Roshmila Bhattacharya (MUMBAI MIRROR; July 4, 2017)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is an actor like few others. You talk about prep and he brings up Brecht, you laud him for Badlapur and he grouses that the character was misunderstood, you prod him for references and he reveals real-life muses. Meet the man and his many faces.

MOM (2017)

Since the film is a thriller, I can’t reveal much. All I can say is that on the first day of the shoot, I was sitting in my get-up in front of the mirror, speaking in different accents, when I suddenly recalled a senior from my days in the National School of Drama. Piyush Mishra had a distinctive manner of speaking which was apt for this character. I borrowed it and am now waiting for him to see the film and react!


RAEES (2017)

Whether it’s Shah Rukh (Khan), Salman (Khan) or Amitabh Bachchan, when I’m in front of the camera, I never think of them as superstars. For me, the film and the character come first. Acting is all about conviction and if I had reacted to the bootlegger Raees as Shah Rukh Khan, it’d have been impossible for me to convincingly shoot at him.

I always set my characters in a world of their own and imagine their life before and after the film. For IPS Jaideep Ambalal Majumdar, during discussions with the team, we imagined his father and Raees’s bootlegging together when the kids were in school. Then, Majumdar’s father had a change of heart and left the business to put his son through school and got him into the police force while Raees’s mother single-handedly raised her son, telling him ‘koi bhi dhanda chhota nahin hota’ and he ended up following in his father’s footsteps. And that’s how the two boys ended up on opposite sides of the law. This fact was not incorporated in the film but it helped me flesh out the character of the authoritarian cop.

I improvised a bit, giving him some human touches. Like the scene where a junior cop comes to Majumdar with a box of sweets Raees has sent to celebrate the birth of his son and he sends him packing, saying, “Bol dena bachche ka baap bana hai, Gujarat ka nahin.” Chastised, the other cop turns to leave when Majumdar stops him, saying, “Why are you taking the sweets away? Leave them here, they are my favourite,” and goes on to take a bite.

KAHAANI (2012)

I had never played a character who commanded so much authority before. When director Sujoy Ghosh called me from Kolkata to inform that he wanted me to play an Intelligence Bureau officer from Delhi, I was a little surprised. We imagine these top cops to be six-feet-tall with a physique to match. I’m this dubla-patla five-feet-six-inch actor and was convinced that once Sujoy met me, I’d get the thumbs-down. But he did not focus on my height, weight or personality but launched straightaway into how he visualised A Khan as this guy puffing on Gold Flake cigarettes and oozing mental strength and patriotism. He was confident I’d pull this character off.

His only brief was that Khan, unlike other Hindi film cops who tended to get personally involved with cases, had to be matter-of-fact, almost neutral, in his reaction to crime and unemotional in his dealings with eyewitnesses and the accused. My reading of real-life cops matched Sujoy’s. They were authoritarian figures whose power did not stem from their physicality. Over the years I’ve realised that our perception of people is often based on calendar art. In Peter Brooks’ stage play, Mahabharata, Duryodhan was not this giant archer but a thin and agile Japanese actor skilled in martial arts.

If you asked me about my dream role, I’d say I want to play Dilip Kumar’s Salim in Mughal-e-Azam and I’m confident that despite my lack of inches, I can pull off this role with my posture, grace and dialogue delivery. I know because I played Kans in a play called Maharathi and after just 15 minutes on stage, exploded the myth that Krishna’s uncle was a big, burly man with a flourishing moustache while Krishna was a lean, young lad. The latter was played by an overweight Saurabh Shukla and we broke many perceptions and silenced all the sniggers with our performances.

BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN (2015)

I did two films with Salman (Khan) and my characters were poles apart. The antagonist of Kick was larger-than-life. Sajid Nadidawala (producer-director) described him as a sharp businessman and told me to play to the gallery. The challenge was to make Shiv Gajra believable. As an actor, I did my job.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a more realistic film. My introduction scene was borrowed from a YouTube video featuring the real Shah Nawaz Khan reporting from Karachi. I saw that footage a 100 times the night before the shoot. By the next morning, I could rattle off the lines even in my sleep. Jaisalmer railway station had been booked for the day because it was a long sequence and director Kabir Khan thought the scene would take time as it needed junior artistes to stray into the frame and required perfect coordination. The camera was set up by 9 am, we had a short technical rehearsal and then it was action. I wrapped up the day’s work in a single take and we had the rest of the day free.


THE LUNCHBOX (2013)

For the character of Shaikh I found my muse in a friend, Mukesh Bhatt, an aspiring actor I’d lived with in my struggling days. We shared a room and there were times when I’d go down to buy cigarettes. He’d follow a while later and surprise me by saying, “Dada, how are you? I’ve been wanting to meet you for days.” I’d point out that we had been together just five minutes ago till I realised that this was an idiosyncrasy and copied it to make Shaikh endearing.

After the film’s release he sent me a text, “Saw The Lunchbox, thank you.” But he didn’t thank me for long because after that whenever he went for auditions, he’d be accused of copying Nawaz. All his pleas that he was the original Shaikh fell on deaf ears and now he gives me gaalis.

BADLAPUR (2015)

This film didn’t demand any kind of prep because my character Liak Mohammed Tugrekar was not a rich, educated man who liked to glorify his tragedies. He was an aam aadmi who didn’t know the law or his rights. He had accidentally killed a mother and child after a bank robbery and was in jail for murder while his partner got away with the money. Liak stoically accepted his fate, waiting to enjoy his share of the loot. He gets out on parole after he is diagnosed with cancer but then, has an epiphany, when he asks his mother how she would describe him. Realising he doesn’t want to be like his father, he repents, reforms and takes the blame for a murder he did not commit to give Raghu, the husband and father of the woman and child he’d killed a second chance to live without being consumed by the rage of revenge.

I’d seen guys like Liak when I was without work for 12 years and I knew that I could lose him if I overthought the character, So, I’d go to the sets without a thought in my head and let the character evolve spontaneously. Sometimes the director, Sriram Raghavan, and I would spin scenes on the set with dialogues coming up in conversation. Sounds easy but it was a difficult role to enact.

I was disappointed that people did not understand Liak and typed him a ‘negative’ character while Varun Dhawan’s Raghu, who consciously commits one murder after another without remorse, was the ‘hero’. If Liak is ‘negative’ then we are encouraging crime. Even the reviews expressed this kind of clich├ęd thinking. I guess Sriram and Anurag Kashyap’s films are not easy to comprehend as their characters don’t follow the straight path of conventional morality.

DEKH INDIAN CIRCUS (2011)

This was one of my early films and bagged the Best Film Award at the Busan Film Festival, a news that no paper carried. It revolved around the efforts of a father who is a deaf-mute to get the money so his kids can go to the circus and how that changes their lives forever. There are several deaf-mutes in my village and I was determined not to go the cliched, conventional route, using gestures, postures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey what I wanted. Instead I used my eyes and silence to make myself heard. I guess I must have been really convincing because when the film travelled to Germany, many believed that like this rustic villager I too was deaf-mute till I went up on stage and started talking.

GANGS OF WASSEYPUR (2012)

We had gone to shoot one film but ended up with a two-part crime drama because Anurag Kashyap has a way of making work enjoyable for his actors and technicians. We were having so much fun that at the end of three months, we were loathe to return to Mumbai. The film developed organically. Anurag would like a location and say, “Let’s film that scene where you are trying to woo Huma (Qureshi) here.” I would point out we didn’t have any dialogues and he’d tell us we’d figure it out. Incredibly, this scene went on to become a huge hit.

On my part I had done some prep, going to Wasseypur before the shoot and meeting friends and family of the man my character was modelled on and who was in jail. Initially, they were cagey and after I stayed with them for a week, they slowly opened up. With their inputs, I went back to my hotel room and sat for five-six hours internalising all the information. When I came out I was Faisal Khan and I didn’t step out of that zone through the duration of the shoot.

Four years later, Anurag and I collaborated on Raman Raghav 2.0. My first scene was a 15-page dialogue and he was going to shoot it without cuts. I went to Lonavala for two days and when I returned, I knew every line by heart. We shot the scene from three angles. I’ve never spoken so much in my life and didn’t utter a word for the next 15 days.

Unfortunately, like Liak in Badlapur, few understood Raman Raghav. Yes, he admitted that he liked killing people, it was as natural as eating and drinking. But he didn’t pick up the gun in the name of religion or humanity. That for him was fooling people. Such profound philosophy is beyond the realms of a typical Bollywood film where the hero and heroine meet, they fall in love, there’s dance and drama and a happy-ever-after ending. That’s the reason these films don’t work on an international platform.

Digressing a bit, I have to point out that the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, was against naturalistic theatre. He didn’t want the audience to hang their brains with their hats in the cloakroom. So, influenced by Chinese theatre, he advocated the ‘alienation effect’ which urged the audience to criticise, question and understand what was being said rather than get into an emotional trace or cry buckets. That’s why when his character was close to a breakdown, he would play peppy music or use some other plot to dilute the emotions. I’ve brought this concept into play in upcoming films like Babumoshai and Manto. In the former, my character is an emotionless killing machine, with no religion or identity. And in the biopic, Manto debates the obscenity charge in court, rationally, telling his detractors to prove it, even when he’s losing his mind and people around him are saying, “Woh pagal ho gaya hai!” I wish our filmmakers would take a cue from Brecht too.