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Could he be the next Irrfan Khan?

Last updated on: April 30, 2012 17:13 IST

Could he be the next Irrfan Khan?

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

In a first, the Cannes International Film Festival will screen three films from India this year. And in another first, two of these films -- Gangs of Wasseypur and Miss Lovely -- star the very prolific independent film actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui

That's not all. Earlier this year Nawaz, as the actor is known among his friends and associates, received critical acclaim for his work in Kahaani and Paan Singh Tomar (where he played a small supporting role). Now it seems we are entering the spring and summer of film festivals almost dedicated to Nawaz's films.

Here is just a sampling of the festivals that are playing the actor's recent works -- most are awaiting release -- Roger Ebert's Film Festival or Ebertfest (Patang), the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (Chittagong, Patang, Dekh Indian Circus, Paan Singh Tomar, Black Friday) and the New York Indian Film Festival (Chittagong, Dekh Indian Circus, Gangs of Wasseypur).

By his own count he has completed ten films that should be released in the near future.  The list includes director Reema Kagti's Talaash, where Nawaz gets to act with Aamir Khan, Rani Mukherjee and Kareena Kapoor.

Right now the extremely talented  38-year-old is at the top of his game. What's more, he's even being hailed as the next Irrfan Khan owing to his impressive body of work and his growing acclaim.

Talaash should give him the mainstream exposure that until now he has received only with audience that support independent cinema.

But as the unassuming actor tells Aseem Chhabra in a telephonic interview from Mumbai, his working life has been defined by years of struggles and rejections from an industry that values appearance and other superficial elements in stars over solid talent. 


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Dekh Indian Circus


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'I hate it when people compare two actors'

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Were you at a film shoot just now?

I just got back to Mumbai after a shoot. The film is called Liar's Dice.  It's directed by Gettu Mohandas who is married to the cameraman Rajiv Ravi. We shot the film near the border of Tibet, then in Shimla and finally in Delhi. It is a road-movie type of a film.

How long were you at the Tibet border? It must have been beautiful?

There was snow everywhere -- rather heavy snow. And it was lovely.

Where are you from in India?

I am from a small village in District Muzaffarnagar in north UP. It is three hours by road to Delhi.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Chittagong


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'I grew fond of acting because I wasn't getting any other job'

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So where did you find the passion and love for acting?

I grew fond of acting rather late. And that was because I was not getting any job. I had a few friends in Delhi who were associated with theater. They took me to see some plays in Delhi and Baroda. That led me to believe the I could also act.  And it was after that I joined National School of Drama in 1993.

But had you acted in any plays in school?

No not all. There are no cultural activities where I come from.  There are a lot of dacoits there (laughs).

But you did not become a dacoit like Paan Singh Tomar...

..Yes, I did not become a dacoit.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui with Manoj Bajpai in Chittagong


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'My parents thought I'd earn money after the acting course, so they didn't interfere much'

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How did your parents react to the fact that you wanted to act?

They didn't have much idea about what theater was. They thought that perhaps I would earn some money after the course. So they didn't interfere at all.

What does your father do?
 
He is a farmer. We are a family of farmers. So they had no concept of college education. They figured whatever I was doing must be right.

Did you get to see films in your village?

Muzaffarnagar is 40 kilometers from my village. So I used to see films if I was able to save money and on special occasions like Eid, Diwali.

 


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Chittagong


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'I was sharing living space with 4-5 friends'

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How did the NSD experience change your life?  What did you learn as an actor?

Prior to joining NSD, I was briefly associated with a small theater group in Delhi called Sakshi. Saurabh Shukla, Manoj Bapayee were my seniors in that group. I performed a few supporting roles in Sakshi plays.

At NSD I had an amazing experience learning everything from stagecraft to western drama and Shakespeare, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekov. I had started to do a lot of comedy and people thought I was getting typecast as a comedian. In the third year we performed Ivanoff by Chekov.  The school had invited a special guest director from Moscow and he taught us the Stanislavski method. From that experience I learned the craft of executing a character.

You graduated from NSD in 1996.  How did you support yourself in the years after that and when did you come to Mumbai?

I came to Mumbai in 2000.  For four years after graduation I stayed in Delhi, doing workshops in public schools and colleges, street theater. Often companies would hire actors to do street plays as a way to market their new products. I was able to make a living through that. I was sharing living space with four or five friends.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Chittagong


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'Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday opened many doors for me'

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Did you have any contacts in Mumbai? 

I had started doing small roles -- one scene in a film. I would go to production companies, give them my photos and just wait. In those day no one would consider me as an actor. I did many auditions, but nothing worked out.

I had already played a small character in Sarfarosh and that was shot in Delhi.  In Mumbai I played a couple of scenes in Munnabhai MBBS.

Anurag (Kashyap) saw me on stage in Delhi and he gave me a slightly bigger role in Black Friday. With that I finally received some recognition.

But was it easy to survive in Mumbai with small roles and appearing in one or two scenes?

Things were pretty tough in Mumbai. I would eat in the morning but I was never sure if I could afford a meal at night. I would walk five to six kilometers to a friend's place, eat dinner and also sleep there. In the beginning I stayed in Goregaon -- sharing a flat with some other actor friends. The rent for a room was Rs 1,000 per month, but sometimes I didn't have my Rs 250 share to pay.

Black Friday opened more doors for me.  After that I got a bigger supporting role in Firaaq (he starred opposite Shahana Goswami in one of the parallel stories in the film directed by Nandita Das). But hardly anyone saw Firaaq. There was practically no promotion.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Chittagong


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'Bollywood wants actors who are 6 feet tall, even if the role is that of a beggar'

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But it is remarkable that from that point you have reached a stage where you are very busy and you have quite a few films ready to be released.

Yes, things have changed. I think there are 10 films set to be released where I play the lead. Thank God, things got in place.

How did you land the role in Peepli Live?

They had called many actors for the audition. Mahmood (Farooqui) and Anusha (Rizvi) chose four actors for each role. Aamir (Khan) made the final selections. So with each film my roles became bigger. A lot more people noticed me in Peepli Live.

Did you try your luck in Bollywood films? New York was almost a Bollywood film, no?

I was cast in New York after they saw me in Black Friday. But then I was getting calls for only roles of gangsters or terrorists.  That became a problem. I had to say no to some projects for that reason.

But for main roles in Bollywood films they want fair skinned and tall actors.  Bollywood wants actors who are 6 feet tall, even if the role is that of a beggar.

What is your height?

I am 5 feet 6 inches!

But you have a such an expressive face. I would consider you good looking.

You are saying that because you have a different perception. Most people in Bollywood would say that I am not good looking. And honestly I had to deal with this a lot. They would say I was dark and short. That was troubling.

You are often compared to Irrfan Khan. He has become a big star -- getting projects in India as well as in Hollywood. How long have you known Irrfan?

I acted with him in a film called Meridian Lines. It was never released.  Earlier he directed a one hour-long short called Alvida.

In that I played the lead role.  It was around the time when he acted in The Warrior and he was also not getting a lot of work.  We acted together in another short film called The Bypass.

 


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Chittagong


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'I have played a lead in Irrfan Khan-directed short film Alvida'

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Many people say you are the next Irrfan Khan.

I don't like it when people compare two actors like that. We are two different people with different approaches to films and acting.

Do you still revisit your training at NSD?  Does it show up in your performances?

Some of the training stays in your subconscious. It's not like I think about it all the time, otherwise my performance will be very theatrical.  But what I learned at National School of Drama does become a driving force in my performances. I bring a lot of life experiences in my roles.

You have been working with a lot of first-time directors. What was it like working with Prashant Bharagava on Patang?

What Prashant does as a director is that he leaves you among real people. He gives you the essence of the scene, but often there are hardly any dialogues. And he shoots you in that real milieu. That style of directing is very beneficial for actors.  

Because when I am with non-actors, I have to remind myself that I should be natural in my performance. I should not be acting. I should not be concerned about where the camera is, since Prashant will capture my mood, my face.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Peepli Live


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'There is no TV where I live in UP'

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You have worked with Anurag Kashyap in three films. What is he like as a director?

I have this chemistry with Anurag where he can read my mind and I can read his. When he walks up to me, I know exactly what he is thinking. He knows me very well personally. He knows that if he wants a certain performance out of Nawaz then how he should approach me.  But he has made me do strange things. In Dev D he made me sing and dance (the Emotional Atyachar song).

In Black Friday he gave me a role that I had hoped I would get one day, where I would beat up people. But I never discussed that with Anurag. He could see something within me and so he cast me as Asghar Mukadam.

How does your family react to your work?  Have they seen any of your films?

Actually films don't come to our village.  But my younger brother recently took my parents to the nearest town and they saw Kahaani.

You haven't gifted your family a DVD player?  Many villages now have televisions right?

Where I live in UP there is no electricity.  There is TV, but the village only gets about two hours of electricity per week.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Miss Lovely


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'Anurag Kashyap has made me do some strange things'

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You are working on so many films, when do you take a break?

It is so hard to get a break. Since I have come to Mumbai, I have been dubbing for Miss Lovely and Gangs of Wasseypur. And then I will be travelling to the US for the Ebertfest where they are showing Patang.

But when I get to do meaningful films, I don't want to give up those opportunities.

What can you tell us abut Talaash? This is first time your acting with big stars, well after New York.

What can I tell you about Talaash?  We are not supposed to talk about it. But it was really good working with Aamir.  

There is an anecdote though. I had done a scene with Aamir in Sarfarosh, but he had forgotten about it. While shooting a scene in Talaash, he suddenly asked me whether we had worked together before. Of course he knew about my work in Peepli Live

So I told him that I had performed in a small scene with him in Sarfarosh. Aamir was really happy. And he told the entire unit, 'Nawaz's first film work was with me.'  It felt good.

So your days of struggle are over?

Yes, those days are behind me. Now the struggle is to make sure that I work on good films. Anurag is always advising me on what projects to take.


Image: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Patang


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