Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Mohar Basu (MID-DAY; August 13, 2017)

He has had four releases this year — Haraamkhor, Raees, Mom and Munna Michael — but he is far from done for 2017. He is gearing up for his next, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, which courted controversy after the Censor Board asked for 48 cuts. We catch up with the actor at a suburban club. He is no longer the demure guy making monosyllabic responses. He has reinvented himself as a thinking man’s actor, an artiste with global recognition and someone, who the common man can look up to as the changing face of films in India. In an hour-long chat, we deconstruct the new Siddiqui — raring to go, daring to experiment and unafraid to call a spade a spade. Excerpts from an interview:

Babumoshai Bandookbaaz makes a massy hero out of you. There is dance and dialoguebaazi like one. Was that the agenda?
Actors get excited about each and every film of theirs; some films more than others. This is my testing ground. I am doing action and dance, but it will be a failed effort if the audience doesn’t take it well. As actors, we can do our best and hope for the best. But in the current lull in the film industry, everything is a gamble.

It’s incredibly bold too to make a hero of a man who has no social values. Did the censor folk put you in a sense of doubt or reassess your judgement of the story at hand?
Forty-eight cuts is no a laughing matter. Audience kuch aur dekhna chaah rahi hai and CBFC kuch aur dikhana chaah raha hai. There is such a hue and cry about box office figures dwindling and films not making enough money. But the stories need to reassessed. If we study the shift to Netflix or to the web, we’ll realise it’s due to better content. The films that the censor folk rang alarm bells for have fared well. The recent release Lipstick Under My Burkha was lauded. So was Udta Punjab last year. There is an eerie dichotomy between the content people desire and the impositions of the certification board. This cannot be good news for content in general. People favour authenticity, real topics. When you show reality, you need to add the local flavour. Real people have a different lifestyle now, unke bhasha, unke pyaar karne ka tareeka sab badal gaya hai. What does the Censor Board want? We don’t touch upon real subjects and issues. At the end of the day, these are the films which put Indian cinema on the global map. Safe romantic comedies are not the ones for festivals. There is a hunger in the world to explore India for what it is. We aren’t making enough local films.

Your next film is based on controversial Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto’s life and works. Are you worried?
We are petrified. After the 48 cuts in Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, I wonder if we will have anything more than the posters to show. Manto took on subjects, which people squirm from discussing even now. He was controversial for the right reasons; he was holding a mirror to the world. I am keen to show the film to everyone. We finished shooting a month ago; now the VFX work is on. It releases in March next year.

Your recent short film on Manto ends with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words “Bol ke lafz azad hai tere… ” In some ways, the short suggested the world is moving backwards.
Isn’t it? The things we could show in the ’70s, we can’t anymore. The world wants to watch path-breaking stuff. Our filmmakers don’t have the free hand to show it. With content going digital, everything is a click away so why are we being prudes? Let’s look away from the hypocritical society we live in. To say that things films are showing aren’t happening for real, is living in denial. We are compromising on content, which we shouldn’t be doing.

In your zest to experiment, you did a film like Munna Michael. Did its failure affect you?
Munna Michael wasn’t my space, but I wanted to give it a shot. Reactions were polarised. Of course, it feels bad when films don’t work. This isn’t my space, but I take on such roles to stop myself from falling prey to monotony. So, there are no regrets. Critics panned the film. I am used to good reviews. But I have become a pakka industrywallah. This universe is made of praises and criticisms, flops and hits... we have to walk on. I learnt this the hard way after Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) when international media raved about the film. The reviews here didn’t say the most flattering things. There were lines like: It was distastefully gory. Anurag and I had joked then that we thankfully edited a scene of me cutting a man’s throat in Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), with a peppy song playing as the blood spills out. The Indian audience does not have the taste for gory cinema; it’s an acquired taste. May be someday, such films will work too. People are foolish if they think one flop can stop me from doing such films. I love my dark zones, complex characters with layers, brooding personality and dysfunctional mind. That’s my training.

You’ve worked with Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan because you felt it helps you get a better audience for your indie films. Now with the audience panning their films, is it time to be more optimistic?
It is presumptuous of us to say if a film doesn’t work, their star value is losing the Midas touch. They are superstars, their holding is different but yes, the space and respect for content has gone up by notches. I am happy with the offers coming my way and the success. I feel empowered to pick up bold characters. I could have been overconfident, but when you’ve worked in theatre, you know that overconfidence is a mirage. You’ll have bad days still and fall with a thud often. I think after Manto, I will take time off work and rest a bit. I want to go back to my acting coach and get yelled at. Relearning is the most important process for any actor to keep his craft polished.