Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays an ordinary photographer in “Photograph.” Siddiqui told India-West that it can be very difficult playing a common man and he takes inspiration from real life and real people to play such a role. (photo provided)

MUMBAI— Nawazuddin Siddiqui completes 20 years in films next month – he had started his film career with a tiny cameo in “Sarfarosh,” followed by “Shool.” Before that, the National School of Drama (NSD) alumnus had had a decent career on stage.

But in films, it was a slow grind up the leader and it is only in the last seven years or so that Siddiqui has established himself as an actor of substance with assorted mainstream and midstream films as “Bajrangi Bhaijaan, “ Kick,” “Raees,” “Jagga Jasoos,” “Freaky Ali,” “Gangs Of Wasseypur” and its sequel, “The Lunchbox,” “Manto,” “Genius,” “Kahaani,” “Manjhi: The Mountain Man” and others, besides the web series “The Sacred Games.”

Oddly enough, Siddiqui seems to have learned some wrong lessons from his mixed innings along with the right ones. He has now developed an unhealthy disrespect for mainstream cinema, possibly because his own view of the scope in his performance in a movie has not let him see the bigger, truer picture; that films make actors and not the other way around.

His tryst with international cinemas at festivals and his global success (“The Lunchbox”) has also alienated this poor son of a farmer from both the reality of Indian cinema and its unique needs, completely forgetting his beginnings and even the films that have given him an identity with more than just the intellectuals among filmgoers.

Having triumphed recently in and as “Thackeray” and now set to release Ritesh “The Lunchbox” Batra’s “Photograph,” Siddiqui shows that he is a queer blend of the pragmatic and a self-declared idealist to the point of becoming almost an iconoclast.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: How was the “Photograph” experience, especially after “The Lunchbox” with the same director?

A: Ritesh’s brief was simple: “Don’t act!” You see, acting has a pitch. He wanted me to avoid acting and made me do many retakes for that. Ritesh is probably the most wanted Indian director in the world today, and he has evolved so much since our last film because of his exposure to global cinema and festivals.

I play a common man, who is so ordinary he can get lost in a crowd. He is one of those photographers who abound at Mumbai’s Gateway of India seaface, snapping pictures of tourists for a fee. They are working very hard through the day, even through the afternoons when they are already tired. I met and observed so many of them.

Q: A common man is a broad term. But there are dozens of common men.

A: Yes, and that is why it can be very difficult playing a common man. But I take inspiration from real life and real people. I cannot be inspired by the fake stereotypes in Hindi cinema for more than six decades. I don’t want to do those roles and honestly cannot do them. Look at our heroes. They sing and dance on the road. If we see someone like them on actual streets, we will call them mad, right?

I model my characters only from real life. There is much more truth and realism in them.

Q: You have played three real characters – Manjhi, Manto and now Balasaheb Thackeray.

A: Yes, but even with a larger-than-life man like Thackeray, I made him real. I met his family, interacted with them and watched so many videos. I focused on his thought process, his posture, habits, how he would drink his beer on his terrace, how he behaved with his family…and a great compliment I got from someone very close to him was that I had replicated small nuances of which I had not even been told!

Q: Balasaheb had many political beliefs that were controversial, and he was also anti-Muslim in some cases. And you are a Muslim.

A: It takes extraordinary good luck to get a once-in-a-lifetime role like his, where a lot of what we learned as actors in our training ground can be brought into use. And when I have faith in his beliefs, only then can I do justice to his role. Anyone in the world would love to do such a role with so many possibilities as an actor, to show what we have learned.

Q: You obviously did the Marathi version and dubbed it in Hindi later. How was the Marathi experience?

A: It was difficult, of course. Ashok Patole, my junior at the NSD, who also played Javed Miandad’s role in the film, coached me in the Marathi lip-synch nuances, and Chetan Sashital dubbed my voice.

Q: Coming back to “Photograph,” how did you find your co-star Sanya Malhotra?

A: Sanya has a lot of maturity and coolness, and is a very gifted artiste.

Q: Hailing from the interiors of India and theater, what has global cinema taught you?

A: Things change; you change your thoughts. You experiment, and in those countries where I attend film festivals, cinema is not for time-pass – for that, they have many other means. They are serious about cinema. We are not.

Q: Some time back, you were talking about real cinema. But can you explain the irony that theater is realistic but needs over-the-top performances, while films are less real but have realistic acting?

A (After hearing the question slowly again): This is a very good question! Someone once said, “The stage demands acting, but the camera explores activities.” On stage, you have to be loud to make things clear to the man in the last row, and you have to be shown stealing or saying something if you are playing a thief. But the act of theft can be caught instantly by a camera in a film, and that is all that is needed.

But if you notice, it is only the stage actors, from the olden days, who brought in realistic acting into cinema, like Balraj Sahni and later Nadseeruddin Shah. Today, we have Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee. All film actors, but for one or two (!!!) are loud. We brought realism to cinema (!!!!).

Q: How do you choose your roles? Do you think as audience or actor?

A: If I think as an audience, I will become a corrupt actor. I think of how much the story touches me, what I feel, and what are the complexities. And if I think about the box-office, well, my work is doing my job. A dozen things decide how a film will do at the box-office.

Q: You recently did the South film “Petta.”

A: Yes, and it was a great experience working with Rajini(kanth)-sir and such brilliant artistes as Sasikumar and Vijay Setupati. In the South, great respect is paid even to the technicians. There is great professionalism, unlike here!

Q: You are only doing love stories now.

A: Yes, somehow, all three of my films to come, “Motichoor Chaknachoor,”

“Rome Rome Mein” and my brother Shammas’ films are all love stories.

Q: How would you look back on your struggle in cinema of over 12 years?

A: Now, I thank God for it. In that phase when I had no work, I must have minutely observed over 3000 people, their nuances, insecurities and issues from the richest to the poorest. I have one life, and I want to experiment how much I can and get better. Thanks to that study, I have material for another 100 years and will never suffer from overexposure.

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