging the shame of Sarfarosh and Black Friday, he could charge into a police station in Kahaani and with a ‘Do you know who I am?’ swag, toss an abuse at the cop-in-charge. “Teri maa ki Khan,” the indignant IB officer on special duty A Khan tells the cop, flashing his identity card. The same year, Nawazuddin got his first leading role “as a hero” in Miss Lovely. Months later Gangs of Wasseypur II released, reuniting him with old pal Kashyap. This was the role of a lifetime, celebrated by critics who have been in love with Nawazuddin’s “Faijal” Khan ever since and his revenge and rise immortalised by movie-goers and memes alike.
More hits followed. More breathtakingly brilliant performances. In Bombay Talkies, he plays a failed and frustrated actor and as you see him on screen, you can’t help but wonder if this would have been Nawaz’s own situation if only he hadn’t made it so big in Bollywood. In the noir Badlapur, his character is fleeing with the bank heist loot when he murders an innocent woman giving the film’s hero his central motivation (revenge) and to himself, a lifetime of slippery and unpredictable repentance. While Nawazuddin’s character Liak starts out as someone you want to hate it’s a mix of the actor’s personal likeability and the character’s gradual transformation that makes you question the Bad Guy-versus-Good Guy trajectory we were on so far. Who’s bad? The violent Varun Dhawan in revenge mode? Or Nawazuddin who spends much of his time in jail, his life just as much of a wreck as Varun’s? Equally blurred is the question of who’s the real leading man here. Varun? Or Nawazuddin?
Not content with just being an indie star, Nawazuddin’s foray into mainstream cinema with Kick, Raees and Bajrangi Bhaijaan made him a household face and put him in an elite category of stars. Like Irrfan Khan before him, with whom he is often equated, Nawazuddin is a beneficiary of a clutch of independent and radical filmmakers who invested in personal cinema. At the same time, much like Irrfan, Nawazuddin is not downright disparaging of commercial cinema. All art-house mavens need the box-office dough to run their kitchen. Ask Manoj Bajpayee. Ask Irrfan Khan. Ask Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah before them.
So many of Nawazuddin’s recent hits, including Raees and Bajrangi Bhaijaan are a proof of that attitude. Pitted against two Khans, Shah Rukh in Raees and Salman in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Nawazuddin with his personal charm and laconic sense of humour emerged as not only the critics’ choice in these films but surprisingly, also the audience’s choice. And though Kick was designed for Salman Khan, as are all his films, it was Nawazuddin who walked away with the plaudits, a la Gabbar Singh in Sholay. Even in films where he’s not the leading man, Nawazuddin has an incorrigible habit of winning the day. In a scene from 2015’s Manjhi – The Mountain Man, Nawazuddin – who often wondered before entering cinema how this “kaala kalauta,” the short and dark man, will ever be accepted as a hero – looks up at a mountain. “It’s too huge,” he snaps, by the film’s end razing the very mountain down to pave the way.
It’s a perfect allegory on Nawazuddin Siddiqui himself – the Small Guy from Budhana who came to ‘Big Bollywood’ armed with nothing but true grit and bundles of talent and how he conquered the mountain called Bollywood. And very much like in that film, Nawazuddin paved the way just as much for himself as for others who are inspired by him and will follow in his footstep.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)