The ‘invisible’ man was in the audience.
On stage, a woman grappled with the choices she’d made. “Yeh kaisi uljhan?” she asks. The audience watched as the dilemmas unfolded and he, the invisible man, was among them, submerged in darkness, wondering if this was the world for which he was destined.
Vijaydan Detha’s play Uljhan is about a woman who falls in love with a feral man and leaves her husband to live with him. It was while watching a performance of Uljhan in New Delhi’s Mandi House, years ago, that Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s tryst with acting began. Today, he is pitched as the anti-hero, a method actor, and someone who paddles comfortably in the mainstream and alternative cinema in India, holding his own in the presence of Salman Khan (not once, but twice, in Kick and Bajrangi Bhaijaan).
Siddiqui plays a man who pits himself against nature, a relentless mountain. Based on a true story – of a man who chipped away at a mountain for 20 years, fuelled by his love – Siddiqui is in his element in this film. “That’s the toughest role so far. I stayed in the village for one and a half months,” says Siddiqui of Dashrath Manjhi.
Short, lean, dark-complexioned and a cigarette dangling from his dark chapped lips, Siddiqui is complete antithesis of a Bollywood hero, and not just in terms of his appearance. He has no pedigree – Siddiqui is from a village in Uttar Pradesh and comes from a poor family. It took him 14 long years to be noticed. There were days when he could have given up. Now he travels business class, is chased by the media, and gets invited to events where other speakers include Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Back in 2007, Siddiqui was noticed in Black Friday, written and directed by Anurag Kashyap. This was followed by films like New York, Peepli Live, Kahaani, DevD, Paan Singh Tomar, Firaaq, Patang, Chittagong and Miss Lovely.
At the 65th International Cannes Film Festival, Kashyap’s two part Gangs of Wasseypur and Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, both starring Siddiqui, were applauded. Finally, everyone noticed this thin, short man who may have been from nowhere in particular, but was intent upon becoming someone significant in Bollywood. There is much ugliness in the Indian film industry. There is intense competition and there are petty fallouts. He is still learning his way. “Even if you fall, you must hit the floor with grace,” says Siddiqui.
In one scene in Uljhan, the woman cuts the feral man’s hair, his beard; she teaches him how to speak, read and write, to literally stand on two legs. The man goes on to conquer kingdoms. She becomes pregnant with his child, but the feral man’s desires have grown beyond her. He is attracted to others. The woman wonders why she even made him the man that he is now and left her world to be with him. The play asks us to consider the ambition and drive that characterizes so much of what defines success. Siddiqui has no dilemma on this account. “Desire knows no limits,” he says. “For myself, I only need two rotis and maybe a cigarette after that. That’s all.”
He doesn’t want to be inaccessible. But there are certain things an actor must do, he says. “An actor must remain exclusive,” is Siddiqui’s conclusion from his recently-discovered stardom. Now, though, Siddiqui enjoys a kind of exposure that is perhaps unthinkable for someone with his beginnings. He has graced the pages of fashion magazines, dressed in ornate suits, and looking every bit an aristocrat.
On the sets of The Lunchbox, a few passersby called him a junior artist. He only smiled and corrected their misconception: “I am the leading man.” It isn’t a presumptuous statement from the actor. Siddiqui is quick to explain that he had signed The Lunchbox before Gangs of Wasseypur.
He learned to give autographs — at least the way stars do – only in 2013. “At first I used to give my signature,” he says. “Then I saw others writing other things like ‘love’ and ‘best’ and now I know.” His autographs are disjointed. Words do not follow trajectory. They are often scattered and confused. Like the actor. His rise in Bollywood has challenged longstanding notions of who can be an actor.
That play Uljhan made him want to be an actor even though at 5 feet 6 inches, he didn’t fit the bill. He is dark, and skinny. No toned muscles, no fabulous abs. During those years when he lingered around, hoping for small roles for a few hundred rupees in commercials, he was mostly roped in to enact a victim, a thug, or sometimes just to fill space. In most such roles, he would try and avert his face when the camera panned to him, because he desired so much more.
He was born in Budhana, in Muzzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. His parents were poor and the roof dripped during the monsoon. He hadn’t thought of acting then. Those weren’t options available to the poor, he says. All that mattered was getting out, finding a job and leading a life of less deprivation. Siddiqui attended college, studied pharmacy, and could have been a chemist – but for Uljhan. That’s when he decided to go to National School of Drama in Delhi.