I am toeing sacrilegious territory with this piece. When I pondered about this subject aloud at a house party last weekend, I was yelled and cussed at, my friends shocked at the fact that I was even choosing to question Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a man whose acting prowess has attained legendary proportions in the last few years. “There is no one better than him!” they said.

Any debate about an actor’s calibre requires a clarification about what the writer thinks of acting as a discipline. How would you define the process? Is it the ability to embody a character, become someone else and completely forget yourself? Is it the craft of sculpting a new personality, which is portrayed with training and technique? Is it the ability to empathise with and understand the spectrum of another individual’s emotional and personal experiences, immerse yourself in it and perform that personal journey with conviction and truth? I believe it is, and if we do agree, we also agree that every character an actor portrays needs to be completely divorced from the other – allowing no spillage or overlapping of one’s own personality or other characters – to produce a portrayal that is unique, honest and wholesome.

A contrary point of view would be an affective one – the success of a portrayal depends on how well and how much it affects the audience. That is something a dear friend of mine, who has been extremely popular on Indian television for over a decade, calls “executive acting” – getting the job done (which in this case means getting the required emotional response). Actors who practice this approach generally have extremely imposing and individualistic personalities. The audience buys into the experience said actor promises, and hence is “affected” by the actor as a direct response to his or her charisma, personality and presence. Most people would recognise that the affective approach is primarily used by mainstream actors – the Khan triumvirate would be the best examples – while versatility is expected of parallel or indie actors. Based on these parameters, parallel and indie actors have enjoyed more respect, and are seen as the custodians of “good acting”.

Gangs of Wasseypur
Gangs of Wasseypur
Badlapur
Badlapur

 

When we say that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a good actor, what are we making this statement on the basis of? His public personality is extremely endearing – he is grounded and unabashedly desi, his North Indian sense of humour is dry and wicked, straight-faced and caustic, he is a fine conversationalist and gives off a strong, backslapping buddy vibe. But you know that he is the wily fox, eyes searing with intelligence, the one who will win a fight thanks to his wit and brain. He is always David, never Goliath. His characters, much like himself, have been men whose primary qualities are perseverance, presence of mind and an utter lack of self-importance.

What supports these qualities is Nawaz’s physical appearance – there is nothing striking or memorable about it. On the male beauty spectrum of Indian cinema, if Hrithik Roshan (fair-tall-abs) is one extreme, Nawaz is the other. “I still have confidence issues, because my biggest competition is with myself,” Nawaz had told me once during one of my interactions with him. “I have been fighting way too many factors for the last 15 years. I am not tall enough, not fair enough, I don’t look good enough, I don’t speak in English at all. My fight is much bigger than everyone else’s.” He does not ‘look’ like a movie star, and that tends to decide the kind of roles he is offered – if one goes through Nawaz’s filmography, almost all of his roles belong to the lower-middle class socio-economic milieu.

Manjhi
Manjhi
Raman Raghav 2.0
Raman Raghav 2.0

 

In 2015, Nawaz was hot property that year after Badlapur, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Maanjhi. He came back in 2016 with Raman Raghav 2.0 and two experiments – Te3n and Freaky Ali (both of which tanked). This year, Haraamkhor and Raees released last month. While Haraamkhor had him back in his Wasseypur avatar, Nawaz struggled to hold his own in front of Shah Rukh Khan in Raees, delivering a watered down version of his IB officer character in Kahaani. His south Indian act in Raman Raghav 2.0, or the Gujarati Majmudar in Raees, do not ‘belong’ to the region and are portrayals dominated by his UP swagger and persona. The characters he portrays are primarily fringe members (convicts, thugs, beggars or morally ambiguous law enforcers) in society. Even though he might say that the industry suffers from a “slave mentality”, his film choices seem to agree with the same.

Haraamkhor
Haraamkhor

 

How different are his character designs and portrayals, really? Barring his segment by Dibakar Banerjee in Bombay Talkies, almost all of Nawaz’s characters are cerebral, conniving and deadpan – people trying to hold on to the last unravelling threads of opportunity and hope, sinking their teeth into the fabric of unforgiving cities, trying to survive. They are sans frills or finesse, eyes darting about, perpetually running away from or towards something. In the process, he has created a movie personality he can repeat with every film, one that people seem to enjoy. Should a Nawaz in Badlapur not be different from the Nawaz of Raman Raghav 2.0 or Talaash? For example, there is a scene in Badlapur in which Nawaz’s Liak creates a fake brawl in a prison cell when he meets Varun Dhawan, his face instantaneously shedding all pain, fear and sorrow the moment Dhawan leaves. This crafty two-facedness was repeated in Raman Raghav 2.0, when Ramanna is locked up under suspicion in a deserted building outside the city by the police.  

 

Two of Nawaz’s colleagues, Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpai, have also faced this sort of stereotyping. Irrfan did Haasil, Footpath, Maqbool, Aan, Charas, Chocolate, Rog and Chehraa, in succession. I won’t discuss the quality of the films but rather how Irrfan’s characters in all of them were similar – grey, anxious, steadily losing control and emotional troubled.

Irrfan Khan in Rog
Irrfan Khan in Rog
The Lunchbox
The Lunchbox
Maqbool
Maqbool
Chocolate
Chocolate

 

Manoj Bajpai suddenly became the designated UP guy in Bollywood (credit must be given to Prakash Jha for repeatedly casting him in films based in the region) from 2010 onwards, with Raajneeti, Dus Tola, Aarakshan, Gangs of Wasseypur, Chakravyuh, Special 26, Satyagraha and Tevar. The characters barely changed, mostly being conniving thugs or politicians. Bajpai surprised us with Aligarh, a mediocre film hyped out of proportion, which survived only because of Bajpai’s nuanced and sensitive performance. You could see the hard work he put in to ditch the UP archetype to play the Maharashtrian Prof. Siras. Nawaz is still to deliver a performance truly outside his comfort zone.

Manoj Bajpayee in Raajneeti
Manoj Bajpayee in Raajneeti
Dus Tola
Dus Tola
Aarakshan
Aarakshan
Gangs of Wasseypur
Gangs of Wasseypur
Tevar
Tevar

 

This brings me to the fact that the creation of a movie personality and thriving on it is not something only mainstream actors do – quite a few parallel/art/indie actors have fallen into the same pattern, and a lot of this has to do with physical appearance. Even when working in “art” films, Naseeruddin Shah has been cast as the lead more than an Om Puri. Even in the films that they have worked in together, from Bhumika to Aakrosh, Mandi to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Sparsh to Mirch Masala, Shah has mainly been the lead, with Puri in various supporting roles. Most strikingly, Maqbool is one of those rare films in which they share equal screen space and importance.

Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri in Maqbool
Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri in Maqbool
Maqbool
Maqbool
China Gate
China Gate
Genesis
Genesis
Sparsh
Sparsh

 

Shah reminds me of Soumitra Chatterjee, Satyajit Ray’s golden boy and the leading man of Bengali parallel cinema (a position he had to later share with other good looking indie actors like Barun Chanda and Dhritiman Chaterji) – his appearance made him “hero” material even in the art cinema space. The likes of Om Puri, Anupam Kher, Pankaj Kapur or Paresh Rawal did not have that luxury, as a result of which they got more character roles and therefore, arguably, have more proof of versatility. Also, Shah and Chatterjee also enjoyed mainstream successes, something Om Puri or Anupam Kher didn’t as leading men. They soon moved on to playing fathers, conniving villains or well-etched best friends. This is also why they lapped up opportunities abroad – though mostly those of Indian fathers or Pakistani doctors – because the Indian industry is cruel to those who don’t fit the bill.

Soumitra Chatterjee
Soumitra Chatterjee

 

Over the decades, art and mass have mostly merged in the Hindi film space, and today a Nawazuddin Siddiqui garners the respect of a good actor (something generally reserved for indie actors during the New Wave) while being in the mainstream. He works with the Khans and also Anurag Kashyap (“We sit and talk and discuss stuff he has not done,” Kashyap had told me about Nawaz in an interview, “I want to use Nawaz in a way he has never been used before.”) but unfortunately, everyone falls back on the same, tested character design.

That brings us to another question: how relevant is an actor’s own personality in his or her process of crafting characters? Salman Khan the person is not very different from most of the characters he has played on screen. The same can be said about Shah Rukh Khan or even Rajesh Khanna. Do matinee idols hold on to their personalities even in their on- screen characters, because that is the experience people are buying into? Amitabh Bachchan sticks out as an anomaly to this conjecture. Both the Angry Young Man (1970s) and the Straight Shooting Patriarch (1990s   onwards) motifs are different from his actual personality. He is neither a Don nor Vijay Dinanath Chauhan or a Yash Raichand in real life. Why so? What made Indian cinema’s most enduring movie star craft separate movie personalities?

Amitabh Bachchan in Don
Amitabh Bachchan in Don

 

Could it be because he is not interesting enough? Does acute self-awareness lead to performance anxiety in the case of actors too? Take Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp, possibly Hollywood’s most versatile male actors. When you watch them on talk shows, they’re not especially captivating. They are not as entertaining as a Ryan Reynolds, Robert Downey Jr, Michael Fassbender or Will Smith. But, on screen, Bale, DiCaprio, Day-Lewis and Depp have had a legacy of unforgettable characters, creating movie experiences like never before – I could go on and on about The Machinist, American Psycho, Shutter Island, Wolf of Wall Street, Nine, Lincoln, Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Do these actors push themselves to create characters far from themselves because, well, their own personalities have nothing much to be derived from?

An actor that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is similar to is Benedict Cumberbatch. Just like Nawaz, Benedict has two distinctly different personalities. His personal self is humble, funny and charming. His movie personality is intelligent, arrogant and sarcastic, and because the world has been enamoured with it, no one calls him out for repeating the same archetype across all his films. His characters in his breakthrough films, such as The Imitation Game, The Fifth Estate, Doctor Strange and Star Trek are nothing but variations of his Sherlock act. Like Nawaz’s Bombay Talkies performance, Benedict’s role in August Ossage County stands out for its departure from his regular thinking-woman’s-sex-symbol.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raman Raghav 2.0
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raman Raghav 2.0
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

 

Versatility is seen as a hallmark of acting craft, research and hard work. This is exactly what one of the oldest schools of acting, The Lee Strasberg Method (or what we colloquially talk about as “method acting”), says till even today. In simple terms, it is the process an actor goes through to mystically “become” the character, shedding all signs and symbols of his or her own self. I am not saying that this is the only valid approach to acting as a craft, but given that the Stanislavsky-Chekhov-Strasberg combination is still hailed as an important acting process (and this country’s veterans have all been students of the same system), I am only drawing attention to its definition. If a certain school of thought is your guiding principle, should it also not be the thumb rule for your assessment?