Nawazuddin Siddiqui: The drama king

The long struggle is over for the industry outsider. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, 41, is on every film-maker's most wanted list and, the actor says, he owes much of his success to his roots in theatre

Kunal Purandare
Published: Oct 10, 2015 06:38:36 AM IST
Updated: Oct 10, 2015 09:13:16 AM IST
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: The drama king
Image: Vikas Khot

The packed-to-capacity crowd at Eros theatre in South Mumbai erupts into animated applause the moment Nawazuddin Siddiqui arrives on screen. The actor, who essays the character of Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab in the movie showing there, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, is yet to utter a line, but that does little to mute the audience’s shrieks during a late-night show. Had Siddiqui been present in the cinema hall, this reaction would have warmed his heart. It was, after all, this chemistry between an actor and his audience that convinced him in the mid-1990s to pursue theatre and, along with it, a career in acting. And if his recent success and popularity are any indication, the connection has been well and truly made.

Today, Siddiqui, 41, is hot property in the Indian film industry. The three Khans—Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir—count among his admirers and co-actors; a movie with the iconic Amitabh Bachchan is in the pipeline too. But this—the rubbing of shoulders with the leading lights of Bollywood and matching them dialogue for dialogue—is as unexpected as it is surreal for Siddiqui, who left his hometown, Budhana in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh, as a confused youngster in the early 1990s. “I was unsure about what I wanted to do. I was indecisive as boys at that age are,” he tells ForbesLife India. Yet, despite his slight frame, a physique devoid of ripped muscles and the looks of an everyman—physical attributes which are the exact opposite of those associated with the quintessential Bollywood hero—he’s carved a unique place for himself in the glamour industry and added his name to the wish list of several top directors.

It is tempting to call him unconventional, both on the basis of his appearance and unusual choice of roles, but he takes offence at the description. “People like me are branded unconventional, but I don’t agree with that. If you are using that word with reference to my looks, then it’s being racist,” Siddiqui says while his stylist blow-dries his hair and the make-up man conceals the slight hint of beard on his chin prior to a photo shoot for this magazine. “If people focussed on their looks in theatre, they would be termed as corrupt actors,” he points out.

He would know. The medium has played a pivotal role in shaping Siddiqui’s film career and destiny. And the deafening applause at Eros, and cinema halls across the country, is a nod to that leg of his journey.

Born to a farmer family in Uttar Pradesh, his parents wanted him to secure a stable job which would ensure a regular monthly income. One of nine siblings, Siddiqui completed his graduation in chemistry from the Gurukul Kangri University in Haridwar, following which he moved to Vadodara in Gujarat and worked as the chief chemist at a petrochemical factory for a year-and-a-half. The monotony, though, got to him and soon he was “bored of that job”. The only thrill in his life at the time was his occasional participation in Gujarati plays organised by the drama department at Vadodara’s MS University. (He pushed himself despite his lack of familiarity with the language.) The turning point was when he saw the play Thank You Mr. Glad. That experience sowed the seeds of the actor in him. “I was inspired by the amazing chemistry between the actors and the crowd after watching that show. And I decided to pursue theatre seriously.”

A friend suggested that he move to Delhi and study at the National School of Drama (NSD) since Vadodara only staged Gujarati plays. But it was easier said than done. Siddiqui failed to get admission. However, he did not leave the capital. Instead, he worked as a watchman in the city for nearly two years, earning a measly sum of Rs 600-700 a month to make ends meet. “I had to pay Rs 5,000 as deposit to get the job [of a watchman]. I mortgaged my mother’s gold jewellery in Uttar Pradesh to get that money, thinking that I’d repay the amount from my salary,” recalls Siddiqui. The financial hardships, however, did not deter him from pursuing what was slowly becoming an unquenchable passion—acting. He enrolled himself with an amateur theatre group in the capital, rehearsed for plays in the evenings and acted on stage in the mornings while diligently doing night shifts as a watchman.

Eventually, Siddiqui did crack the competitive NSD entrance exam and graduated from the institution in 1996. His stint there exposed him to a variety of Western drama and literature, and gave him a strong foundation in acting. “After joining NSD, I realised what one must not do in acting. That is also important. Till then, we thought changing one’s physicality or being loud was acting,” says Siddiqui. NSD, he adds, “taught everything lavishly”; it also opened a window to new worlds, for instance the Stanislavski school of method acting apart from opportunities to act in plays as diverse as Shakespearean comedies and those by Anton Chekhov. “Theatre explores all the traits of your personality. It has many forms and there’s experimentation involved. You become rich as an actor,” says Siddiqui. “Theatre belongs to an actor; films are a director’s medium.”  

This explains why Bollywood as well as regional cinema in India have been blessed with several actors and directors who emerged from theatre: From Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur to Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee. It is impossible to leave Siddiqui out of that list today. In fact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest that his popularity rivals that of any ‘mainstream’ talent.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui: The drama king
Image: Vikas Khot