Nominated for Best Actor at the Emmy Awards 2021 for ‘Serious Men’, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui discusses what keeps him motivated and why he finds the process of finding a character rewarding, even if it comes at a personal cost
When Nawazuddin Siddiqui breathed life into the now-eponymous Faizal Khan in Anurag Kashyap’s gory-masterpiece, Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), it not only set the benchmark for what constituted ‘good acting’ but was also widely regarded as the performance of the decade that put him on the map, literally.
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Faizal Khan, for Nawaz, must have been a poisoned chalice. For, a stream of similar such villainous characters, expected to smoke ganja and massacre people, followed and soon he would suffer from the onslaught of the Nawazuddin Siddiqui problem — of being typecast in a role that can only be described as something conceived and written for him.
But the question that remained on everyone’s lips; everyone who exited the cinema hall after Gangs of Wasseypur was, can Nawaz ever top this? The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes. It happened the second time, once again with Anurag Kashyap in 2016, when Raman Raghav 2.0 released, in which Nawazuddin explored the trickery corners of a psychopathic killer’s mind. This is not an extrapolation; he outdid himself for the third time in Sacred Games (2018), the fourth in Manto (2019), and has since been beating himself in what appears to be a one-man marathon.
Boasting a body of work as large and diverse as his, cut across genres, scale and dimensions, does Nawaz ever feel a sense of boredom for having done it all? Does he still get characters that push him to do better?
“That is a wonderful question actually,” says Nawaz, over a video call. “Every character throws up a new challenge. But if I start thinking that I can play all sorts of characters, I will lose my limitations. So, I always think that this is the character I am playing for the first time.”
In the same breath, Nawaz admits that he is invariably on the lookout for characters that cause him nervousness at best, challenge him at worst — “Otherwise, I will repeat myself. Personally, I prefer characters that come with complications and have an internal world. A very typical hero or a villain doesn’t interest me; I want them to trigger something inside where there is a process in finding who this person is — a grey area.”
One such character in the grey zone was Ayyan Mani in last year’s Serious Men, for which he has now been nominated at the Emmy Awards 2021 for Best Actor. Serious Men is Nawaz’s third work to represent the Emmys, the other two being Sacred Games and McMafia, which actually won an Emmy for Best Drama.
Getting validated for his work does boost his confidence to better himself, provided it comes from credible people or body, says Nawaz. “It is [validation] very important; it tells you that you are on the right track and you have made the right choices.”
Based on Manu Joseph’s novel, the Sudhir Mishra-directed film is a satire and an incisive look at caste and its subsequent social order, and centres around Ayyan Mani, who cooks up a story about his son, Adi, being a boy genius — to get back at the oppressors of the system. He felt Mani was his mirror-image when he got the offer to play the part, for, Nawaz says he too has witnessed the things discussed in the film.
“Ayyan Mani is someone who is close to my heart; close to my life actually. I too have felt what Mani feels in the novel, the film. There are a lot of people in our society like him. It is a very local film in that sense, which is why it speaks on a global level.”
There is a reason, Nawaz believes, why he came to the industry. “It is for acting,” he puts it succinctly. But Nawaz is stubborn on one thing which keeps him going. It is the process of discovering the character — whether it is new facets or aspects. He says he wouldn’t have become an actor if not for the process.
Nawaz has no fear, nor is he scared about running out of options, given the buffet of characters that he has already brought on screen. “For every character, I make it a point to find something different about them. It doesn’t matter if the film runs or not, I keep discovering my character. That is why I live amidst people.”
He explains his ‘living with people’ theory. Nawaz believes that so far his performances have been appreciated for their authenticity because he considers himself one among common people and not far away from them. They feed him the nuances for his characters, he believes. “They look at me and relate to themselves.”
“It helps that I don’t see myself as a ‘star’. Because, the day I think I am one, then I get separated from people.”
As much as Nawaz loves to dive deeper into finding the rhythm for his characters, even to the extent of bruising himself in the ensuing process, he believes in trade-offs where the characters take something in return. “This is my belief that whenever I play a character, I feel something is lost in me forever,” says Nawaz.
To further his point, he quotes the example of Raman Raghav 2.0 and the outcome it had on his life post the film’s release. The character left him in the dark and he couldn’t speak to anyone for about a month. He felt empty. Only then did the realisation happen.
“I was travelling with this person [Raman Raghav character] for nearly three-four months and one day, he suddenly vanished from my life. I felt something was taken, rather stolen, from within me.”
Manto was another film that scarred him. “The process sometimes becomes too painful. During Manto, I started speaking nothing but the truth, which affected people around me. I felt pressured and expletives were thrown at me. I realised later that I don’t want to become Manto in life. It is important to lie in life,” he laughs.
So how does Nawaz react to the oft-polite accusations, holding him in high-regard for being the actor who hasn’t given a single substandard performance, in a career spread across two decades? Nawaz smiles faintly at the mention of this, before taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “Of course, I feel guilty when I give a bad performance,” he ruminates.
Does this come from a place of modesty or did he read the question wrong? Nawaz intervenes at this point, adding, “Frankly speaking, I know my work since I am a trained actor. Even though I come with a lot of experience, I know there is a possibility of going wrong or interpreting the character differently. But that said, I am what I am today because of my great directors.”
In 2022, Nawaz has a slew of releases including Bole Chudiyan, Sangeen and No Man’s Land to mention a few. “There is no plan, to be honest,” he says, when asked about where his career is headed. He ends with a rather optimistic tone: “What these two years of the pandemic has made me realise is, to be and live in the moment. And there should be happiness too.”