Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui seems to be a man of extremes. While he has strong opinions about his craft, the actor struggles to hold a conversation about anything beyond movies. Nawazuddin is also a man of sincerity because when he says, “There’s nothing on my mind other than acting,” you believe it.
Ahead of the release of Photograph, the actor sat down with indianexpress.com to reflect on his hits and misses in Bollywood, his admiration for Ritesh Batra’s minimalism and what makes him the happiest about Thackeray’s success.
Sanya Malhotra told me in an earlier interview that a Ritesh Batra set is meditative because it is quiet and serene. How would you describe it?
Sanya is right. There is a lot of silence on his set, and that is why it shows in performances. Mostly, film sets are dominated by chaos and you have to give your best in those situations. Even if someone’s concentration is disturbed, no one pays attention to it.
As an actor, do you enjoy chaos?
Not at all. No one enjoys chaos, but that is how the environment has become. We have also become habitual to that. Now, when there is no noise on a set, we wonder if everything is alright. (laughs)
Photograph is your latest work to tour international film festivals. So, do these coveted platforms make you feel at home?
There are many directors and actors who I bump into at these international film festivals. Sometimes at Sundance, sometimes at Cannes. So, we keep bonding and then part ways and again meet. This goes on. The good part is because of these films I get to learn about world cinema.
Sanya Malhotra received immense praise at the Berlin Film Festival, which is huge for a two-film-old actor. What was it like to share screen space with Sanya?
There is so much maturity in her that I didn’t even realise this was her second film. She is a gifted actor. Besides that, I was amazed by her professionalism. Adjusting to Ritesh’s process, maintaining a calm and professional attitude between shots is something she knows very well.
Everyone, who works with you, vouches for how much they learn from you. But for you, what was the biggest takeaway from working with Ritesh?
What I really like about him is that he changes his process and approach towards his actors with every film. His way of getting work done from his actors was completely different in Photograph and Lunchbox. The best thing about working with him in Photograph was he did not try to make us act. He, in fact, pressured us to not to act. Like it happens in other films, the director says, ‘Action,’ and you start acting, it wasn’t like that here.
He would at times take 10-12 takes and in that process, we would become casual. And that is how the beauty of that scene reaches another level on screen.
Generally, we try to do a lot in a film. Here (in Bollywood), it is either to make the audience laugh or cry. The audience also comes to watch movies for the same reason. The films, which have neither, become flops. But Ritesh has evaded these very cliches. I have realised playing a neutrally-pitched character is more difficult than a comic or a tragic role because you have to maintain a fine balance. If you slip towards the left, it becomes over emotional and if you go right, it turns into comedy. We have made this film by protecting ourselves from these stereotypes. It shows on screen and that is why internationally too, Photograph has gotten acclaim.
Interestingly, even your craft is about minimalism. There are at most a handful of characters where you have played to the gallery. Even in an over-the-top character, there is a certain kind of restraint, which is typical of you. But like you said, most of Hindi cinema’s actors have always tried to act. So, was it difficult to not fall into the trap of what you call the cliched act?
I am getting such a question after a long time. Honestly, no one asks us such questions. Thank you so much for asking an actor’s question. It is very difficult to evade the formulaic acting when you are surrounded by an environment where you have to show every emotion. I believe when you are feeling an emotion, then you don’t need to express it through eyes or face. The audience is so smart that it can read your mind. If you are lying to me and there is something else playing in your mind, I will get to know. You don’t need to show that to me.
But we underline everything. When we are sad in a film, we show it through the dialogue, the background score and our acting which is applying glycerin. Basically, we want to make the audience cry anyhow. And viewers have also become habitual to it.
Until you express, they won’t understand anything. So, to escape all of this and give a correct performance is very difficult, especially in Bollywood. But the new directors coming in the industry, who are exposed to world cinema, they are (minimalist). There are so many ways in which we have gotten corrupt as actors.
In your experience, have there been times when your directors have told you to not underplay?
Nawazuddin: Thankfully, no. The directors I work with are hugely talented. (laughs)
Right now, the industry is dominated by middle-of-the-road films. The audience has also lapped them up, because of which a lot of young, talented actors like Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal and Ayushmann Khurrana have emerged as stars. But you were one of the first actors who dabbled in new age Hindi cinema. Still, you had to struggle to get box office success. Does that hurt at times?
A lot of my films don’t work at the box office even today. Manto didn’t work. Raman Raghav didn’t earn. See, the content-driven films and their success that we are talking about today, they are successful because you are adding songs in them.
There is content, but you are also putting comedy into it. You are still adding formula in these films. This is not hardcore content. It is okay to pick whatever content but the recipe is still of Bollywood. Even today, there is just a small pocket of the audience which likes hardcore content-driven films, where there is no compromise.
We are getting so happy that these films are working, but it has everything typical of a Bollywood movie, from songs to dance. And we call commercial films crap when we are taking the formula from there, with the only difference that we set our stories in villages and small towns. Anurag (Kashyap) did that a long time ago.
I spoke to Zeeshan Ayyub a few months ago, and he pointed out the same thing that initially the films, set in small cities and towns, had some novelty, but today they have become a formula.
This happens every five years. This herd mentality. We think like, ‘Oh, going in small towns is a hit, let’s do that.’ Like, these ‘shaadi-byaah’ films are working a lot these days. People are loving them. So, now when you know such films are getting numbers, you will definitely make more of these.
In such a scenario, when a Thackeray does big numbers, how does that make you feel?
Thackeray was a very different film. There was no song-and-dance, comedy and tragedy. We showed Bal Thackeray as he is. We showed his flaws and controversies as well. It is very difficult to digest such films and people slammed it saying it is a propaganda film.
How was it a propaganda film when we showed him as a controversial figure? We didn’t add any masala to it. In real life, he was a big hero, but we didn’t even show that in the film.
From playing Ganesh Gaitonde, who openly criticises the politics of religion to playing Bal Thackeray, whose actions were driven by religious sentiments, how does the actor in you remain sane?
This is the beauty of being an actor. Like, I do a Manto and then I go and do a Thackeray. If I do those typical hero-type roles even in five consecutive films, I will get bored with myself and leave movies. I will go farming. I need a challenge, an uncomfortable zone every day in my life. If today, I am playing a photographer, before this I was playing Thackeray.
Till this difference does not reflect in my work, I won’t enjoy my work. This is what drives me. I enjoy only when I put myself in a zone where I feel it would be difficult for me to work.
Only a few people know that when I was preparing for Thackeray, I was hell nervous. I didn’t want it to be a mimicry, and because people have seen many videos of Bala Saheb, I should look like him. So, I would wonder what device to use to get that right. Thank God, when the film released, the people, who were close to him, told me he used to talk exactly the way I did,.I felt I achieved at least something.
In a recent interview, you said that, personally, you have no ideology and philosophy. Do you think that helps you jump in and out of such characters?
See, I am an actor and that’s what I want to remain all my life. In the next birth, you tell me whom I should be, and I will become that person.
But in today’s extremely political climate, do you think an actor can afford to be apolitical or function without an ideology?
I love this profession, and acting is my life. I began in 1991 and I did theatre for 8-10 years. I struggled for 10-12 years. Even during that struggle, there wasn’t a single day when I thought of anything else but acting.
So, my knowledge about other things is really less. I am not an expert in a lot of things. You can call me out for that. My expertise lies in acting. If you talk to me about acting the whole day, I will not let you get bored. But the moment you change the subject, you will run away in a minute.