After years of anonymity, playing whatever miniscule role came his way, giving other strugglers acting lessons to pay rent, Nawazuddin Siddiqui has exploded on the Bollywood scene. From being on the cover of a premier men’s magazine to being nominated for a Filmfare Award for last year’s The Lunchbox, a lot has changed in a short span of time for this National School of Drama (NSD) graduate from a modest farming family of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. If that’s not enough, his film Liar’s Dice has been selected for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this month.
Nawaz’s first release as the lead was the second part of Anurag Kashyap’s epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012, but the first film that the 39-year-old signed as the protagonist was Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely that premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The film finally got an India release this week. And, despite all the accolades the actor has received while the film was waiting to be released, Miss Lovely remains a film close to Nawaz’s heart. “I am so glad the film is finally releasing. I have an emotional connection with Miss Lovely because this was the first time I was offered a role as the lead actor. At that time, I didn’t understand the importance of a lead role. I was just very excited by the character,” says the actor.
In the film, Nawaz plays Sonu Duggal who along with his elder brother produces sleazy sex-horror films. Set in the 1980s, the film is an exploration of India’s C-grade film industry. Interestingly, Nawaz not only identifies with his character but also admits to having acted in a few C-grade films. “During my initial years, I had met a few C-grade filmmakers through common friends. So, I did a few films but nothing major, I had less than a minute on-screen time.”As for the similarities between his life and Sonu’s, he says, “Like Sonu, I have seen the world. When I moved to Mumbai after NSD, I had no one to guide me. No one told me who I should be meeting or what kind of films I should do. Like Sonu, I took every opportunity that came my way.”
Nawaz’s connection to C-grade films goes way back before he even thought of becoming an actor. “In the 80s and 90s, only these kind of films were played in our village. I watched a lot of Joginder films like Ranga Khush and Bindya Aur Bandook,” he recalls with a laugh. “There would be porn clips inserted in these films. So, my friends and I would stand outside and ask those who had seen it before as ‘Kya koi scene weene hai?’ Depending on the feedback, we’d buy tickets.”
Preparing for Miss Lovely involved Nawaz ‘unlearning everything’. “Ashim cast actors who actually work in C-grade films. Some of them, I had worked with in my initial days. I realised that our outlook and training in acting and life was very different. I had the opportunity to study acting at NSD, watch international cinema and read books on film. Unfortunately some of my co-stars didn’t have the same opportunities. To be able to match my performance to theirs, I had to unlearn everything I knew. I think that was one of the biggest learning I took away from Miss Lovely and I have adopted it for all the films I have done since.”
With magazine covers that dub him India’s finest actor and hundreds of scripts lying around his dingy apartment in Versova, Mumbai, there is a lot of pressure on Nawaz to pick the ‘right’ films and roles. After the success of GoW, the actor has famously said ‘Main aisi koi film nahi karunga jiski ijaazat mera zameer nahi deta (I will never do a film that my conscience doesn’t allow)’. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to dance around trees or work in masala films. “What I meant was that I will never do a meaningless film or character. That doesn’t mean I won’t do a commercial film. I can’t see myself doing a formula film that is being made just for the heck of it. There has to be a valid reason for making a film. If someone offers me the part of a dancer, I will train and do that film but I will not do a film where I am expected to dance every 15 minutes just for the heck of it.”