Moving Mountains

Moving Mountains

By PAYEL MAJUMDAR | | 5 September, 2015
Nawazuddin Siddiqui has been the common factor in the films that make up Bollywood’s ongoing renaissance, from Pan Singh Tomar to Peepli Live to Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox. His versatility and impeccable dialogue delivery have won him a legion of fans. Siddiqui talks to Payel Majumdar about his latest release Manjhi and the pointlessness of “art films”.
Budhana celebrates this man, with his face plastered on every other building in the town,  and so does Mumbai. There are Faisal Khan fans everywhere, even three years after his Gangs of Wasseypur character reached cult status. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, after the release of his much appreciated film Manjhi, is a happy man, now at a safe distance from his days as a struggling actor, busy with work that he picks only because he loves the role, and far removed from the industry’s many wiles. It is difficult to find such a secure leading man anywhere else.
Anurag Kashyap once said of his leading man, “If you look at him long enough, you find that he is beautiful.” Siddiqui is no longer your invisible supporting cast, his audience has looked at his rugged features long and hard, and Kashyap is right. Siddiqui fills up the screen with a beauty that lingers, some part of which is filled up with equal parts empathy and awe, a new character every time, and yet the same familiar face. Guardian20 talks to Siddiqui about acting and why Manjhi – the Mountain Man was such an important film in realising that journey. 
 
Q. You have said that you listen to a one-line narration of the script before you take up a role. What was that one line for Manjhi
A. I was told that it was the story of one man who cuts his way through a mountain for 22 years. His passion, his madness, in a sense, is what inspired me towards this film.
 
Q. And that role resonated with you? Would you say that  Manjhi was an emotional career move? 
A. Of course. We felt that every person in India should know Manjhi’s incredible story. He is a symbol of impossible love. It is the story of a man’s passion, his struggle for his life, for what he believes in despite the odds. The madness that he had in him, the fact that he would not give up till he achieved his goal of breaking that mountain, I related to that a lot. He struggled for 22 years; I had struggled for 15. The best part about being an actor is that no matter who you’re portraying, you’ll always derive motivation and inspiration from your own life experiences. This is why one actor is different from another, because he brings that crucial element, his own life experience, into a role. 
 
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manjhi – the Mountain Man. Q. What went into preparing for the film?
A. Ketan Mehta, the director of Manjhi, had given me a rough idea about the story, so I knew what I was getting into. As preparation for my role, we went to the village where Manjhi [on whom the film is based] used to live, and talked to people who knew him there. They had a lot of stories to tell. We found some old references about him online, as well as video footage on YouTube, and from there we were able to get an idea about the kind of person he was — valuable information such as how he spoke or how he walked. We wanted to get as much information as we could about the person who had done something so extraordinary, the thoughts that had pushed him towards it. As an actor, this was the hardest part to portray. 
 
Q. Your Gangs of Wasseypur character Faisal Khan reached cult status. Do you think people still associate you with that character, or have you managed to shake that image off now? 
A. People loved Khan’s dialogues and they would bulls**t around with them long after Gangs of Wasseypur released. But all that is in the past now. I have done enough other roles to shake that image off, especially after Manjhi — his dialogues are powerful, and that’s the character I would rather be associated with now.
 
Q. How much of your life do you portray in a film? The “permission liye ho” sequence in Gangs of Wassyepur was your own life story, for instance. 
A. Some bits of my own story are always brought forward in some way or the other in every film I act in. Some way or the other, consciously or unconsciously, you share that information about yourself, whether through the character or the plot, when you put a part of yourself in a film. I think your life experiences give you a locus to relate to and understand a character, and motivate you to play him. It happened with me in Manjhi as well. I resonated with Manjhi’s passion that made him successfully take on the impossible. If nothing else, I can at least relate to things that have seemed impossible in my life, things that I 
have now. 
 
Q. Your role in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where you played a journalist, was also much talked about and appreciated. Did you expect such a positive response?
A. Honestly, I did not expect that at all. I didn’t believe people when they told me that the audience was clapping and whistling when my “entry” happens in the film. I had to go see the film in Chandan cinema for myself to witness this.
 
Q. Do you distinguish between commercial and art cinema while picking your roles? You have successfully pulled off critically appreciated parts in both.
A. To tell you the truth, an art film doesn’t hold any meaning for me. I think a good film is one which your audience appreciates. I don’t believe in films that are made for/ can only be appreciated by a certain “class” of people; then your film isn’t reaching the masses. You should have the right presentation, something that is appreciated by everyone in the audience. There should be no division within cinema. When I make a film, I have certain things to say, and if I cannot convey them to my audience, then I don’t think I deserve any credit. There are a lot of films made in this country in the name of so-called art, which are viewed by a select few people. I don’t want to be associated with those films. Yes, you can make a painting for yourself, which is abstract and has inner meaning for you; you can hang that up on the walls of your room. Cinema is for the people. 
I was infatuated with the chemistry between the audience and the actor. They are connected at an intuitive level — if the actor performs badly, then the audience leaves his side. When he performs well, the audience exalts him. It is a magical and unique chemistry. 
Q. You had once said that there are 150 characters that you’ve played that have inspired you as an actor. Which one was your favourite?
A. These are the characters I have played in my life and they have inspired me. I need to be able to play different roles constantly. I don’t know how this is going to sound to you, but once I am done with a role, I don’t indulge myself in that world at all. I don’t think about it or wonder whether it was my favourite part or not. You need to forget about that role to be able to move on. You need to start hating that character, if need be. It is my past, so I need to forget about it or it becomes difficult to play my next role.
 
Q. As a film actor with a background in theatre at the National School of Drama, what basic difference do you see between theatre and film, in terms of acting?
A. You approach theatre and film acting differently. You need spontaneity in street theatre; you need to mould yourself according to the mood of the audience. They are both very different mediums. It is true that the stage demands acting, while the camera demands activities. The camera is a very minute thing; it picks up a cue and tells the audience about the character; on a stage, the actor needs to tell the audience about himself through dialogues and body language. The audience is sitting far away, they won’t be able to pick up minute cues, unlike on camera, which allows the audience to get a fair idea of the back story through 
subtle hints.
 
Q. Do you consider yourself a “method actor”?
A. When you want to play different kinds of characters, you follow the method acting process, whether consciously or unconsciously. There is no need to be afraid of method acting; it is not a big, scary thing that looms over us. It is broken down into several fun exercises that teach you the craft behind it. It doesn’t matter whether people call me a method actor or not, it is what happens when you naturally want to do more with your acting skills than play only one kind of role.
 
Q. Do you remember a precise moment when you decided that you wanted to be an actor?
A. Yes, I remember myself in that moment very accurately. I was watching a play for the first time in my life when I decided that I wanted to be an actor and nothing else. This was in 1990, and it served as a trigger point for me. I was infatuated with the chemistry between the audience and the actor. They are connected at an intuitive level — if the actor performs badly, then the audience leaves his side. When he performs well, the audience exalts him. It is a magical and unique chemistry. 
There should be no division within cinema. When I make a film, I have certain things to say, and if I cannot convey them to my audience, then I don’t think I deserve any credit. There are a lot of films made in this country in the name of so-called art, which are viewed by a select few people. I don’t want to be associated with those films. Yes, you can make a painting for yourself, which is abstract and has inner meaning for you; you can hang that up on the walls of your room. Cinema is for the people.
Q. Is that recognition removed in film, as compared to theatre where performances are delivered in real time?
A. I do not agree with that. There a lot of characters in a film, but if an actor performs well, then the audience doesn’t leave him. They want the actor to deliver them that filmic journey; he is a vehicle for the film’s story. They start looking at a film from his perspective. This is an amazing experience that isn’t there in theatre. A stage actor does what he likes — the stage is his medium. Depending on the audience’s response, a one-hour play can stretch to two hours. However, a film is a director’s medium, and an actor is moulded in his vision. The duration of a film or an actor’s delivery cannot change, no matter what the response is from 
the audience.  
 
Q. Do you feel that you have changed as a person due to your stardom? How do you react to all the attention 
you receive?
A. I haven’t changed at all. The only thing that has changed about my life is that people give me more appreciation for my work. I used to do the same work for no recognition in the past; nothing else has changed. I like the attention I get; I like it when girls appreciate the work I do. I spend as much time as I can with my wife and family. They do not come to my sets, so that part of my life is completely separate. 
 
Q. Would you ever consider doing a party song, or bulk up to play the Bollywood hero stereotype for a role?
A. You are talking about the clichéd hero, right? Yes, why wouldn’t I do that? It would be an experiment for me, a challenge set in front of me to bulk up for a particular role. I don’t see any shame in doing so, and would like to try it out if such a film appeals to me. 
 
Q. Is there anyone in particular that you want to work with?
A. I cannot single out directors, since that might end up being a little difficult for me [laughs]. But I would like to work with a lot of directors and actors in Bollywood. I feel good about being part of the industry right now. There is so much work to be done, so many characters to be played, and I am excited to be a part of it. 
 
Q. Are you interested in other aspects of filmmaking such as directing or producing, in the future?
A. Not at all. I am so consumed by my passion for acting that I cannot even think of doing anything else. 
 
Q. What sort of role do we see you in, in Raees? Are there any upcoming projects you are excited about?
A. I feel intoxicated with Manjhi’s success right now, so I haven’t spared a thought for Raees. I am glad that after a long time, my film is a hit, in spite of the fact that its rough cut was leaked online. The film has been running house full in theatres till now, and I’m really happy about it.
 
Q. You essayed the role of a villain for the first time in Badlapur. Will we see you in a comic role soon, or something other than the underdog roles that you often choose to portray?
A.  I think I pick roles that I find challenging, whether it be playing Liak in Badlapur, or Manjhi the mountain man, a man who cuts through his biggest obstacle. I feel that I am fortunate in getting to portray the characters I feel inspired enough to play, so right now I am not even thinking about anything else. It is gratifying to see that people are thinking of different kinds of roles when it comes to me. I don’t think such characters are written too often nowadays. I’ve been fortunate enough to get more than I could have asked for. 
 

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