In 2018, Nawazuddin Siddiqui played Saadat Hasan Manto, the iconoclastic Urdu writer and champion of free speech and tolerance. Siddiqui’s new film is about a political leader who represented the polar opposite of Manto’s ideals. Abhijit Panse’s Thackeray is a chronicle of the life and times of Bal Thackeray, the founder of the nativist Shiv Sena party. The film has been produced by Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut and promoted by the party’s leader, Uddhav Thackeray, and is for all practical purposes an official version of events. Thackeray will be released in Marathi and Hindi on January 25, two days after Thackeray’s 93rd birth anniversary.
It is important for actors to represent all points of view, Siddiqui argued in an interview in Mumbai on Thursday. Siddiqui’s most recent release was Karthik Subbaraj’s Tamil-language Petta. Among his upcoming projects are the second season of the Netflix series Sacred Games and Ritesh Batra’s Photograph. “The more you are able to experiment, the better,” the 44-year-old actor told Scroll.in. Edited excerpts.
What was your initial reaction when you were asked to play Bal Thackeray?
I couldn’t believe it. The producer, [Sanjay] Raut saab, approached me and I agreed. I was happy. There was nervousness as well, because I knew I had to work very hard on the role. The film is also in Marathi and Hindi, and I am not familiar with Marathi. So I had to work on the language too.
How does a Muslim actor from Uttar Pradesh end up playing a leader who has been accused of violence and riots against both groups?
That is exactly what was interesting to me. In the West, biopics are made on numerous people, and the actor’s background is not given any thought.
Anyone in the world would want to play this character. An actor should not have any ideology. When this happens, it restricts growth. At the time of the shoot, I have to believe in and trust the ideology of my character. Only then will I be convincing. I personally do not have any ideology or philosophy.
People are becoming very narrow-minded and judgemental. They should expand their minds and stop carping about the smallest of things. They should be more accepting and open.
Every film adds something to you. When I was playing Ganesh Gaitonde [in Sacred Games], I got a different introduction to life. I am Nawaz, but Ganesh Gaitonde’s world is different. I got to understand his world. It happens unconsciously.
What did your preparations involve?
Everyone knows who Balasahab Thackeray is. We have a lot of his footage and interviews on the internet. My focus was on how he used to live in his private space and how he behaved. Raut saab has been by his side for many years, so he was able to tell me more about him.
One of the biggest parts of my preparation was to understand what I shouldn’t do in a biopic. You shouldn’t do mimicry or caricature. I want people to see an impression of Balasaheb in me. When you look at a painting, you form an impression of what it could be about. I wanted my performance to be impressionistic.
I had to work on Balasaheb’s rhythm and his way of talking. I also went through Raj Thackeray’s book on him [Bal Keshav Thackeray: A Photobiography]. The book has photos of Balasaheb across his life right, from his birth to death. I could visually learn how his physicality changed.
Was it challenging to portray a flamboyant and charismatic leader?
It is definitely a larger-than-life character. But when you do a role, you do not really think about it that way. His journey started as a cartoonist. He was a man from a normal family. He was a brilliant cartoonist. RK Laxman and Balasaheb were the two prominent cartoonists in those days. He was not Balasaheb then. He was Bal Keshav Thackeray. He was a normal man who became popular through his long journey.
You have played a diverse set of characters over a career of 20 years. What is the trick?
It is very difficult. When you take something from a character, the character too ends up taking something away from you. At the end of the day, you feel empty, and that is how you should feel. Only when you are empty can you fill it up with the character’s experiences. You repeat the same process when you get under the skin of another character.
I like to experiment. I like to focus on scripts that are different and exciting. I do not want to get inside any sort of a comfort zone. The experiment can be a success or a failure. A very small number of people watched Raman Raghav 2.0 and Manto, but I still did these films.
You get one life. The more you are able to experiment, the better.
What would you say have been your most challenging roles?
Raman Raghav 2.0 and Thackeray. Both characters are very different from whom I am. The philosophy of Ramanna, my character in the film [Raman Raghav 2.0], is scary and absurd at the same time. He kills people without any conscience. That debate between what is right and what is wrong was very interesting to me.