Sporting a once-white dhoti that has yellowed with age and dirt, at 168cm Nawazuddin Siddiqui stands dwarfed by the Gehlour Mountain. The harsh noon sun beats down on the dry and desolate landscape of Wazirganj, a rural village in the northern Indian state of Bihar, as the man, sweat streaming down his bare upper body, grimaces at the scraggy mountain pockmarked with massive granite boulders. ‘You,’ he screams in fury. ‘You ruined my life. I’ll destroy you.’
He then picks up the biggest rocks he can and begins hurling them – along with abuse – at the mountain, cursing it for coming between his wife and the critical medical attention she desperately required.
‘That opening shot of Manjhi – The Mountain Man, was the most difficult scene for me to perform,’ confesses Bollywood star Nawazuddin, in Dubai recently to promote the film. ‘My co-star was a lifeless object… a bare, dry mountain. I had to portray the pain of my beloved’s loss, my anger and my desperation... against a mountain.’
The critically acclaimed film tells the near-Sisyphean tale of a man who single-handedly, and with just a hammer and chisel, carved through a rocky mountain to create a road that drastically reduced the distance between his village and the nearest hospital.
The poor illiterate man, who died at the age of 73 of cancer, embarked on this monumental mission after his pregnant wife Falguni died in 1959 after falling and hitting her head as she made her way down the mountain. She was unable to receive prompt medical attention because villagers were forced to circumvent the mountain to reach the only hospital in the neighbouring village. The 55km-long route took up precious time and she died minutes before they arrived. Doctors managed to save her baby daughter.
Distraught but determined no one else should suffer his wife’s fate, Manjhi worked night and day for 22 years, chipping away at the mountain to cut a 110m long, 9m wide direct path through the granite rocks, reducing the distance to the hospital to just 15km – a 30-minute journey by road.
‘I guess some men will go to any lengths for love,’ says Nawazuddin, 41, who is married to Anjali Siddiqui, a home-maker, and has a four-year-old daughter Shora and a four-month-old baby boy Yaani. ‘I can perfectly understand Manjhi’s struggle.
‘I had to conquer several precarious mountains, carve my own path through brutally dangerous crevices before I could make a mark in Bollywood. In that sense it was not too difficult to portray Manjhi’s angst and passion.’
One of the biggest hurdles he overcame was Indian film-makers’ perception of an actor. ‘A person with ordinary looks but with a lot of talent has to struggle to even get to the casting round,’ says the slightly-built star. ‘That was a huge mountain that I had to conquer.’ Sipping coffee at the Etisalat headquarters in Jafiliya in Dubai where a special screening of his film was held, he talks of his early days in the industry.
‘Everywhere I was told that I was not ‘actor material’. So I would ask them “What is actor material?” Some would tell me to take a look in the mirror [hinting at my average looks]. Others would just shoo me away.
‘Merit was never considered. It used to be very frustrating. This is unheard of in any other profession. If you are a doctor you will be judged by how good you are in the operating theatre or in diagnosing a patient’s condition; but in the profession of acting you are judged purely by your looks. If you have what is vaguely called “movie star looks” you can land a role. You don’t have to learn acting, you don’t have to prove your abilities, nothing.’
The award-winning star insists that ‘like any other job, acting too requires skills.
‘Acting calls for detailing and studying a character, and being as honest to the character as possible when essaying a role… it is more than just looking good.’
After struggling for eight years – sleeping on railway platforms unable to afford a room and surviving on just water from a roadside tap, being too poor to buy food – Nawazuddin hit pay dirt when noted film-maker Anurag Kashyap of Satya fame spotted him performing in a small play in Delhi and signed him up for Black Friday (2004). The film, which told the story of the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was a commercial and critical success, and almost overnight Nawazuddin became a household name for his brilliant portrayal of the associate of an underworld don. ‘That was the film that broke the myth that heroes had to be good-looking men,’ says the actor, slipping off his denim jacket and leaning back in the sofa.
With the hugely successful Gangs of Wasseypur, parts 1 and 2, following soon after in 2012, Nawazuddin finally came into his own. He followed up the winning streak with The Lunchbox, Kick and most recently as a TV reporter with Salman Khan in the megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which was a contender for India’s entry to the Oscars.
‘It took me almost a decade to prove that an average-looking man can also be a movie star. Sometimes, though, I think that maybe I was lucky I didn’t get work for nearly a decade. Those years gave me an opportunity to get up close and personal with different characters… I could observe them closely and those experiences help me in my acting now.’
So what are the ingredients for success?
‘I really don’t know as yet,’ he says, earnestly. ‘But I can tell you what are not the ingredients. Luck, for one. I don’t believe in luck. You cannot give up and leave it all to fate and destiny. You have to do your best.’
He looks up, as though lost in thought. ‘One ingredient for success is timing,’ he says. ‘And honesty. And a never-say-die attitude. That’s very important.’
He clearly has proved that he has all those qualities, so how does it feel now to be successful, recognised on the roads, and mobbed for autographs and selfies, like he was at the Etisalat office?
‘Success hasn’t changed me in any way,’ he says. ‘Actually I don’t know if I’m really a success. All I know is that I continue to do my work honestly. It has not changed me in any way. Even now, when I visit my village, I go out and do a bit of farming… it helps me stay in touch with my roots. I enjoy it. My neighbours in the village come over to talk to me and ask me about my movies, but they still treat me as one among them.’
He credits his success to his honesty and hard work. ‘I want to give my directors the best that I have. I will not rest until I am convinced that I have done my best.’
Director Ketan Mehta will vouch for that. ‘Nawaz is the finest actor of his generation,’ he says. ‘When the script of Manjhi - The Mountain Man was ready and I began casting, there was really no one else I could think of who could fit the bill like Nawaz. His body type and physicality – short, lean with tense eyes – was just perfect for the role. And when I met him and saw the intensity and passion in the man’s eyes and noticed his work ethic, there was no doubt at all.’
Ketan, who has made several award-winning and commercially successful films including Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, says that shooting the movie was a logistical nightmare. ‘I wanted to shoot on location close to where Manjhi had actually chiselled out the road. But the village was more than an hour-and-a-half from the nearest city where the crew was put up. So every day for 45 days, we had to shuttle from the city to the village where we had erected a set. The shoot was often in sweltering heat. Physically it was draining but Nawaz gave his best.’
Nawazuddin smiles as he remembers the shoot. ‘While the opening scene was the most challenging, there are some scenes where I just keep working on the mountain in silence. You must remember Dashrath Manjhi toiled for 22 years without a break, reducing the rocks to rubble every single day to realise his mission. My director wanted that sense of blankness and singularity of purpose to reflect in my eyes and on my face even when I was silent and just hammering away at the mountain with my hammer and chisel.
‘He would ask me to keep my mind focused on just the mountain. “Don’t think of anything else. I want that blank but purposeful look in your eyes,” he’d say. That was truly a challenge – trying to keep my mind blank.’
Getting the diction and dialect right was also not easy. ‘Mastering Manjhi’s accent was very difficult,’ reveals Nawazuddin. ‘It’s not Bihari Hindi but a particularly rural accent called Magdi. But I was determined to get it right so used to spend hours fine-tuning my lines.’
Another challenge the star faced was playing a 22-year-old, then a 45-year-old and finally a 72-year-old Manjhi. ‘Depending on the day’s schedule I had to shift from the role of a 22-year-old to a 72-year-old in a matter of a few hours,’ he says. ‘I also did a lot of research on the man and found that Dashrath, before his wife’s death, was a loud, full-of-life, cheerful guy. I wanted all of that to reflect in my role when I portrayed him.’
To perfect the role and get under the skin of his character the actor also spent a month in the village, observing and learning the villagers’ way of life, mannerisms, attitudes…
But then living and working in a village is nothing new to Nawazuddin.
The son of a farmer, he grew up in Budhana, a remote village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh ‘which enjoyed barely two hours of electricity every evening,’ he says.
The oldest of nine kids – seven boys and two girls – Nawazuddin used to help his father, working on their small plot of land as soon as he returned from school every day, then studying under street lamps at night. After completing his schooling, he moved to Haridwar, a town about 300 km away from his village, to earn a degree in science.
‘My first job was as a chemist at a petrochemical company in Gujarat,’ says Nawazuddin. But a chance visit to see a Gujarati play at a local theatre brought the curtains down on his corporate life. ‘I found acting so fascinating that I could not take my eyes off the actors on stage,’ he says. ‘That night I decided I wanted to be an actor in Bollywood.’
Quitting his job, he set off to Delhi and enrolled in the prestigious and highly respected National School of Drama – whose alumni includes such award-winning stars as Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri – to get his acting fundamentals right.
His family, however, were not convinced he could make a career in acting. ‘They thought I had lost it, to throw away a good job and move into acting,’ he says.
They were not the only ones who ridiculed his choice of career. ‘Some friends told me to take a hard look at myself in a mirror. “Do you really think you have the looks of an actor?” they used to ask me,’ he says. ‘I was a bit upset but I was convinced that looks are not the most important factor for an actor.’
Unwilling to give up on his dream, he juggled jobs of a watchman, a freelance journalist and a bit actor in theatre, among others, while also knocking on the doors of producers and directors, only to be told that he didn’t fit the bill of an actor because he did not have good looks.
‘But now I realise that all my hard work paid off. People have started appreciating my work and now I’m happy that viewers have accepted Manjhi - The Mountain Man.’
So what next? Is there another Manjhi-like character in the offing?
‘Oh no,’ he says.
‘I absolutely hate repeating roles. You know one of my biggest fears is of slipping into a comfort zone. No role should become like a job – something that can be done easily. I love a good challenge.
‘Also once people start calling you a star and you start believing you are a star then you can be in danger of falling into a rut. You might start to believe that whatever you do, people will like you. So I don’t like to repeat roles.’
Does he have any other fears?
‘Yes, I do,’ admits Nawazuddin whose next major movie is the Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster Raees scheduled for release early next year. ‘I have a lot of self doubts – like whether I will be able to shape up the characters the way my director wants me to, whether I will be good, whether I can live up to the task that my director gives me… Yes, I do have some insecurities like that.’
The character he portrays broke through a mountain. As we wind up the interview I ask him what he would do for love.
Nawazuddin leans backs and guffaws. ‘What I would do for love?’ He mulls over the question for a long minute then says: ‘I’d surely break a mountain for my first love – films. I’ll break any mountain to make good cinema.’