on the actor's trail

10 things we learnt about Nawazuddin Siddiqui from his memoir ‘An Ordinary Life’

From working as a watchman to fainting from hunger in Mumbai, the actor has overcome years of struggle and despair to achieve his dreams.

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.

Play
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Black Friday (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.

Play
Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).

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.”

On acting

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?”

Play
Badlapur (2015).
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.