‘My family counts only the Khans as actors’
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At 38, with over a decade of cameos and supporting roles behind him, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui is hardly a new face in Bollywood. But it's only recently, with a spate of edgy films that have turned the spotlight on the ensemble cast, that Siddiqui has moved out of the shadows. His performance as the local reporter Rakesh in the Anusha Rizvi-Mahmood Farooqi-directed Peepli [Live] drew accolades in 2010. But it was his turn as the police informer Gopi in Paan Singh Tomar and the abusive, hard-nose intelligence officer in Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani this year that impressed cinegoers and critics with his raw energy and easy role play. Before he left for the Cannes Film Festival to promote his upcoming releases, Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur and Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely, Siddiqui talked about his struggle to make it in Bollywood, his intuitive relationship with Kashyap, his first ever outings at international film festivals this year and why his family isn't too impressed with what he is doing. Excerpts:
Has your career started looking up after the wonderful reviews for your performances in Kahaani and Paan Singh Tomar this year?
I would say most of the assignments that I have now are because of my roles in Black Friday (2004) and Bypass (2003), (a short film that got the BAFTA award), which made people notice my work. Till then, I had acted in blink-and-miss roles in several films such as Munnabhai MBBS and Sarfarosh. I had a major role in Firaaq (2008). Since the film was not a commercial success, I did not get much recognition. The role of reporter Rakesh in Peepli [Live] (2010) gave my career a push, but it is the public reaction to my character in Kahaani that took me by surprise. I had no idea, it would generate this kind of response.
Tell us about your journey from National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi to Bollywood.
When I dreamt of being an actor, I could just think of theatre. After graduating from NSD, I did theatre, mainly street plays in Delhi, for nearly four years. Later, I moved to Mumbai and tried my luck in television serials. But that was the time when Indian television was inclined towards glossy looks and started decking up its actors. There was no place for people like us. Between 2002-05, I hardly did any work. Four of us shared a flat. I survived by conducting occasional acting workshops. At times, I had to borrow money from friends. I started getting film assignments after acting in Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday.
You share a great rapport with Anurag Kashyap. How did that come about?
Anurag and I have a strange kind of understanding. When we meet, we spend a lot of time in silence. Yet, when he offers me a role, it's usually perfect for me. I am also supposed to read his mind and deliver the kind of performance he wants. I had gone home to Budhana in Muzaffarnagar, UP for my brother's wedding when he called me out of the blue and said, "I am offering you the kind of role you wanted to do". The interesting fact is I had never told him what I wanted to do. In this film (Gangs of Wasseypur), I play the third generation of a coal mafia family in Dhanbad.
On Facebook, you sound quite critical of Bollywood masala movies. Are you determined to stay away from them?
I have done several commercial films. But in all these, I have liked my character. Actors, who appear with big stars as their friends and brother, often get lost in the crowd. I don't want to be one of them. I want to stick to doing meaningful roles. That's the reason I am still living in a rented house in Yari Road, Mumbai. If I start thinking about my next EMI, I would be forced to do anything that comes my way.
Do you grudge the long struggle you underwent to find recognition?
The time is right now. I may have got lost in the fame five years ago. I have learnt this from seniors, who found instant fame and then lost it. Now I am mature enough to handle it.
How did you bag Miss Lovely?
(Actor) Paresh Rawal had recommended my name to Ashim Ahluwalia. The day after I met him, he asked me to play the role of Sonu, a director of C-grade movies, who falls for a struggling actress. Ashim is a mad genius. I have faith and belief in his madness. I was convinced he will either do something outstanding or the concept won't work. There is no middle path for him.
How does it feel to have two of your movies screened at Cannes this year?
It's a great coincidence and I am very excited. This will be my first trip to Cannes. But I have company in my co-actors and directors of Gangs of Wasseypur and Miss Lovely. My only concern is the interaction with media. I am not very good at it. I often try to duck the questions and put the responsibility on the director.
But you did face the international media at the Ebertfest: Roger Ebert's Film Festival in Chicago in April?
The whole experience was very new to me. I was in Chicago for the six-day Ebertfest where my film Patang, a movie by NRI director Prashant Bhargava was screened. I saw the film at a big theatre with the audience for the first time. Meeting iconic film critic Roger Ebert was a very special moment. Though I had watched Citizen Kane earlier, seeing it again at the festival with his commentary was an unforgettable moment, especially because he has now lost the ability to speak due to cancer.
What kind of response did Patang receive?
In some ways, Patang busts the perception that Indian cinema is dotted with song-and-dance routines. Several viewers came forward after its screening to express their surprise at watching an Indian film of this nature. While interacting with them, we told them that Indians are now making different kinds of movies — contemporary and issue-based. After its screening at Chicago, we travelled to New York and San Francisco to promote it. The movie, set around Utran, the kite festival in Ahmedabad, is releasing in the US theatres in June.
Several of your films are a part of major international festivals this year...
I have been shooting for films in the last four years. It's a happy coincidence that most of them are releasing this year. That made the screening of six of my movies at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles 2012 possible. The success that Paan Singh Tomar and Kahaani, which released on consecutive Fridays, enjoyed, was unexpected. Though I knew I had good roles in them, the appreciation that I got pleasantly surprised me. Bedabrata Pain's Chittagong has been ready for some time and will be released this year. My next release is Gangs of Wasseypur. In Reema Kagti's Aamir Khan-starrer Talaash, releasing in September, I have a significant role. Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely was screened at Cannes though the release date for it in India is yet to be decided.
How is your family taking to your success?
They are not very impressed. They count only Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan as actors. My father and mother still have no idea about what I do. My mother is happy when I wear good clothes on screen. However, now that I have a steady income, they are happy. They are beginning to believe that I can do something in life.
Do you ever dream of directing a movie?
I am very bad at multitasking. For direction, one has to look at several things. I am not cut out for that. I will be busy with two movies in the months to come -- Shlok Sharma's directorial debut and Nitish Batra's movie Lunchbox with Irrfan.
Now that your work has been appreciated, are you considering lead roles?