Meet Bollywood's Mr Lovely, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

We’ve celebrated his performances as Faizal Khan in Gangs Of Wasseypur, the IB Officer A Khan in Kahaani and Shaikh in The Lunchbox, but it’s hard to pin Nawazuddin Siddiqui down as any one of them: he is the quintessential Indian man on the street, blending into the crowd as expertly as he stands out with his performances.

Suprateek Chatterjee January 15, 2014 20:04:28 IST
Meet Bollywood's Mr Lovely, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

We’ve celebrated his performances as Faizal Khan in Gangs Of Wasseypur, the IB Officer A Khan in Kahaani and Shaikh in The Lunchbox, but it’s hard to pin Nawazuddin Siddiqui down as any one of them: he is the quintessential Indian man on the street, blending into the crowd as expertly as he stands out with his performances. Which is why when you see Siddiqui in person, the first thing that strikes you is that, at a little over five-and-a-half feet tall, he is shorter than you expected. Also, even though you know he is today a successful actor who travels the world representing some of the finest Indian films of recent times, it’s still weird to see him step out of a chauffeur-driven car.

From bit part player to the star of a film — Siddiqui is very much the headliner in the upcoming release Miss Lovely — is quite a journey. The success has been a long time coming. Siddiqui, a graduate of Delhi’s National School of Drama spent years as a ‘struggler’ in Mumbai, unable to gain a foothold in the film industry. He worked odd jobs while making blink-and-miss appearances in films like Sarfarosh (1999) and Munnabhai MBBS (2003). If you thought Siddiqui was being selective, he wasn’t. He didn’t mind the role, as long as it was available.

Meet Bollywoods Mr Lovely Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Nawazuddin Siddiqui. AFP.

Having spent time at the bottom of the pyramid, Siddiqui has hung out with those who do bit roles in C-grade films, often appearing as lowlife simply because of their physical appearances. “I had a friend who started weeping the day he discovered he was losing hair,” Siddiqui remembered, with a laugh. “His long, curly hair was the reason he would get such roles and he feared he’d have to quit the industry.”

But that world of C-grade films wasn’t a laughing matter. Siddiqui still shudders thinking about the degenerative behaviour he has witnessed in those days. Recalling one audition, he said, “When I entered the waiting room, the first thing I heard was the sound of someone getting beaten up in the adjoining room, where the audition was happening. A few minutes later, a man came out limping, being roughly escorted out by another man. I asked him what happened and he replied, ‘Saala set designer hai yeh, bahut zyaada paise maang raha thha.’” Siddiqui fled. Later, in 2000, he skipped an audition and instead accosted a director on his set to appear in his first on-screen role in Bindiya Maange Bandook (see if you can spot him!).

Siddiqui may not have known how dangerous this world was, but he was no stranger to this kind of cinema. As a movie-obsessed teenager growing up in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, he says he’s watched nearly 200 such films. “These would be standard revenge dramas with a minute of hardcore porn thrown in that was usually footage from another film,” he says. “That one sequence would be the reason to watch the film.”

These experiences must have come handy when director Ashim Ahluwalia, who made the disquieting documentary John And Jane, cast Siddiqui in Miss Lovely, which releases this Friday. Set in the mid-80s, in Mumbai, Miss Lovely explores the C-grade film industry that flourished at the time, focusing on the Duggal brothers (played by Anil George and Siddiqui) and their mutually destructive relationship.

Siddiqui plays Sonu Duggal, a somewhat naïve entrant into the sex-and-horror shlockfest. While shooting Miss Lovely, Siddiqui met a lot of old acquaintances from the days when he used to hang out with the likes of the late Joginder, once the king of the Indian C-movie. “It was funny to see how they hadn’t changed much since then,” said Siddiqui. “The way they drink and smoke, the way they begin every sentence with ‘maa ki, behen ki’ – it’s a bit much to take now.”

Despite its proximity to his real life, Siddiqui counts Miss Lovely as one of his toughest roles. “In the 8-9 years since I decided to stop being part of that world, I gained a wider perspective by watching world cinema, travelling and meeting some of the brightest minds in cinema from all across the world,” he says. “Among other things, this helped me sharpen my craft.” Miss Lovely, however, forced him to unlearn many things in order to fit into the world Ahluwalia was trying to inhabit. “I had to portray someone who is a bad actor, the way he behaves in real life,” he says. “This is tougher than it sounds. It’s like asking a trained singer to abandon melody and rhythm. Sooner or later they always come back on track.”

Having competed in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, Miss Lovely has since earned several accolades as well as glowing reviews from publications such as Variety, Sight and Sound and Le Monde. It also won the India Gold award at the 14th Mumbai International Film Festival.

Miss Lovely is also Ahluwalia’s first feature film and it has been compared to European art-house films as well as Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, which is great praise. It’s also taken two years to reach Indian screens since Siddiqui finished shooting for it. “This is quite normal for me, given the kind of films I do,” he said, alluding to films like Patang, Liar’s Dice, Monsoon Shootout and Dekh Indian Circus, all of which are complete but yet to find a theatrical release in India. “It’s a very difficult film to make because it’s so multi-layered. At Cannes, the general reaction to the film was, ‘I can’t believe this is an Indian film.’”

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