Nawazuddin Siddiqui sits comfortably in his Andheri office, which accommodates a meeting room, work space, kitchenette and, most importantly, a room for him to watch movies, read and occasionally stay back. He spent the previous night here, as his wife and children extended their weekend outing in Mahabaleshwar. Between rolling his cigarettes and reciting lines by Saadat Hasan Manto, the 42-year-old actor reflects on Indian cinema, the roles he chooses and his upcoming projects. Excerpts:
The year started on a great note for you, with the release of Haraamkhor and Raees.
While there was a lot of interest around Raees, the release of Haraamkhor on January 13, after being cleared by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, was not scheduled. We were expecting a good response to Raees. The feedback has been overwhelming. For Raees, I didn’t prepare much; I followed the director’s instructions. It was because of Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Dholakia that the film turned out so well. Shah Rukh’s decision to do a negative role, which can be very risky, is commendable. The film is facing some criticism because, today, everyone wants to do either family-oriented or patriotic movies. The mindset of the audience is different. But Shah Rukh stepped out of his comfort zone for a hardcore, dark character.
You make your entry in the film dressed as Michael Jackson.
This is possible only in a commercial film. What I enjoyed the most was that Shah Rukh and I shared a very nice rapport during the making of the film, perhaps because of our background in theatre. Even though his character is a bootlegger, he treats my character — a cop — with respect.
Haraamkhor released nearly four years after it was made. How do you feel when you watch it now?
Initially, there were some professional insecurities, which every actor goes through. The film was made with a budget of Rs 70 lakh. It has already been sold to Netflix. Whatever the producers earn from the box-office is their profit. Today, I am in such a position that my worth is judged by the opening of my film. Trade analysts don’t take into consideration the budget of the film, the number of screens it releases in and the promotion cost before passing their verdict. However, I did not want to harbour any negativity just because it’s a small-budget film. I ended up promoting it in whatever capacity I could.
When I look back, my previous films don’t hold that much attraction, be it Talaash, Kahaani or Gangs of Wasseypur. Today, when I watch Kahaani, I find a thousand faults with my performance. I wonder why I was shouting so much. Basically, even after I wrap up a film, I keep finding faults and wonder if a few things could have been done differently.
How hard is it to step out of your comfort zone in a commercial film, in Munna Michael, for instance?
The audience will see me shaking a leg in Munna Michael (directed by Sabbir Khan) even though I can’t dance. Yet, I love it because I have consciously stepped out of my comfort zone. I want to attempt all those things that, as an actor, I find challenging. I have shot one dance track already. It shows Tiger Shroff teaching me how to dance. Towards the end, I pick up the steps and start dancing. The next song I am going to shoot will have a proper dance sequence. We are shooting it in February and, before that, I have one week of rehearsal to go through.
You begin shooting for a biopic on Saadat Hasan Manto soon after — in March. Isn’t the switch between the two roles schizophrenic?
You have to practise for dance. But playing Manto is mentally challenging. I have been preparing for the role for a while now, reading his writings and having discussions with Nandita Das (director of the biopic). Manto wrote about what he saw and felt around him. The film traces his life from when he left India, till his last days. His thoughts were shaped by the social and political atmosphere of that time. Similar situations prevail in our country today. I wish to say a lot of things, but I can’t. However, I can express those through Manto and his words.
What are your thoughts on the recent attack on Sanjay Leela Bhansali when he was shooting for Padmavati in Jaipur?
The way creative people and creativity are being attacked is quite upsetting. We have become progressive, but zehen mein fark kya aaya (Is there any difference in our thoughts)? India has the power of the youth to make a difference. We should tap that instead of doing what is detrimental to progressive thinking.
Your wish to play Mareech in your village (Budhana, Uttar Pradesh), was turned down…
It was sad. Someone claiming to be from the Shiv Sena protested against it. But something very good came out of that incident. People from different communities and places came out in support of my decision to be a part of the annual festival. They wanted to do Ramleela with me. I realised that we should not be easily disheartened and always remain optimistic. But after the threat, we were scared that if something untoward happens, it would be tough to handle the crowd at the Ramleela ground.
What are your childhood memories of Ramleela?
While growing up, Ramleela was our only source of entertainment. I used to watch Ramleela all 15 nights. My parents never pulled me up even when I returned home at 2 am. Madan, my batchmate at college, used to play the role of Ram. After playing Ram for long, he had started behaving like him. He was very soft-spoken and polite. We were a little crass. He would reprimand us gently for this. I used to admire him and hoped that I would play Ram one day, or, at least, the role of one of his followers. At some level, that fascination led me to become an actor. When I was visiting Budhana during Ramleela last year, the organisers suggested that I play Mareech. That sounded perfect because I wanted to play a character who says nice things about Ram.
You share a strong connection with your village.
I want to educate the villagers about new farming techniques. But for now, I am staying away from the village. I am a little upset too. After the Ramleela episode, I faced a dowry harassment accusation (his sister-in-law Afrin made allegations against his brother Munazuddin and his family). The media publicised it as ‘breaking news’. Today, they are both living happily together and are ready to talk about their mistakes. I was unnecessarily dragged into it, but the media is no longer interested in that. Maybe, I will take some time to forget these incidents and come around in a year or so.
You have become a fixture at Cannes Film Festival. Has it benefitted you?
This time, I met some eight directors in Cannes. Some of the projects will work out, others won’t. That’s the way it is. I don’t have an agent. But I am still getting some offers. Garth Davis, the director of Lion, sent me a number of emails to do a scene in the movie. I am excited about BBC One’s thriller series, McMafia. We have already shot some episodes in Mumbai and will be shooting the rest in Croatia later this year.
Last year, you had acted in movies as different as Raman Raghav 2.0 and Freaky Ali. How have they contributed to your repertoire?
Raman Raghav 2.0 was a small-budget film, but I’m happy — I got more than what I expected from it. It got me three international awards. No one cared about the movie in India. Laat maar ke hata diya (They kicked it out of the theatres). Thanks to Freaky Ali, I learned to play golf and, more importantly, explore my comic side. At the National School of Drama in Delhi, I used to do comedies.
What are your other projects after the Manto biopic?
I usually look for character-driven scripts. Now, I have realised that this is the time for patriotic movies and family dramas that indulge in emotional manipulation. If the audience sheds tears, people think it is a great movie. I believe cinema is above all these things. It should not be bound by trends and market forces. But, looking at things, I am thinking: Thoda family-family khelte hain. Aadmi aaye, ro de, bas (Let me play some family dramas now. People will come and cry, that’s enough). The film will be a hit.
For now, though, I will be playing an astronaut in Chandamama Door Ke, along with Sushant Singh Rajput. We will go to the moon. Wahan jhanda gaadh ke aayenge (We will plant the national flag there). That one’s a patriotic film.