‘Making people laugh and cry is easier to do’

Freaky Ali is an unusual film for Nawazuddin Siddiqui. For someone who has been lording over the world of alternate and middle-of-the-road cinema, it’s his first solo-hero attempt at a hardcore commercial Hindi film.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui

Flying solo
Yes, there were Kick and Bajrangi Bhaijaan earlier, but both were in the good company of the invincible Salman Khan.

Siddiqui pauses for a bit when I point this out to him. “I would say it would be the second film. Manjhi, The Mountain Man was a big hit,” he says. But a Ketan Mehta film about a poor labourer who carves out a mountain road with just a hammer and sickle isn’t quite the stuff Bollywood potboilers are traditionally made of, I argue. Siddiqui nods in agreement. It was his first surprise solo success though, he contends. We concur.

An interview with Siddiqui can never be a pointed, sharp Q-and-A; it is usualy a meandering, dishevelled, nonspecific chat, akin to catching up with someone you haven’t met in a long while.

I last bumped into him in the shadow of PVR Anupam in Delhi’s Saket at the premiere of Chittagong in 2012. Lurking around a paan shop, trying hard to avert the newfound stardom and fan following, he had something fiercely quiet and extremely intense about him back then. His persona oozed pain.

Years of stupendous success later, in the hush of his squeaky clean and elegantly done-up office in Andheri’s Zohra Aghadi Nagar, he continues to be a man of few words and fewer smiles. In fact, he still hardly smiles. And even now, something unfathomable seems to be seething deep within.

Laughing with reason
It’s difficult to imagine, then, that he could have pulled off the delightfully irritating Shaikh, chopping away veggies in the local train, in The Lunchbox. Or that in Kick he could have hammed it to the hilt and played effortlessly to the gallery with his weird laugh and the “tock” sound he makes with his tongue. Or that he could have made his presence felt as Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab in an out-and-out Salman Khan vehicle like Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Freaky Ali seems to be next in the line of such rare light roles in Siddiqui’s otherwise intense CV.

Ironically, his stint in theatre in Delhi (where he trained at the National School of Drama) was all about humour and comedies. “I was known as a comedian. Of the 100 roles I played on stage, 60 would have been comic. In fact, it was because of the comedian tag that I deliberately chose to do serious roles in films,” he recalls.

Changing tracks
So Freaky Ali has been a way of testing out and bringing alive his own comic spirit again. “I was wondering if it hadn’t died within me,” he says. Siddiqui calls it a “gudgudane wali film” (a film that will tickle the audience). “Logon ko mazaa aayega (People will have a good time),” he says, adding, “it is also an inspirational story about an ordinary man’s journey to becoming a star golfer.”

Reportedly inspired by Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore, the film has him sing, dance, romance and play funny. Subtly so, he promises, not in the slapstick way. “I have been careful in not letting it become a farce, in not letting the character go over the top. You have to walk on the edge as a performer.”

According to him, an actor does some films for himself or herself and some for others. “This one is for the audience.” In the same breath, he also clarifies that he doesn’t work with the viewers’ expectations in mind. “I want to surprise them with every film.”

Surprising role models
Any comic actors he looks up to? I.S. Johar is the surprise answer. “I like his poker-faced acting. Unki performance mein ek rawaangi thi (There was a flow and effortlessness to his performances). He was never deliberate in making people laugh, it just came with ease from the ordinary conversations, just like [the one] you and I are having right now,” he says.

Odd characters
It’s said that performing comic roles is much more difficult than the tragic ones. Does he agree? Not quite. “Making people laugh and cry is easier to do. After all they go to the movies to laugh and cry. It’s the neutral characters that evoke no emotion in the audience, that force them to think, that are the most difficult to pull off,” he says. He finds such characters a rarity, especially in Indian cinema. There was an attempt on his part to do that in Te3n, but it didn’t translate well onscreen; some scenes were deleted for the larger good of the film for his own efforts to bear fruit. Prod him for an example and he comes up with the father in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves: “The focus is entirely on his search for the cycle.”

Defining roles
It’s the out-of-the-box elements in a character that inspire the actor in him, be it a mainstream film or an alternate one. Like Raman Raghav’s speech in Raman Raghav 2.0, where he talks about other people killing for a reason — like religion — but how for him, killing is as basic as eating, drinking and breathing. “He doesn’t need to look for the crutch of a reason to kill,” says Siddiqui, something he found fascinating.

It’s obvious that he thinks his characters through, internalises them. For him, no character can be absolute black or white, but always in shades of grey: “Raavan bhi to prakand pandit tha (Raavan was also an immensely learned man).”

He continues, “You need to understand the politics and philosophy of a character well to perform him. You have to go beyond merely acting out a role.” It’s a reason why he keeps gaps between films: “I need a little time to both enter a character as well as leave it behind.”

For Freaky Ali, he had to learn golf, work on the stance, the focus and concentration, learn clubs, how to drive, putt. The game has stayed with him: “I like how the greenery of the golf course absorbs all the tension. I also like how you can play the game alone. It can be about a competition with your own self.” Quite like acting.

Alternatively masala
While the residue of the protagonist in Freaky Ali still clings to him, he is moving on to the next project: another hardcore masala film, Munna Michael, with Tiger Shroff, directed by Sabir Khan. To keep the balance, there’s also Nandita Das’s Manto (for which shooting starts later in the year), where he plays the titular role.

He is full of Saadat Hasan Manto, his writings: “What a man, what a writer he was! He used to write stories just like that, while walking down to the paan shop. The film also looks at how the talent died with him.”

One of the scenes in the film, where Manto invokes the entire literary world to defend a story, Thanda Gosht, that had been dismissed as a lesser work, is something that is exciting Siddiqui the most: “The speech reminded me of Kevin Costner’s in JFK where he speaks without any emotion for a long while and then just lifts his spectacles to wipe his eye. That scene had moved me tremendously. The scene in Manto will hopefully go even ahead in setting a benchmark.”

Amen to that!