18 August 2014

The reality of illusions

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

How can a performance ever be honest, and other thoughts about acting via Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Acting seems to me one of the most mysterious things in the world. Everyone who's watching knows they're watching someone simulate something. And yet we watch precisely to make ourselves believe in the truth of the performance. There are, of course, as many different kinds of acting as there are kinds of cinema and theatre. In popular Hindi cinema in particular, stardom depends on the ability to produce endless variations on a persona that has already met with approval. Those variations can be riffs on a central theme, but the persona needs to remain recognisable. Our relationships with the stars on screen are profoundly mediated by our relationships with their off-screen personas.

But outside of the pleasures of watching our favourite stars ham, repeat recognizable gestures, and generally entertain us, even Hindi film viewers these days seem to have come round to appreciating 'realist' acting. Though the appreciation of 'realism' comes up against another sort of problem: if acting is visible, it's bad acting - and if it's invisible, it's too ineffable to describe. If you can see it, it isn't working; if it works, you can't really see it. So how do we talk about acting?

Someone who has been a transformative presence in this recent phase of Hindi cinema, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is often asked about acting. An interviewer asked about how the acting bug bit him. He said he had grown up in a religious, rural Muslim milieu where films were frowned upon, and anyway the nearest cinema was 45km away. So as a child there was no question of dreaming of being an actor.

It was much later, when a friend in Delhi took him to a play, that he realised he wanted to act. After that play (Uljhan, with Manoj Bajpayee in it), he watched some 50 plays, and then joined a theatre troupe. And later, the National School of Drama.

What fascinated me was not so much the story of Siddiqui's moment of recognition - though there is something inescapably dramatic about it coming from the first play he had ever seen. What struck me was the reason he gave for why acting appealed to him. Here, he thought, was a profession in which sifaarish (recommendations) or flattery couldn't help you. When you appeared on stage, it would become immediately apparent if you were good or not -- the tomatoes would start to fly if you were not.

What Siddiqui said, in other words, is that acting appealed to him because it was the most honest thing he could do. The direct encounter with a paying audience represented, in the actor's mind, liberation from the inherent artifice of life. But of course as Siddiqui himself found out soon enough, the paying audience does not guarantee the purity of performance that the actor might strive for. It came as a shock to me that during and after NSD, Siddiqui was typecast as a comedian.

He did comedy, he says, in many styles - he did slapstick and he did Moliere, he did grandiose Parsi-style theatricals - but he was largely stuck being the funny guy.

When he upped and moved to Bombay, he found it hard to get any work at all, because he was neither well-connected nor endowed with the gora-chitta good looks that Bollywood demands. As is now well-known, Siddiqui struggled for nearly four years, doing some work in television in true crime shows, while in cinema he got either no work or tiny single scenes in films like Sarfarosh.

When he did start to get mainstream attention, a little bit after Peepli Live and Black Friday, but on a big scale after Kahani and Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW), it was "intense" roles. Siddiqui denies that there is anything in him that is particularly drawn to angry, serious characters.

But in an industry so unused to allowing actors range, the relationship between the self and the screen persona plagues even actors like Siddiqui. And it is not always simple. Recently he has made a bit of a splash with Kick, about which he has said only half-jokingly that his mother is thrilled because he has finally fulfilled her desire to see him as a rich man.

About his GoW role, one of the most interesting things Siddiqui said was that he was thrilled not to be the small time thug getting beaten up, again. "I wanted status-wala role, where I would do the hitting. I had never expressed this wish, this desire to anybody. But [Kashyap] made it happen for me."

On Siddiqui's first day shooting GoW, Kashyap was surprised that he "was very aggressive". "He thought this is the first time he is doing a film where he was the hero so he came on as the hero." It was Kashyap who insisted he tone it down.

Siddiqui has often said that the only way to act "truthfully" is to draw upon an inner part of yourself that's similar to the character you have been called upon to play. But sometimes a character is what you always wanted to be in real life -- and you end up overplaying your part.

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