Exiting a mammoth Mercedes SUV is a diminutive man. I’ve seen him in a ganji as Ganesh Gaitonde and in Gucci, playing himself — the star of Sacred Games — for a label-led magazine photo shoot. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is neither person. The sexual ambivalence and violence that is second nature to gangster Gaitonde makes Nawaz uncomfortable. Haute couture and high fashion are equally alien to him.
Over the course of a day spent in his company, it becomes apparent that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is an anomaly. In a world of cookie-cutter characters, this bloke from Budhana has broken every mould available. He is being hailed as a ‘true actor’ in an industry populated by ‘heroes,’ and he seems quietly pleased by the distinction. As he should be.
Nawazuddin does not fit in and he’s not trying to fit in either — not any more at least. If he’s driving “the world’s biggest car” or wearing its best-known brands, he insists it is his brother’s doing. He’s just here for the work. Fame and money — the by-products of his profession — don’t really concern him.
We’re surrounded by the bustle of a fashion shoot that’s winding down and a restaurant — Worli’s plush Slink & Bardot — that is prepping for service. Assistants, stylists and crew members of all manner are busy making sure that Nawazuddin has everything he needs. His focus, however, is centred on sharing his story with us. I ask pointed questions and he responds without hesitation. Despite my barely passable Hindi and his barely passable English, we communicate with ease. Or with heart, perhaps. His larger-than-life portrayals of characters as diverse as Gaitonde and Faizal Khan (from 2012’s Gangs of Wasseypur) have misled me into expecting a different sort of interaction with a different Mr. Siddiqui. This man, a curious package of humility and intensity, is a surprise.
He talks. I listen. His eyes tell their own tale. There’s an undeniable candour in his recounting of stories from the little town in Uttar Pradesh where he grew up. He clarifies the difference between a ‘gaon’ and a ‘kasba’ (“Budhana was a village, but now you’d call it a town,” he explains), while we talk about his days of flying kites and watching C-grade films as a teenager. As we move from the past to the present, I find it harder to connect with Nawazuddin’s narrative. He’s an award-winning actor with Indian cinema’s foremost filmmakers on speed dial. The Netflix team that is facilitating our interaction today is happy to bend backwards to ensure his comfort — he is the “talent,” after all. He has a dedicated makeup artist attuned to his needs (she’s been working with him for close to a decade) and his close-coterie of aides and managers are attentive to a fault. He’s greeted by cheering fans in cinemas and at live events on a regular basis. Yet, as he emphasises repeatedly, he gets “no kick from fame and money”. After surviving on three square meals of glucose biscuits when work was scarce, you’d think success, adulation and a healthy bank balance would mean more to this powerhouse star.
He’s an anomaly, I remind myself, as I try to penetrate perception and go further than the façade. And when I finally decide to take him at face value, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s story moves me.
I was dismissed because I spent too much time sitting down on the job. What hurt most was that the boss refused to return the Rs 5,000 deposit I had put down to get the job in the first place.
“Growing up, we owned vast lands. There was always food on our table, but having money was a different thing altogether. It’s the story of every farmer. You have fields, but no finance. You’d be right to say we were zamindars or landlords, but it gives the impression of wealth and we certainly weren’t wealthy,” says Siddiqui. Farming was the family profession and, for the first 25 years of his life, it’s what Nawazuddin did too. One of nine children — seven boys and two girls — Nawazuddin was the first graduate in his family. He chose to do a BSc Chemistry because a friend suggested it (“Take it, it’s good,” Nawazuddin was told), though he had no specific aptitude for science. “I was definitely a below average student, but I was hard-working,” the actor recalls. Diligence and perseverance are the skills that have served him best in life and he is quick to acknowledge this.
During his vacations, Nawaz would work at his chacha’s medical store in the village. “It was within walking distance of my home, so I never received any transport allowance,” says Nawaz with a smile, “I’d get paid once in a while. Kanjoos thhey bahut, mere chacha. Nothing has changed. He is still kanjoos.”
After this unpaid internship, if one can call it that, Nawaz graduated to working as a Chief Chemist at a petrochemical plant in Vadodara. It was here, in Gujarat, that he was first bitten by the acting bug. It’s a rather well documented story — how he fell in love with theatre after watching a play — and decided, not long thereafter, to quit his job and join the National School of Drama. He remembers that milestone moment with remarkable clarity. “It was a performance of Thank You Mr. Glad in Gujarati. I sat there, mesmerised by the chemistry between the actors and the audience.” It was in that instant that Nawazuddin knew this was the ‘chemistry’ that truly fascinated him — a singular passion that he would do anything to pursue. But having clarity and ambition did not pave the path; every step was a struggle.
From Vadodara to Delhi and on to Mumbai, Nawazuddin picked up several skills courtesy the school of hard knocks. He worked as a watchman in Noida despite having a BSc degree, because “theatre didn’t pay the bills and relevant jobs weren’t easy to come by.” As it happened, he was prone to fainting (poor nutrition and the brutal heat played their part) and he was dismissed by his employer because he spent too much time sitting down on the job. “I haven’t hired you to sit around, I was told,” Nawaz recalls, “and with that, I was sacked. What hurt most was that the boss refused to return the Rs 5,000 deposit that I had put down to get the job in the first place.” It was a fortune for the struggling actor, who then scraped together about that much and took a train to Mumbai — one step closer to realising his Bollywood dreams.
Waiting in line with hundreds of other aspirants at auditions became commonplace. “I knew I was a good actor,” says Nawaz, “but I lacked confidence. I couldn’t walk into a room and present myself in a way that people would notice. I knew if someone gave me a chance, I would impress them, but getting a chance itself was next to impossible.” Insecurities weighed him down. “My mother was strict with me as a child. I have been hit with whatever she could get her hands on. Sometimes it was because I’d run away to play cricket when I should have been studying, or because I’d stolen money from my father to go watch a film in the local make-shift theatre. I remember being beaten until I was 15 or 16 years old. It made me nervous and constantly afraid. I think this is the reason I could never face people with any sort of assurance.”
I knew I was a good actor
It didn’t help that he was dark-skinned and considered it a serious handicap. “Fairness creams failed me,” Nawaz says with a laugh, but even now you can gauge the anxiety this must have caused him. “It was only when I had given up all hope, that I developed a sort of ‘carelessness’ that passed as confidence. I acquired speaking skills and stopped being afraid all the time.”
Rock bottom came when Nawazuddin could no longer afford food or rent. An NSD alumnus (whom he refuses to name) gave him a place to stay, in exchange for his services as a cook. From a bit part in Sarfarosh to a life-changing appearance in Black Friday, slowly but surely Nawazuddin Siddiqui became a known name. “Black Friday earned me recognition in the industry. Miss Lovely brought wider acclaim. For almost three to four years I went about distributing DVDs of these films to people like a showreel. Bypass and Black Friday were my only assets.”
Black Friday director Anurag Kashyap now helms Sacred Games (along with Vikramaditya Motwane), but the world has changed completely for Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the interim. He’s headlining the cult Netflix series alongside Saif Ali Khan; leaving fans and critics equally floored. The uncertain, tense teenager from Budhana has taken a bullet. Now Ganesh Gaitonde — part-gangster-part-God — is in the driver’s seat and he is taking Indian cinema by storm.
PICTURES: Prabhat Shetty
Styling: Devraj Das