He has leapt over the hurdles placed in his way, banished the anonymity that marked the initial stages of his film career, and achieved critical acclaim and commercial respectability through his brilliant acting skills and choice of roles. The next logical step then, for Nawazuddin Siddiqui, seems to have been to distill his experiences into a memoir.
An Ordinary Life, co-written with journalist Rituparna Chatterjee and published by Penguin Random House India, recounts the 43-year-old actor’s hardscrabble childhood, his years at the National School of Drama in Delhi, his desperate struggle for survival in Mumbai, the early heartbreaks and eventual breakthroughs, and the affairs. Here are some highlights from a life less ordinary.
Wrestling in Budhana
Born on May 19, 1974, in Budhana town in Uttar Pradesh, Siddiqui was the eldest of nine siblings, one of whom died soon after his birth. Although he was a “feeble-looking child”, who remained “frail, physically puny”, Siddiqui spent his childhood training as a wrestler. “In spite of the disciplined diet and exercise regimen, I remained weak,” he writes. “But the incredible thing was that I used to beat my opponent using my mind rather than my muscle.”
From riches to rags
In Siddiqui’s telling, his grandfather was an immensely wealthy man. Yaqoob Siddiqui owned hundreds of acres of land and had four wives. His fourth wife was from the scheduled caste called Manihar, which traditionally sold bangles. Siddiqui’s father, Nawabudddin, was her son, and was forced into poverty by his stepbrother. “On one side my grandfather was a zamindar, which automatically entitled us to pride and respect,” Siddiqui writes. “On the other hand, my grandmother’s low-caste background gifted us shame. It was a cruel oxymoron.” Siddiqui’s father unsuccessfully tried his hand at a series of businesses, and the family struggled to make ends meet.
The Shatrughan Sinha effect
Among Siddiqui’s earliest moviegoing memories is spending his pocket money – comprising five rupees – on watching mainstream and low-budget films through a slit in the wall of the local theatre. His first time in a cinema hall was during a trip to Delhi, where he watched Jaggu, starring Shatrughan Sinha. “In this particular film, Sinha had an odd way of running, which stuck with me,” Siddiqui writes. “I did not know then that I would imitate it soon after, and would continue to do so for years to come.”
Chemistry and theatre
Siddiqui’s initial ambition was to study chemistry, microbiology and become a pathologist. He enrolled at the Gurukul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya in Haridwar. “I did study, but I wanted something else out of life,” Siddiqui writes. He got a job in Vadodara as a chemist at a petrochemical factory, and also applied to the dramatics school at the Maharaj Sayajirao University. “I held my day job and in the evening, I did plays.” He later enrolled at the Bhartendu Natya Akademi in Lucknow, and eventually managed to get admission to the National School of Drama in Delhi. While waiting for admission, Siddiqui joined the Sakshi Theatre Group and worked as a watchman at a toy-making company for close to a year.
Entering the dream factory
After graduating from NSD and working on the Delhi stage for a few years, Siddiqui made his way to Mumbai, where he joined the thousands of strugglers trying to get a toehold in the Hindi film industry. The chapters on Siddiqui’s drudge years are among the most affecting in the memoir. He stayed at a batchmate’s apartment in the Goregaon suburb, but son realised that “work seemed as scarce as drizzle in drought-prone lands”.
Numerous fruitless auditions followed, and there came the day when “we had Parle-G (glucose) biscuits and tea for breakfast; we had Parle-G biscuits and tea for lunch; we had Parle-G biscuits and tea for dinner”. He soon found himself unable to afford the biscuits or the fares on the local buses and trains. “I’d walk from Goregaon East, where I was living with half a dozen other actors, in the peak afternoon heat all the way to a friend’s house at Yari Road in Andheri,” Siddiqui writes. “Being roasted was nothing in the face of greed, greed for the scrumptious meal the friend would cook and greed for the divine cigarette he would offer afterwards.”
Between 2005 and 2007, Siddiqui lived between the homes of various friends. He fainted once out of hunger on the streets of Mumbai. His struggle went on for three years, “a long dark night that had no end, no hint of light in sight”. Apart from bit parts roles in television shows, he had small roles in Shool (1999), for which he didn’t get paid, and Sarfarosh (1999) and Munnabhai MBBS (2003). The cloud lifted with Aaja Nachle and Black Friday, both in 2007.
The Anurag Kashyap debt
Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has given Siddiqui some of his best-known roles – in Black Friday, Gangs of Wasseypur, Raman Raghav 2.0. Siddiqui impressed Kashyap in one of his earliest roles in the Aamir Khan starrer Sarfarosh (1999). Siddiqui plays a small-time hoodlum who is beaten up at a police station. Siddiqui recalls: “What had blown Anurag away, as he later told me, was that I had no screen presence at all. Zero! And therefore, it was only the character that could be seen on the screen, not the actor playing it.”
Kashyap cast Siddiqui for a minuscule role in E Nivas’s Shool and later in his own movie Black Friday. “The predictable thing about him is his unpredictability of thought,” Siddiqui says about Kashyap. “He always thinks differently. Look at all the roles he has made me do. Every single one of them is not only novel in Indian cinema, but also challenging enough to make me push my boundaries as an actor, again and again.”
Playing Faisal in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’
One of Siddiqui’s most well-known characters is the gangster Faisal Khan in Kashyap’s two-part crime drama Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). “…I had almost ruined the character of Faisal Khan—by trying too hard, way too hard to exude power, because, well, isn’t a gangster supposed to be powerful?” Siddiqui recalls. Kashyap’s response steadied him: “No way, Nawaz! Just calm down. You are a gangster. They are already afraid of you, dude. You don’t need to do anything.”
One of the movie’s most hilarious scenes is the one in which Faisal seeks the “permissun” of Mohsina (Huma Qureshi), the woman he is courting, to hold her hand. The incident was inspired by a real-life encounter between Siddiqui and a junior student at NSD.
The X Factor: Budhana
Siddiqui says that his characters are majorly influenced by the people he grew up with in Budhana. “On many days I consider myself the luckiest man alive that I had the privilege of encountering so many characters during my formative years,” he writes. “They are archetypes I keep returning to and pour them out on the silver screen.” Examples include Tehmur from Talaash (2012), which has been inspired by Siddiqui’s brother Ayaz, and Khan, the Intelligence Bureau officer from Kahaani (2011), who is based on the actor’s cousin.
For his celebrated character Shaikh from Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013), Siddiqui took inspiration from his former roommate Mukesh Bhatt, who would greet him every day with “Arrey, sir! How are you, sir!” Siddiqui repeated the gesture in The Lunchbox, in which he welcomes Irrfan’s character Saajan with a cheery “Kaise hain, sir!” every time they meet.
The homage to Bhatt didn’t go down well, Siddiqui recalls. When Bhatt was offered a part in a TV show, he was accused of copying Siddiqui’s mannerisms from The Lunchbox.
Love, heartbreak and affairs
An Ordinary Life contains colourful anecdotes about Siddiqui’s love affairs and two marriages. Siddiqui had emerged out of a break-up with his live-in girlfriend Anjali, and agreed to marry a woman picked by his mother. However, the marital union with Sheeba was short-lived. Among the reasons for the divorce, according to Siddiqui, was the interference of his brother-in-law and the actor’s intense involvement with his work. After the divorce, Siddiqui reunited with Anjali and eventually married her. Three years after the wedding in 2010, Anjali renamed herself Aaliya.
Siddiqui has also spoken of his affair with his Miss Lovely co-star Niharika Singh. Siddiqui claims that the affair went on for a year and a half, and was set into motion after a life-altering visit to Singh’s apartment, where she wore “soft faux fur, looking devastatingly gorgeous, her beauty illuminated even more in the candlelight”. Siddiqui apparently went on to “scoop her up in his arms” and head “straight for the bedroom”.
Singh remembers the encounter differently. In an interview with Bollywood Life, Singh said, “Nawaz and I had a brief relationship during the making of Miss Lovely that lasted less than a few months in 2009. So today when he paints me as a woman in fur enticing him into her bedroom with candles, or desperately calling him and mailing other women on his behalf, I can only laugh. He obviously wants to sell his book and it would appear that he is willing to exploit and disrespect a woman just to do so.”
Stating that Siddiqui had “chosen to fabricate stories and manipulate a fleeting relationship”, Singh added, “None of what he has written has been with my knowledge, let alone my consent. It is this very aspect of Nawaz that caused me to end my relationship with him in the first place.”
Siddiqui has emerged as an important scene stealer in several films – Kahaani (2012), Badlapur (2014), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Raees (2017) – and he has interesting things to say about his craft: “The nuances in acting are of the thickness of a single strand of hair. Every tiny movement shows on camera and conveys something.”
The film camera engenders honesty, Siddiqui says. “So whichever character you get to play, you can speak truth through them, the truth that you may not be able to say in real life.” He might be working in mainstream productions alongside A-list actors, but he wants his fans to not watch him blindly, but concentrate on his acting skills: “If they watch a Nawaz film, I want them to focus on the craft. How did he do this role?”