Nawazuddin Siddiqui, like most people, likes to take a break and travel after working on a movie. The character actor, known for his chameleon-like performances in films as poles-apart as Miss Lovely (2014) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), needs “a few weeks, sometimes a month” to let the last role he played leave his system.
We’re at his office in Versova, Mumbai, and Siddiqui, 42, is eased up on a lounge chair, dressed stylishly in a shirt and jeans, and smoking a rolled cigarette. I mistakenly assume he likes to travel abroad to get away from it all. “No, I usually go to my village, Budhana [in Uttar Pradesh], or some remote part of India,” he says. Khuri, near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, is a place he holds fond memories for. “Here, in the cities, people know who I am, toh ek tareeka hota hai baat karne ka (so they speak to me a certain way]. There, no one knows me. I can unwind and just let my thought process go on. Wahaan aapke talent ka mazaa hai (that is where your talent comes into play). How many people you can talk to, just at a tea-stall, and befriend, and get them to share their life-stories. And they have such rich, deep philosophy in everything they say.”
He has definitely earned his break after shooting for Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming crime thriller Raman Raghav 2.0, in which he plays a sociopathic serial killer who models himself upon the dreaded, real-life ‘Psycho Raman’, who committed a spate of murders in Mumbai during the ‘60s. The film, also starring Vicky Kaushal and Sobhita Dhulipala, will be having its world premiere at the 69th Cannes International Film Festival, which began on Wednesday, under the parallel section Directors’ Fortnight.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a screen-grab from the 'Raman Raghav 2.0' trailer
By his own admission, it is the most mentally draining role he’s ever taken up. Four months ago, the film was shot over 20 continuous days with a sparse crew, often guerrilla-style, in various locations across Mumbai, including the slums of Dharavi. During the shoot, as a result of the unhygienic surroundings, he fell seriously ill and was hospitalised for five days. Doctors at Andheri’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital suspected dengue fever, but they were proven wrong when he recovered soon enough and returned immediately to complete the schedule.
While in the hospital, his wife Anjali was horrified at one time to see him lying in bed in a semi-conscious state, repeating his lines from the movie. “She called up Anurag and say ‘Yeh kya kar rahe ho?’” he says, laughing almost gleefully. “But issi mein toh mazaa hai! To be able to work with Salman-Shah Rukh and also do films like these.”
After a well-documented, decade-long struggle to find a foothold in the industry, Siddiqui, who trained at Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD) in the ‘90s, is now at an enviable position in his career: an in-demand actor who jumps from blockbusters to ‘Versova indies’ with consummate ease, and commands his own loyal, discerning fan-base
He made the most of a meaty role in last year’s mega-successful, Salman Khan-starring Bajrangi Bhaijaan. This made shooting for Raman Raghav 2.0 a little complicated, since he is now much more recognisable on the streets than he was, say, two years ago. He recalls a scene that was shot in Dharavi without taking official permissions. “We went with a four-member crew,” he says. “They had planted two hidden cameras in shops on that street, after talking to the shopkeepers. I got out of the car, did the scene, and just as I heard people shouting out ‘Nawaz!’, I got into the car and we were out of there.”
The trailer for Raman Raghav 2.0, which was released earlier this week, shows glimpses of Siddiqui’s preparation for the role, depicting him as a calm, methodical killer who seems to prefer his own twisted worldview to norms laid down by society.
For Kashyap, the director who gave him his breakout role as Faizal Khan in the Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) films, he is willing to do anything. “He is my favourite director,” he says. “When he’s behind the camera, I feel like there’s some sort of supporting hand that’s pushing me to break my own boundaries. It goes beyond normal chemistry.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Siddiqui dove headfirst into his role in Raman Raghav 2.0, reading up as much as he could about the man as well as other notorious serial killers. “Sometimes, when you delve into the minds of these characters, you realise that even though their thoughts and actions are definitely socially unacceptable, there is some truth to what they think,” he says. “They have their own logic, their own worldview.”
He instinctively understands this perspective, having spent a number of years in Mumbai struggling to make ends meet, and hanging out with people with the same problems. “In this industry, you’ll hear of one or two NSD graduates who make it,” he says. “What happens to the rest? How do they live their lives?”
He relates stories about a batch-mate from NSD, whom he saw changing slowly over the years in ways, cracking under the strain of trying to make it in the industry. Once, when he lived with one of them and four others in Andheri’s Four Bungalows MHADA area, a startled Siddiqui woke up in the middle of the night to find that young man sitting at his bedside, staring silently at him. “Over the years, I saw him change,” he says. “He went from being upset that kaam nahi mil raha hai (he isn’t getting work) to a strange, calm state of mind. He retreated inside his head. People would say [about him] ki uska patta hil gaya (he’s lost his mind).”
Once in a while, the batch-mate would lose his cool and quarrel with all sorts of people, ranging from doctors to housewives at the kirana store near their house. On another occasion, reminiscent of an actual scene from Sriram Raghavan’s 1991 docu-fiction drama Raman Raghav (starring Raghubir Yadav as the dreaded killer), Siddiqui remembers him berating a waiter at a restaurant for dipping his fingers into glasses of drinking water. “He kept screaming, ‘I’m a paying customer and you can’t do that’. He would create a scene and it would be very embarrassing, but once in a while, you couldn’t help but agree and say, ‘Haan bhai, baat toh sahi hai’ (yes, this makes sense).”
The trailer for Raman Raghav 2.0, which was released earlier this week, shows glimpses of Siddiqui’s preparation for the role, depicting him as a calm, methodical killer who seems to prefer his own twisted worldview to norms laid down by society. “It may seem like the role of a psychopath,” he says, “but I approached it as the role of a normal person who has been changed by his circumstances.”
This will be his third visit to Cannes, but the actor is unfazed by all the hoopla around it. Straddling two different worlds within the realm of Indian cinema has made him more pragmatic. “My fear is that these kind of films go to festivals, win awards, get appreciated, and then release to empty theatres here,” he says. “This, I feel, is very wrong. It’s not enough just to have a thousand people on Facebook and Twitter saying ‘oh, what a great film’ — people need to actually go to theatres and watch them. These films need to run and make money, otherwise people will stop making them.”
'Raman Raghav 2.0' is slated to release in India on June 24
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