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Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who recently stirred the social media with his picture as Saadat Hasan Manto, continues to do interesting projects that have him making characters come alive in a way that only he can. At his work-cum-house space at Yari Road in Mumbai, he speaks to Prachi Pinglay-Plumber about the processes that an actor must go through, his choices ranging from small films like Haramkhor to a lavish series with BBC, the Hindi film industry and his brother’s short film on triple talaq. Excerpts:
How did you prepare for Manto, when not much is known about him? Your picture created quite a buzz on social media.
Yes, not much is known about him. Even when he died in Pakistan, there were just a small news items in both countries announcing his death. There has been work on his stories but not on him. Our director Nandita Das has been immersed in this project for five years now. She has been reading Manto, eating Manto, sleeping Manto…she has become Manto. A director shares all these details with the actor, so I learnt a lot from those conversations—his characteristics, habit, style of writing, she just knows so much. She met his three daughters.
In craft you can do two things—either you enter the character through his mind, emotions and then physical appearance, habits, style or the other way round. I started working on it physically. I started wearing kurta pyjama, high waist pants and reading his books. I gave two to three months for preparation, to go back into those days. We are using the same dialogues that he wrote... so hard hitting.
What do you think about all the biopics that are being made nowadays?
I agree we are depicting true incidents but we are also driven by commercial factors, ki yeh box office pe bhi chal jaye (so it works at the box office as well), but then that is a different biopic. Either you do a 100 per cent authentic film or you go on the other side, but this is trying to do both. The so-called commercial biopics, I don’t agree with them. It’s crucial that you work very hard to become the person you are portraying, because it’s someone real. You can’t have your own thing in it. For example, Gandhi is the best biopic I have seen. The way Ben Kingsley prepared for it has set the bar for how it should be done. He had made an ashram in his vanity van, he was eating simple food and using the charkha. Otherwise you can make a 1,000 biopics but what’s the point. They’ll come and go. Very few biopics stand the test of time.
You often speak about mature cinema. Do you want to make your own film?
I don’t think I have reached that level yet because a director really needs to know a lot about all aspects of filmmaking. I don’t have that skill. I am only thinking about acting and I believe in pure acting so I am only focused on that, I don’t think about anything else. Writing or directing are very special departments I don’t think I will be successful even if I tried because I don’t have that in my body or mind.
“Every community needs to loosen up a little. When we covered the period of 1940-50s in Manto, I realised we were so modern then.”
Has your background in theatre helped portray the grey characters?
Actually, that’s how it is everywhere except our Bollywood. Our films had one hero—all white, he made no mistakes, had all the good qualities. And then there was one villain—all black, who corrupted us. There is no person, who is only good in this world. Every character has humanness, greyness and that is what makes them identifiable also.
Do you also enjoy playing negative roles?
There is a thin line between grey and negative. I am not interested in only negative but I like to portray the complex characteristics of a negative character. It’s closer to the common man. We all have limitations, we all have our plus points and our lives are a struggle with those contradictions. I like to play that.
You come from a farmer’s family. Does the gap between rural and urban India bother you? Do you find it worrying?
Yes it’s definitely there. Take the case of farmers’ suicides. Occasionally there is a demonstration or something but ultimately no one does anything. Their conditions don’t improve. The situation of farmers or rural India is what it has been. That sensibility, sensitivity is not there. How shall I say, the skin has become thick and we have stopped feeling the miseries of others. I come from that background so I know what happens to small farmers. Everywhere there is sloganeering but nothing really happens.
Do you use this awareness and your personal experiences to depict emotions on screen?
I feel the pain personally but when I am playing a character I avoid sentimentality. It’s very easy to become sentimental or to cry but it’s difficult to not to do it. You have to be involved in the situation; it is the job of the audience to shed tears not the actor’s. Often, we slip here, we try to show emotions. For example, when someone’s parent dies, that person is actually busy in organising the last rites and taking care of a million things. It’s after four five days when he or she sits quietly and memories come rushing—then you cry. In Hindi films, we show the person crying immediately, that can’t happen.
How are you managing this process in commercial films?
I have not distinguished films as commercial, parallel, realistic, independent etc. For an actor, when he is in front of the camera, he’s only trying to complete the task that is given to him. I can’t do bade budget ki acting or art wali acting. The commercial films that I have done, I got the time I needed to work the back story and to prepare for the role. For example, in Raees, I got the space. In fact even in the so-called realistic cinema there are many frauds—be it acting or content—you can’t deliver a realistic role just by muttering some dialogues or making boring films in the name of realism.
You are consciously using commercial presence for small films. What are the challenges for independent cinema?
The small films that I do are for my satisfaction. But yes, everyone wants to ensure that it has maximum reach. Parallel ticketing won’t work as of now because I don’t think that kind of honesty exists in the industry. It’s a ruthless place which works on the ‘survival of the fittest’ law. But yes, if you take a known face in a small film, you still have a chance. You can’t make a small film, have unknown actors and expect to do well unless you take promotions to another level.
Your brother’s short film takes on a difficult subject—triple talaq.
It is about the law of halala and triple talaq. If a person says talaq and regrets it, the girl has to be married to someone else and then divorced to get remarried to him. It’s not mentioned in the Quran anywhere. We were a little scared but then we said chalo karte hai. The story starts after a man divorces his wife in a huff.
Everyone seems to be taking an extreme position increasingly.
It is all too rigid. Every community needs to loosen up a little. When we covered the period of 1940-50s in Manto, I realised we were so modern then. There was freedom of speech and expression. All communities were talking to each other. There was so much debate. We should have gone ahead of that right? I don’t think a film like Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra can be made now or the Shiva temple sequence in Sholay or a film like Nikaah. Garm Hava toh bhool hi jao. We probably need to go back to the 50s to go ahead.
You are doing films like Munna Michael and Freaky Ali. Is that a conscious attempt to avoid any stereotyping?
Yes I am doing it consciously. When you read hundreds of scripts, you select one. You have to check if the one that is offered is similar to what you have already done. I have been fortunate that I’ve got love stories, dark characters. People in the industry think they can get me to do anything, which is great. I have rejected similar roles, no means no, even if the production house is big or the money is good. I have to choose one film among ten very wisely, I have to see all this if I have to go into long term.
How important is script in this process, is it the last word?
The script must be good but that’s not all. A script is written sitting in one room, but when you’re on the sets, there’s a different atmosphere. Many things change. Sometimes an average script can become special. For example, Badlapur was based on one premise—a film about one good guy who becomes bad and one bad guy who becomes good. But when Shriram took us on sets, things started changing. When we went to Nashik jail, I stayed with the inmates for 15 days, that environment cannot be written at the time of script.
You are doing a series for BBC. What is the difference in their style?
It’s a lavish series. In their style of working, the best thing is that there’s pindrop silence on the sets. Everyone is already ready before the time of shoot. I was surprised when I walked on the set and I asked if everything was in place. You can do the best acting possible. Here it is so harsh, chaotic, people are shouting and amidst that you are trying to focus. I am thoroughly enjoying the BBC series, we shoot in Croatia in May and the series may be out by end of this year.