With a warm handshake, Nawazuddin Siddiqui gestures this writer to take a seat in his ground floor office space in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb. A poster of his 2019 release Thackeray, featuring Siddiqui as Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray, hangs at the entrance to the office, signalling you are in the right place.
Inside, the walls are adorned by framed black-and-white images of Hollywood stars and iconic film posters.
Siddiqui has just returned from Pune after completing a schedule of Anil Sharma’s Genius. He is using the break to promote his BBC series, McMafia, based on the book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld (2008), before he resumes shooting the Netflix series Sacred Games, an adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name.
Siddiqui has kept a low profile publicly since the controversial release and subsequent withdrawal of his memoir, An Ordinary Life last year, after some of his purported former girlfriends objected to their portrayal. But he has been working on a dizzying range of projects, portraying a firebrand Hindu leader one minute and a prolific Pakistani-Indian writer the next. He spoke to Scroll.in about the allure of playing diverse characters and the appeal of web series over television.
Excerpts from the interview:
As an actor, what is difference between film and a television or web series?
It depends. Right now, of course, it’s a fashion and everyone is getting into [web] series. But Netflix has a standard, which they don’t compromise on. It’s a well thought out strategy based on research. So that’s how Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane are at the helm of Sacred Games. A film has a limited time for storytelling. In two, maybe two and a half hours, those characters, their habits and complexities cannot be explored much. But a series unfolds over eight hours and the smallest character’s thoughts, details and physical characteristics are explored. This is the focus of a web series and that is the main difference.
What was the appeal of working on ‘McMafia’?
It’s a BBC show directed by James Watkins who is this rising director who made The Woman in Black and directed an episode of Black Mirror. I was aware of his work and was interested in knowing about his approach to work. James had seen my work in Gangs of Wasseypur and Miss Lovely.
For this series, he has assembled actors from around the world – Israel, America, Russia, Britain and India. The lead actor is James Norton, who is also an upcoming actor and quite a sensation. I play a business partner called Dilly. I wanted to see how I fared working with this international team and to see what the experience would be like.
Why is an international show or a mini-series on a streaming platform appealing but not a show on Indian television?
It’s about individual taste. I am not very fond of TV shows. But a series has its own appeal and has a vast, global audience. Indian TV is lethargic and the young generation is not so interested in TV. The youth wants to watch content that is appealing to their sensibilities at a time convenient to them. Increasingly, people don’t want to watch just any rubbish that is thrown at them. What excites me most is the international sensibility, and the focus on detailed performances.
Your films last year – from ‘Raees’ to ‘Munna Michael’ and ‘Babumoshai Bandookbaaz’ – met with mixed response.
I don’t know why films work, or don’t work. Whether they do or don’t is no reason to reassess your choices. All actors want their films to work but if they don’t work, it does not suddenly mean that the films are bad.
I believe Raman Raghav is the best film of my life, but it didn’t work. With Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, we thought we will try making a brazen, unabashed film. I had no expectations from it, but it worked. Many people won’t admit they watch besharam films. It’s hypocrisy, because they watch them but they only talk about films they have seen with their families. Monsoon Shootout was an old film and I don’t know on what basis they decided to release it. They didn’t even check my availability for promotions and I was busy shooting Sacred Games at that time. I found out from the news that my film is releasing.
In the coming year or so your slate includes the commercial ‘Genius’, Ritesh Batra’s ‘Photograph’ and two biopics – ‘Manto’ and ‘Thackeray’. That’s quite a mix.
An actor needs to work with different directors and imbibe their differing sensibilities. With that, his own thought process and skills get enhanced. If I do shaadi-byaah (wedding) films, that will become my sensibility. Even if they become hits, even if people appreciate them, I don’t want to do them. Further, those films are not remembered. But Manto, Thackeray, Sacred Games are such efforts that will have longevity. These films will not just be films but will have a value over time.
Saadat Hasan Manto and Thackeray were both prominent Bombay/Mumbai personalities, but their ideologies were poles apart.
That’s so interesting for me. That’s the joy of being an actor. I am exploring a personality, but I don’t have to be aligned to the politics of one or the other. The biggest difference is the process of internalising the character. With Manto, I did not have any videos to reference. We just had some photos and through those we tried to imagine how he would stand, walk etc.
However, Balasaheb Thackeray is larger than life and there are thousands of videos and hundreds of people to guide and correct us. Having said that, any make up artist can make me [look like] Balasaheb by enhancing the features using prosthetics, providing dress and hair. It’s easy to become a lookalike and mimic the voice. But I don’t believe much in make up and prosthetics. What is my skill or contribution in that? My contribution is to understand what his motivations were, and to explore how such a renowned cartoonist became a leader. Going into that is the actor’s job.
How do you feel about the controversy around your memoirs?
It was a bad experience in my life. I made a huge mistake and I have withdrawn the book. I have also apologised for it. It was a 209-page memoir out of which the media focussed on four pages, and that made me sad. We live in a hypocritical society. I don’t think we should compromise on the truth though. It can’t be a bit of truth and a bit of lies. Maybe in the future I might do something else – you can write a memoir anytime.