Nawazuddin Siddiqui has completed 20 years in the Hindi film industry, having witnessed terrible hardships and countless rejections in the first decade of his career. It was only in 2012 that his prowess as an actor was recognised, through Kahaani and Gangs of Wasseypur. Today, he ranks among the best in business, with titles like Sacred Games and Manto on his filmography. He speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about how he created a space for himself against the ‘heartthrob hero’ stereotype that dominates Bollywood.
Q. From facing numerous rejections and setbacks for more than a decade to building a body of work that includes some of the most iconic roles ever played in Bollywood, how do you look back on your journey?
A. I come from a really small village in Uttar Pradesh. As I grew up, the thought of making something of myself kept occurring to me. But I had no guidance. Villages, in those days, didn’t provide any opportunities. It took stubbornness and courage to explore one’s interests, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. One day, someone took me to a theatre and I found it interesting. I knew I should do it. Then I got trained at Delhi’s National School of Drama, but reality soon kicked in. There’s no money in Hindi theatre, so I thought I’d go to Bombay and get whatever small roles I could get. It was tough, but I got some work. But nothing significant came my way. I experienced one failure after another, and then made a promise to myself that I have to achieve my goal. As an actor, I had faith in my skills. Then I started getting roles with one dialogue, then two, and slowly things got better. I kept at it for 10-12 years.
From where I stand now in my career, I am glad about those years of struggle. I observed the world around me closely. I explored my own emotions as well. Back then, as the frustration increased, my will and determination got stronger. These struggles, insecurities and issues have helped me in the roles I have portrayed.
Q. You are often called a “character actor” or “method actor”. How do you view yourself as an actor?
A. I would like to use the word «convincing» for myself and that doesn’t happen overnight. I worked hard for years and explored myself through theatre. I played all sorts of characters on stage. I didn’t become an actor with my first film. I was an actor earlier as well. I am able to play characters such as Manto [Manto], Thackeray [Thackeray], Ganesh Gaitonde [Sacred Games] and Faizal Khan [Gangs of Wasseypur] etc. with ease because of my background. But I think my strength is being honest to my craft. An actor must explore the world of the character. I create that world in my head with reason and logic. I keep asking myself questions like, “Why is this character behaving like this? What drives him? What’s his background and family dynamics?” This happens through method acting. One needs to understand that the character’s journey doesn’t start with the film. Films show a certain period of the character’s life in a few hours. An actor always needs to explore the depth and details of the character he or she is portraying.
Q. You’ve talked about battling this quintessential “hero appearance” that the Indian film industry demands from male actors. Does the problem persist?
A. Our society is in the habit of finding heroes that fit certain criteria—six-feet tall, fair, muscular and stylish. What can one do? People still think like that. That’s a stereotype so deeply ingrained in the audiences’ minds that it has taken years to even address the issue, let alone overcome it. This change will take time. It was unlikely for someone like me to get noticed on screen. I neither have the personality nor the height. My physique isn’t impressive and my face is not noticeable either. Even if the industry accepts me, I know the audience might not. That’s the larger problem, and it continues. For example, most mothers in India still ask their sons to marry fair women. Actually, the majority has a corrupt sense of what’s acceptable appearance. So when people with that kind of mindset see an actor like me getting attention, they can’t tolerate it. They are disappointed. That creates a lot of problems, and it takes too much time to convince people that a person who looks like me can also be an actor. Not that I want to, but it will be a long time before someone like me can play a typical Bollywood hero.
Q. The Hindi film industry has changed in terms of the quality of content and its idea of bankable actors. Are there areas where you expect change in the future?
A. I don’t think the industry has changed per se. Whatever positive change there is has happened because of the web. Bollywood is still mainstream. What pains me is the state of small-budget films. People need to change their idea of what’s a hit and what’s a flop. The problem is that a film is called a hit only when it earns Rs 100 crore at the box office. But if the earnings of a small film exceed its budget, then that is also a hit. Through OTT platforms, too, the costs can be covered. People don’t understand this math. They call small films flops. Many of my independent films have been well-received at international festivals, but have released here to empty theatres. Winning awards and gaining recognition there won’t matter if things don’t change here. Rather than taking to social media to praise films later, watch them when they release. That will ensure the sustenance of many unestablished but talented directors and actors.
Q. Your recent films—Housefull 4 and Motichoor Chaknachoor—made you the face of this debate on whether fine actors such as yourself should do commercial films. Any thoughts on that?
A. I think we should definitely do them. Versatility is the key. I have always tried to experiment with my roles. I want to try each genre. People come at actors with all sorts of criticisms these days. Social media is to blame for this maybe. As an actor, interesting scripts matter to me. I would like to emphasise that I am not a part of any race. This is my journey. I can do fun, romantic or comedy films. It is unfortunate that people don’t apply their knowledge in evaluating a film; rather, opinions fly about insignificant matters. I believe commercial films can find a balance between entertainment and quality of content. Many directors have achieved that. As far as my recent films go, I chose them on purpose. I wanted families to be able to enjoy the film together. My daughter usually can’t watch my films because they mostly get “A” certificates. Finally, I realised I should do films even she can watch.