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Is Nawazuddin's kiss' n' tell defensible?

By Sunil Sethi
Last updated on: November 15, 2017 14:49 IST
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The answer to the question would be: More or less, feels Sunil Sethi.

IMAGE: Nawazuddin Siddiqui's memoir, An Ordinary Life, has been withdrawn after the controversy it generated.

The kerfuffle over the sudden withdrawal of the talented, versatile actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui's memoir, An Ordinary Life (Penguin, Rs 599), before its official release is damaging all round -- to him, his co-writer Rituparna Chatterjee and the publisher.

The kiss' n' tell bits are brief, concerning his liaisons with two actresses, Sunita Rajwar and Niharika Singh. He was jilted by both but his confessions are farcical and foolishly egregious.

The former drove him to contemplate throwing himself under a train; in the case of the latter, he describes a sort of grand seduction scene with flickering candles, with her in 'soft faux fur... And I, being the lusty village bumpkin... scooped her up... (and) made passionate love.'

Later, he apologetically admits that he 'was quite a selfish bastard'.

Both women have responded, neither denying the relationships but disputing his versions in 'he-said-she-said' spats.

Some might charitably say that Mr Siddiqui has done the honourable thing by voluntarily pulling his book, though advance copies were out with reviewers and online retailers were booking orders.

These are dangerous times, and did Mr Siddiqui have a choice before the fur really began to fly?

There are object lessons here for future memoirists.

Actors as diverse as Dev Anand and Naseeruddin Shah have been far more candid about their lives but, as seasoned warriors, they understood that discretion was the better part of valour and had a honed command of the English language.

Those unable to take up their pens engage the best co-writers.

Poonam Saxena, weekend editor of Hindustan Times who recently co-wrote a successful memoir of filmmaker Karan Johar, a nuanced enterprise in the light of his personal and professional relationships, says: "If cinema stars sanitise their memoirs, readers crib. And if you're frank, you're obviously going to upset some people. In Karan's case, he was certain he did not want to hurt anyone in any way without compromising on home truths. This involved a lot of detailed discussion."

Film journalists who write unauthorised biographies follow strict rules.

Yasser Usman, who has penned the bestselling lives of superstars Rajesh Khanna and Rekha, says: "There were many controversial and personal details involved. The first step was informing the subject or their families -- they did not cooperate but they knew that I was writing on them.

"Secondly, everything I wrote was on record, based on interviews or archival material. There were thorough legal and editorial checks to weed out anything objectionable. That's the process."

IMAGE: Nawazuddin Siddiqui with Niharika Singh in Miss Lovely, which released in 2014. Nikharika and Nawaz had a brief relationship during the making of the film.

Mr Siddiqui's co-writer, a San Francisco-based reiki teacher and former journalist, Rituparna Chatterjee, and his publisher's editor have served him badly.

Ms Chatterjee has written a feeble Facebook apology but candour can be no apology for carelessness.

The book abounds in flagrant errors of language, comment and naming of names.

For instance, after praising his Moscow-trained drama teacher Anamika Haksar (and daughter of P N Haksar) to the skies, he expresses disappointment that 'she married a random guy' and goes on about it insensitively and offensively. Ms Haksar could legitimately demand deletions and redress.

I cannot imagine Mr Siddiqui -- fluent in Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic -- speaking of a fellow actor as 'waiting for that elusive Godot we call success' or comparing Mumbai's monsoon light to 'a dandy unable to make up its mind about which colour to wear'. And so on, ad nauseam.

The great pity is that Mr Siddiqui has a remarkable, even inspiring, story to tell.

How the eldest of eight in a family from a village in Muzaffarnagar, western Uttar Pradesh, attained his quality of searing performances on screen is a saga of punishing sacrifice and struggle.

He describes in heart-wrenching detail his upbringing, his employment as a chemist or chowkidar and his burning desire to go to drama school; above all, the years of starvation, scrounging and homelessness looking for acting jobs.

"My hair began to fall out in clumps due to the stress. I had literally become a skeleton as there was little separating my bones and my carbon paper-like skin."

From the desperado with a menacing stillness in Gangs of Wasseypur, to the comic pathos of the clerk in The Lunchbox, to a small cameo of the child abductor in Lion, Mr Siddiqui's account of life on Mumbai's Grub Street, as the blurb above arresting black-and-white cover images announces, 'was like a long dark night that had no end, no hint of light'. 

Now that the damage is done, what are the choices before the actor and his publisher?

They should undertake a complete overhaul of the manuscript and relaunch it after due apologies, excisions and corrections (including, in my opinion, a long, gushing ode to his young daughter). For Mr Siddiqui's is by no means an ordinary life; it should not be allowed to go to waste in a retelling.

And his story so far is a statutory warning to all public figures planning to tell theirs. Look before you leap into print.

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Sunil Sethi
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