Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s cryptic message about the discrimination he’s faced in the industry over his appearance brewed a storm recently.

The critically acclaimed actor took to Twitter on Monday night and wrote: “Thank you for making me realise that I cannot be paired along with the fair and handsome because I am dark and not good looking. But I never focus on that.”

We wonder what made the Munna Michael actor tweet about “fair and handsome” leads, but then this isn’t the first time Nawaz has spoken up against Bollywood’s age-old prejudices. In an interview with us, he was quite outspoken about having confidence issues, not being “tall enough, fair enough” and the fact that Indians “still suffer from a sort of ‘slave mentality’ even after so many years of Independence”.

Read the full interview. 

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I met Nawazuddin Siddiqui for the first time almost two years ago. His hair was longer, the man was quieter and he carried his own clothes for the half hour shoot we had scheduled. This was back when the Hindi film industry was slowly warming up to him. He had been sidelined as the “art house” actor, who would do films with “festival” film-makers and make no money. I remember talking to a prominent actor at a Bollywood party, who whispered into my ear, inebriated “We lead heroes need supporting actors, men. Nahi toh whom will you give the supporting actor awards to? Everyone cannot be the lead, na?” Another A-list actress and fashionista went on record on a celebrity gossip show to state “If you’re not good looking, they think you’re a good actor.”

Today, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Nawaz Bhai. His hair is shorter, he voices himself confidently, he has a website and we have a stylist-hair-makeup-photographer crew waiting for him at a city pub for a seven-hour long shoot. Today, Nawaz Bhai stars in films with the other Bhai and gets the same amount (if not more) of seetis and taalis when he delivers a punchline. Today, he is outspoken, freely reprimands me for a bad question and openly criticises Bollywood about its age old prejudices. Today, Nawaz Bhai is a star.

Is Nawaz the new Bhai in town?

He shirks the statement. “I never wanted to be a star. I always wanted to be an actor.” We are driving to the venue of the shoot together, and the conversation happens in casual Hindi. I am scrambling for the right words and try to keep the gender right. Nawaz is rolling a cigarette and casually stretches on the front seat in his SUV. “The goal was always to become an actor when I shifted base to Mumbai. Even today, that is what the goal is. I am not an actor yet, though. It is an ongoing process because no one can become a complete actor. With every character, I try to achieve that.” While he might deny his star status with heavy scoops of philosophy, the world outside treats him differently now. He has worked with Salman Khan twice, he will be seen with Shah Rukh Khan in Raees soon, he is shooting with Amitabh Bachchan, people stop him for selfies and, shockingly, even toy sellers on the street recognise him when our car stops at a traffic signal. If these are not the tell-tale signs of being a mainstream star, I don’t know what is.

He manned Ketan Mehta’s Maanjhi on his shoulders and, in spite of an unfortunate leak, the film managed to make a neat sum at the box office and became a hit. Ask critics and they will tell you that only Nawazuddin Siddiqui could have transformed an average script-direction combo like Maanjhi into a cinematic succcess. A young gun like Varun Dhawan was completely sidelined in Badlapur, and most of us remember Nawaz’s creepy depiction of a small time goon vividly. If a film has Nawazuddin Siddiqui in it, you can get your hopes up – you will get your money’s worth. Funnily – and I do not remember this happening with any other actor in recent years – Nawaz and Kangana Ranaut might just be the only two actors in the industry today who command commercial bankability without actually being A-listers. They are a bracket in themselves – mainstream but talented, commercial but quality, star material but grounded.

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“Films that don’t make money will not survive”

It makes no sense discussing Nawaz’s acting prowess – that’s a given. Other than ten solid years of theatre experience and training, the man is extremely astute about how different mediums require different approaches to the same craft. “Theatre demands acting, cinema explores activities. In a film, if I am a bad guy, small details will put that across to the audience. But on stage, I need dialogues and physical manifestation of my bad behaviour to put the same thing across.” He is not airy and pretentious about it. With clear examples, Nawaz guides me through the process of understanding the medium of cinema from an actor’s point of view. “For example, when you are doing Shakespeare, you need to say that “a storm is coming” along with light and sound effects. That is unnecessary in cinema. While you might be given to magnified gestures and body movements when you do theatre, you need to know how to transform the craft you have learned on stage for film. The actor has to develop these sensibilities and skill sets.”

While I understand his process, I do question some of his film choices. Why on earth did he choose to do Kick? “Why shouldn’t I? It is very important for an actor to explore every genre possible. Directors can choose to be genre-specific. Even in theatre, we would do folk theatre, classical drama, Shakespeare, Moliere… Moliere’s plays are quite farcical and slapstick. At the same time,Chekhov’s plays require you to underplay your performance and be realistic. That is where my schooling has been. So if I am playing to the gallery in Kick, even that requires perfection.” It is unfortunate that we have started believing that good actors should not work in mainstream cinema. I am quite surprised by the fact that I, myself, am wondering why Nawaz has chosen such commercial film projects. But again, if the content is not of good quality, will that not hinder the performance of these good actors? “If you make films for only a certain class, they will never be able to recover the money. That kind of cinema will never survive. Like it didn’t in the seventies in India when the parallel cinema movement happened.”

He quite rightly points out that the Indian New Wave did not survive beyond a decade. The self-obsessed FTII-NSD crowd either died out or moved to commercial cinema formats. The poster boys of parallel cinema, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, chose to do forgettable films like Hero Hiralal and Chamatkar. “Only those films survive that are enjoyed by everybody. The director has to find a way of balancing out entertainment and quality content.” This shift to a “middle ground” balance is something every director is trying to achieve today. While Rajkumar Hirani has shown the way, both commercial film-makers like Kabir Khan and festival-favourite debutants like Neeraj Ghaywan want to adapt to that style. And by the look of it, even someone like Salman Khan has understood the importance of this approach.

Is he Salman Khan’s new BFF?

Bajrangi Bhaijaan explored Khan in a whole new light, with Nawaz by his side. “I am not friends with Salman Khan. We are professionals who work together.” Even before I can stir up a piece of gossip, Nawaz shuts it down. “It is in his nature to be caring and attentive towards his co-actors during shoots and we have a lot of fun working together. And when you have outdoor shoots, you tend to form a stronger bond. So, if we do work together again, I am sure we will have a blast because I enjoy his company and the way he approaches the movie making process.” What surprised me about Kick and especially Bajrangi was the presence of a well-written supporting lead something Salman Khan movies never have. “It depends on the director and the script, honestly. I don’t think Salman prevents anyone from creating supporting roles.” Director Kabir Khan agrees. “Salman was really excited about having Nawaz on board in Bajrangi. They had excellent chemistry on the sets and Salman loved watching Nawaz perform and would even pester me to give him more lines.” I understand that digging for a tabloid-happy friendship story will be futile here. 

 “I am not tall enough, not fair enough, I don’t look good enough…”

And he is not wrong. Nawaz is not the best looking man in the business. Like he says, people who want to be actors are at least tall. Take Irrfan Khan and Kay Kay Menon, for example. His appearance is something Nawaz has had to battle with constantly, and in an industry so heavily given to the superficial, he is quite the misfit. “I still have confidence issues because my biggest competition is with myself. I have been fighting way too many factors for the last fifteen 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.” Though he effortlessly slips into jackets and suits for our shoot, when I ask him whether he shops for clothes himself, he off-handedly mentions that his brother picks up stuff for him. The intense theatre actor persona still rules his worldview – he does not look like a movie star. And, personally, I feel 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. Why is that so? “We always believe that the hero should be tall, muscular, fair and handsome. This prejudice comes from the fact that we still suffer from a sort of “slave mentality” even after so many years of Independence. And I understand why. The British ruled us for 200 years and the idea that tall-broad-white is the basis of the hero archetype is deeply ingrained in us. It will take another 100 years to understand that beauty and accomplishment are not necessarily complementary.”

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 What is the biggest problem with Bollywood?

“In our industry, if you wanted to cast someone as an achiever, a winner, someone who has made it big in life, you choose a fair-muscled-good looking chap. Why on earth would you do that?” Nawaz is on the mark with that comment. Even though we belong to the brown race, our Anglophilic grounding has made us a culture obsessed with white skin. I don’t want to sound pedantic, but even Lord Krishna – who by his very name is “dark-skinned”-  is played by fair actors in TV shows and films. “Look at the Ambanis of the world,” Nawaz points out, “They look like you and me. It is the actor’s job to create that aura of a hero – he need not look like one. You can put me in line with ten six-foot-tall hunks and I will still make sure that you sit up and notice me. That is the kind of gravitas I command. That is why people were shocked when they saw me in the role of a dominating IB officer in Kahaani. No one had done something like that before.”

But because of his features, is he not getting stereotyped into playing certain kinds of roles? No, we don’t want Nawaz to star in a Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, but playing the hardened/battered poor man over and over again might just be getting too much. The man has a brilliant answer to this. “I think the biggest stereotype in Bollywood is the lead hero; the ones who dance around trees. But people ask me why I am choosing the same kind of roles. You ask me this because I am not playing the typical Bollywood hero. It is funny that I am asked this question even though I do not adhere to the most accepted stereotype in the industry. You guys should be asking the heroes this question, but you don’t.” I have to shut up for lack of a counter-argument. He is quite angry, too. After a few more desultory questions, I end the interview. After some basic banter, he asks me if I have seen Sooraj Pancholi’s recent debut, Hero. I tell him I have and that I did not like it all. I quote a critic, who astutely commented that young actors think they can be trained as actors at gyms these days. “But people still lap it up,” Nawaz comments. “That is the problem, right? People criticise, but they will go and watch the next film too.”