Speaking exclusively to The Indian Weekly, Niwazuddin Siddiqui says Melbourne is an unforgettable city. He speaks with insight opening up about his life and works. Let’s look at why Siddiqui’s presence in films is an occasion to celebrate.
Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui finds Melbourne mind blowing. The reason, according to Siddiqui is because the people are ‘amazing’. It is a city where many cultures amalgamate – Indians, Pakistanis and others. Together they live and work in peace. “I hope they continue to spread this love and peace,” he says.
Siddiqui is in Mumbai but his Melbourne memories are fresh and recent. He was here in August to receive the best actor award for Raman Raghav 2.0. But over phone from Mumbai in the run up to his latest release Freaky Ali, Siddiqui reflected, among other things, on the warm welcome he received and the beautiful time he had. “I was in Melbourne for 4-5 days and it was a mind blowing experience. I had a beautiful time. I will definitely come back.”
Life has definitely changed for this young man from a small village in Uttar Pradesh. When Niwazuddin Siddiqui was shooting for Gangs of Wasseypur, a film that in a way broke the myth of how a Bollywood hero should look like, he recalls people asking ‘Who is the hero of the film’ and on looking at him said, ‘Film chalegi nahi’ (the film will fail). On the contrary, Siddiqui became a class by himself.
Short, slim and dark, he is every bit your average man on the street far removed from the handsome, chocolate boy image a Bollywood hero carries. Simple and rooted to his farming background, Siddiqui thrives in his own oddness in an industry where glamour is the order of the day.
But his is not a fairy tale. He emerged from the eclipse of his own anonymity struggling for years to survive, to get work and to keep going. That journey began with his move from his village Budhana in district Muzaffarnagar of Uttar Pradesh, where his farming family settled for generations tilling the lands. Siddique became perhaps the first one to break the mould taking to studies and completing his Bachelors of Science in Chemistry.
For a year, he worked as a chief chemist in Baroda and then moved to Delhi in search of greener pastures. He changed many jobs in between and was nagged by the fear of being bored in one particular job. But it was one day in Delhi that someone showed him Mandi House, a cultural hub, when he realised what he always wanted to do. “Before that I could not articulate what I wanted to do in life, I knew I was doing something else that did not quite define me. Theatre was in my subconsciousness and I never realised it.”
He joined an amateur theatre group at Mandi House and stopped looking at jobs that related to his education. To sustain his passion, Siddiqui worked as a guard at a toy factory that paid him very little money. From 9 am to 5 pm every day, he stood outside the sun keeping watch over the premises and by night he would be at Mandi House doing plays. This went for a year by which time he had done about 10-12 plays gathering enough credibility to apply for a seat at the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD). The next 3-4 years at NSD for Siddiqui were his most enjoyable years where he focussed on acting. He graduated in 1996.
Armed with all the training and the skills, Siddiqui came back to Delhi where he dabbled in street plays and small projects. Finally he decided to leave for Mumbai in 2000. “I didn’t go to Mumbai with big dreams, I saw survival as being more important so I took on whatever small roles that came along.” Mumbai began on a note of struggles and rejection but it did not dampen his spirits.
He has never shied away from sharing the struggles he underwent such as living with little or no money and borrowing money from friends to keep on going. “Around me other actors were struggling too. It was literally like living life on the edge – if I have something to eat today I didn’t know whether there would be some left for the next day.”
But Siddiqui had a different level of frustration. “I was frustrated not because I did not get a role; I had become used to rejection. But I was frustrated that I did not get a role because of my physicality, you cannot underestimate someone because of his looks; I had the talent and the training,” he rues, adding, “The best thing is the people around me were not negative, we kept hoping that someday the break would come. Disappointment comes when you go with the ambition to become a star; my ambition was to work and to never run out of work. There are only two things in your hand – your hard work and honesty, I was focussed that whatever role I get I would work with full passion and honesty. Otherwise it would have been easy to go down the path of depression.”
The fact is, Siddiqui did not fit into the image of the quintessential Bollywood hero. Hanging around film studios in search for jobs, he was often asked, ‘You don’t look like an actor. Show us some skills’. And when he did, he would be told, ‘The acting is OK’ but shown the door. The rejections just kept coming. “But I did not work on my physique or my skin colour,” laughs Siddiqui who used to apply fairness cream as a boy to attract girls.
For the next ten years or so Siddiqui had a lot of time which he said was spent observing people, whose characters he would later emulate for his roles. He kept getting small roles here and there. “I was a theatre actor and wanted to work in any medium. For an actor it is important to keep on working.” He started with one or two small roles or several-minutes roles as he describes such as the 2-min role in Munnabhai MBBS and Manoram Six Feet Under. He had a brief stint in Sarfarosh too in 1999. The real break came with Patang which had him playing a lead role. The film went to the Berlin Film Festival and Siddiqui’s performance was noted by international critics.
Finally around 2008-2009, things changed in cinema with new filmmakers making films of their choice. But it was the Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) that transformed Siddiqui into an overnight star. Some called him the find of the century making the stories of his struggles more poignant.
Everything changed after 2012. Siddiqui’s roles in Black Friday, Kahani, Gangs of Wasseypur, Miss Lovely and Bombay Talkies are the stuff that made the world sit up and take notice of him.
Siddiqui’s latest film Freaky Ali which was released on September 9 is a first for him playing lead in a commercial film. Starring opposite British model and actor Amy Jackson, Siddiqui says this is a formula film. “Entertainment matters,” he tells us over the phone from Mumbai. “The character I play is a tricky one, everything from the strange to the absurd is found in this character.”
Freaky Ali is the story of Ali (Siddiqui) who is a salesman at a small undergarments shop and is kicked out of his job just 10 minutes into the film. Jobless he becomes an extortion debt collector before his talent as a golfer is discovered. His is a journey from a small suburb to becoming a golf sensation to meeting the girl of his dreams. It marks several firsts for Siddiqui – playing the main lead in a formula, commercial film, doing a dance number and his first comedy.
“I never played golf in my life. I used to watch the game on TV and often wonder why people take so much time over a small ball,” laughs Siddiqui. Through working in the film, he developed a fondness for the sport which he says is very technical and inspiring, “The best part about this game is the fact that you are competing with yourself, you can go and play by yourself and that is wonderful. Now I am addicted to it. I play once or twice a week.”
Asked how it felt working opposite someone like Jackson, Siddiqui says she did not have any of the star tantrums. “Bahut (very) understanding aur (and) professional hain.” He gets a bit peeved though when people say they made an unconventional pair. “I don’t have three arms or four ears, so how can I have unconventional looks?”
In Mumbai what separates Siddiqui from his contemporaries is the fact that he wears his simplicity on his sleeves. “I don’t feel like a star or have the attitude of one. I am respected because of my job, that’s where it all comes from. So if people are giving me respect I have to focus on my job and keep entertaining through hard work. I want to remain an actor not a star.”
After many years of anonymity and several good films, Siddiqui is happy that good scripts are now coming to him. He also has the luxury to say no to scripts he does not like even if it comes from a big production house. “Because I want to work on my sensibilities as an actor which I inherited from my background in theatre, I don’t like following the trend.”
What he does know is also that he likes to grab roles that take him out of his comfort zone. “If I foresee difficulties in a role, I want to do it. I want to portray real people such as the people with whom I have shared experiences and hardships, shared a lived experience of sorts. I have less belief in playing the typical Bollywood hero.”
Looking back, he reflects, “I struggled for many years and now I feel I have got my due. I am happy because I was not expecting it.”
Asked how he relaxes now, Siddiqui says there is hardly the time for it. “Life is so hectic but I try and find relaxation in my work. I can’t say ‘OK I have finished work, I will relax now’, it doesn’t happen that way. I have learnt to find my own relaxation in work. Work is must and that is relaxation.”
However he does go over to his village to see his mother and siblings and still take part in the family farming. “I go after completing one film and spend 1-2 month there. You see, you feel saturated after playing one role so the only way I can get refreshed is to go to my village and empty myself to make place for the next character.”
The impression Siddhiqui leaves even on real life is lasting. “I have a long journey ahead. I don’t think I have achieved anything yet. The excitement for me is discovering what I am through the characters – the whole process of hits and misses, which is fascinating for me.” Siddiqui is the living emblem of entertainment.