Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Bollywood’s Salvage Man

Pop Culture

Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Bollywood’s Salvage Man

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Of late, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the actor single-handedly responsible for giving a face to a small-town Everyman of varying degrees of ruthlessness, has been frequently filling in a void experienced by commercial films. These are high-budget star vehicles with very little actual acting quotient, in desperate need of salvaging. And Nawaz is their knight in shining armour. It’s a skill that the actor has mastered in effortless Siddiqui fashion, and has now become a failsafe tactic for mainstream filmmakers.

In his latest film, Monsoon Shootout, a noir thriller set in the dangerous underbelly of Mumbai, Nawaz plays Shiva, a dangerous hitman, whose reputation has ensured that a constable (Vijay Verma, in what was supposed to be his debut) is assigned to apprehend him. As Shiva, Nawaz sinks his teeth into transforming into a menacing, heartless monster with hardly any effort, becoming a human embodiment of evil. Granted, it’s a role Nawaz is habituated to playing on screen, but even then, he brings surprisingly little nuances to his silent Shiva that makes the character stand out from the actor’s other portrayals.

In fact, Nawaz played an iteration of the same role in his previous film, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, a gory comic-crime thriller set in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh, In the film, he played the eponymous Babu, a contract killer, whose perfect track record has rendered him a sort of celebrity in the hitman circle. Despite being overpowered by traces of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, the lawless gangster saga that made a comment on the futility of violence, exploited an engaging premise, firing solely from the able shoulders of Nawaz, who turned in yet another assured performance that elevated the film a generous few notches higher.

Having a Nawazuddin Siddiqui in your film is the intellectual equivalent of the mainstream formula of adding an item song to the mix.

This is also not the first time this year that Siddiqui has had to rescue an uneven script, or overshadow mediocre performances; Monsoon Shootout is, in fact, the fifth instance of him doing so. In Rahul Dholakia’s Raees that released in January, Nawaz’s earnest turn as JA Majumdar, the honest police officer committed to end illegal liquor trade, was powerful enough to take the limelight away from none other than King Khan, who was playing a larger-than-life Gujarati bootlegger. In the film, Siddiqui’s incorruptible cop is the antithesis to SRK’s Raees, who is a criminal with a heart of gold, and it is Siddiqui who shines the most. The actor’s dry, wry punchlines, and his calculated acting have a sort of credence that SRK faltered in bringing out, despite being the leading man. It’s no surprise then, that Nawaz’s entry scene in the film comprises as much style as SRK’s himself.

After Raees came Sridevi’s comeback film, MOM, which drew mixed reviews. In the rape-revenge saga, the actor underwent a complete physical transformation to play DK, a private investigator who seeks out and aids a vengeful mother in exacting justice for her daughter’s brutal rape. The amalgamation of his sinister look that would metamorphose into an innocent smirk within the batting of an eyelash, aided by unforgettably distinct dialogue delivery guaranteed that MOM was extricated from its tired tropes and basked in the slight afterglow of Nawaz’s gravitas.

With Nawaz in the picture, there is almost always a tendency to engage a bit further with the film, rather than dismissing it outright, a fate that met the Tiger-Shroff starrer Munna Michael and Kushan Nandy’s Babumoshai Bandookbaaz. It’s almost as if the new crop of filmmakers are acutely aware of the trust that audiences have in his performances. Having a Nawazuddin Siddiqui in your film is the intellectual equivalent of the mainstream formula of adding an item song to the mix. It’s essentially a trend that was started two years ago by the sneakily smart Kabir Khan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where Nawaz first displayed this quality of rescuing a film from drowning in a sea of mediocrity with his entertaining portrayal of Chand Nawab, the viral Pakistani news anchor.

But, the question remains, will the burden of being every other film’s salvage man end up being the actor’s own undoing? Will it make him complacent, or stereotype him to a template? As is evident, Monsoon Shootout, certainly gains from the actor’s sheer genius, but does the actor get anything out of it?

This is an updated version of an earlier published essay.