Vijaya Singh is in raptures over Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s interiority, the expressiveness of his slender fingers, and the flash of his deep brown leg.

The success of Kahaani and Gangs of Wasseypur has thrown up an unlikely winner: Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Often described as “just any other man” (Tribune, Aug 12, 2012) and by himself as “I am not a handsome, typical face of Bollywood” (Tribune, Aug 12, 2012). That handsome or beautiful should translate into Bollywood’s measure of good looks is a travesty of both beauty and desire. Beauty and desire are not ineludibly linked in a cause and effect relationship. One may not necessarily lead to another. And yet who can deny that “desire” may not cause beauty or that “beauty” may not lead to desire? But, Bollywood only manufactures an assembly-line norm of what is beautiful or desirable. It compels a gross standardisation of the so called “good looks” in all its men and women.

If one were to compare body types, styling and dressing of Bollywood stars it would lead more or less to the following table:

Men — Bodies: fair complexioned, bulging biceps, waxed torsos, beefed up pectorals and other such testosterone-induced muscles, and a clean shaven look.

Clothes: Tee-shirts, torn jeans, silk sherwanis, churidaars, a stole flung carelessly across the left shoulder, once in a while a tuxedo/suit.

Styling: One like another with minor differences.

Women — Bodies: fair complexioned, slim but curvy, poker straight hair.

Clothes/accessories: short skirts, frocks, long gowns, tee-shirt, torn jeans, brocaded lehangas, saris, high heels, higher heels, highest heels.

Styling: One like another with minor differences.

Having said that, let us ask for a face that stands out in its difference, in its tremulous quality, in its intensity, and a body that has not been flattened, straightened, or plastic surgeried upon. In the entire array of beautiful, painted faces and sculpted bodies of Bollywood only a few tentative names come up. To this list of unnamed people let us add the one sure name of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose “common face” has uncommon qualities. Above all it is a face of infinite malleability, a face that can launch a thousand characters, a face that is neither a mask nor completely transparent. Unlike Salman, Aamir, Saif or Shah Rukh, who mostly play themselves in film after film, Nawazuddin flits easily between one extreme character and another. Indeed, it would be difficult to know what it would mean for him to play himself.

Of Garbo’s face Roland Barthes said it belonged to that “moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy… when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could neither be reached nor renounced”(Mythologies 61). Nawazuddin’s face, in sharp contrast, leads neither to “ecstasy” nor to being lost in a “philtre”, nor is his face one of extreme beauty, but it is sculpted with something equally ephemeral.

His face is not a mask but, like Garbo’s face, there is in it a small measure of aloofness. It is not even aloofness actually; it can only be best described as one degree of withdrawal, removal from surroundings. An interiority that is not overwhelmed: beauty, desire, repugnance are all fleeting emotions on such a visage. A quality of meditative stillness informs his movements, gestures, and expressions. It is as if he slows down time by just a nano second to draw out a strand of gold from the ore of his performing talent.

Take for example the sequence from Gangs of Wasseypur 2, where he has just discovered the discreet charms of a pager. What follows is an exquisite tableau of performance that parodies, even as it pays a tribute to, popular cinema and its power. Nawazuddin begins by tucking the pager into the waist of his trousers as he prepares to meet his fiancée; shows off the pager by pointing at it with one expressive gesture of his slender fingers, as if the pager alone contained the thrilling appeal of his being; she blows a kiss to him, he pretends to fall in the manner of many a Bollywood hero; imitates Rajnikanth’s signature style of lighting up a cigarette; the smile on his face and the slow intoxicated walk to her house.

In yet another sequence from the same film, after killing off an adversary, he hands over a goat to a baffled housemate and leaves, collecting the folds of his lungi, flashing a deep brown leg. That flash of a leg is at once menacing and seductive, opening up the vast interplay between desire and power. Similarly, towards the end, he can’t seem to believe that Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia, another fantastic actor), the bête noire of his family, could actually be killed by a mere bullet and can’t stop shooting at him, and watches in grotesque fascination as blood spurts out from the dead enemy. Not satisfied he probes with the barrel of his gun for Ramadhir’s heart until the police arrive and put to an end this macabre appeal of making the dead deader.

Stunned disbelief

His own death at the end of the film is a replay of familiar betrayals by close ones. Stunned at an unexpected assault of gunfire, he looks up to find his step-brother shooting at him. There is no outrage in that recognition, only disbelief, followed by an immediate reiteration of his own philosophy that no one who is close to you can be trusted in this vocation of loot and murder. This realisation is followed by the sticky sensation of blood in his mouth, transferred to his fingers as he drifts into death. Between the stunned disbelief and the slow rubbing of blood-stained fingers his death is an unforgettable event.

This is the face of an actor, who creates beauty, desire and repugnance at will between the furrowed lines on his forehead and the cleft of his chin. It may have taken him long to arrive at public recognition, but the long years of delay have only prepared the ground for the unhurried perfection of his craft.