Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is one of Indian cinema’s most celebrated actors startled this writer by speaking forthrightly about the discrimination and oppression he faced in his community for being dark-skinned, shirt and a Muslim. And he continues to be discriminated against, says Nawaz! “Please name me one dark-skinned superstar in Bollywood.”
You? I suggest. “Well, thank you for saying that. But there’s still a truckload of discrimination against dark-skinned actors in Bollywood. Hollywood has gotten over that prejudice. They have black superstars like Will Smith, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart and the late Chadwick Boseman alongside Tom Cruise and Chris Hemsworth. In India dark-skinned actors are always cast in a particular kind of role. If you see my career –graph so far, I am always playing gangsters and killers wearing shabby clothes. The tuxedo look and suave moves are for the gora fair-skinned stars. For the dark skinned darkness is the chosen colour in life as in cinema. Which is why when I started dressing up for Cannes and other international film festivals it was an out-of-body experience for me.”
Nawaz points out the colour discrimination in Indian society. “It is especially applicable to women. If a man has two daughters, one fair-skinned and the other dark he will not stop singing the fair-skinned’s praise whereas the dark one gets frowned at no matter how much she excels. I faced this prejudice in my native village Budhana in Uttar Pradesh. I was short and dark and therefore considered a good-for-nothing. All the other men in my family are tall not-dark and handsome,” laughs Nawaz.
“I guess I’ve taken after my grandmother who was short and dark. I had to hear taunts from my relatives day-in and out. Also, though we were zamindars (landlords) my family owned far less land than others in our village. We were always shown our place at weddings and other gatherings. We’d get invitations. But we would be subjected to a rigorous criticism that left many like me scarred for life. I knew I had to escape that life, just like my character in my new webseries Serious Men (directed by Sudhir Mishra). The character I play is a Dalit (a socially and economically backward caste in India). But he could have been any oppressed individual in India wanting a better life for his son. And a better life means good education. But then, even if you escape the oppression granted to you by fate and your fraternity you don’t necessarily get acknowledgement for your achievements.”
Now a major actor in Bollywood, Nawaz is still the same wastrel to some of his village folk. “Nothing has changed in their minds. How could it? If they see a man walk out of his oppressed existence onto the other side, they turn a blind eye. The status quo must not be changed. So even now for a part of my village fraternity I am still the dark-skinned short ugly Nawaz who can do nothing with his life. When they are told about my achievements they sneeringly dismiss them as myths. One of my cousins is so rigidly opposed to the idea of me making anything of my life that he refused to believe that was me on screen. In the one rickety theatre in my village my film Gangs Of Wasseypur (the highly-acclaimed Anurag Kashyap directed crime drama which catapulted Nawazuddin to stardom) was screened. Almost the entire village went to see it. My cousin also went. After the film he declared that the man on the screen was someone else, a lookalike. He refuses to accept that I have made something of my life.”
How does Nawaz react to this kind of blind incurable prejudice? “I believe what Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Our world is not divided by race, colour, gender, or religion. Our world is divided into wise people and fools. And fools divide themselves by race, colour, gender or religion.’ I’ve seen the kind of fame and fortune that I’ve never dreamt of. Today the same Nawaz who is considered short, dark and ugly in his village is called handsome in the international media. I supposed success changes the perception of beauty. When you are a success everything about you is appreciated. But for those who wanted to make sure I remain downtrodden I’ll always be down there.”
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