Nawaz, as he is popularly known, was born to farmers in Budhana, Uttar Pradesh on 19 May, 1974. Growing up, he and his friends would imitate Amitabh Bachchan but had little exposure to mainstream Hindi films and spent much of their time watching C-grade Joginder films like Ranga Khush (1975). Intent on escaping the violence and theft common to daily life in his village, Nawaz left to study science at the Gurukul Kangri University in Haridwar before moving to Delhi.
In Delhi, he chanced upon a play with a friend and was introduced to theatre for the first time. Theatre had such a profound impact on him that he soon enrolled in the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD). He acted in various street plays during his four years in Delhi, juggling studies and a job as a watchman at an office. There was little pay and he survived on a diet of tea and biscuits. The financial instability and uncertain prospects as a theatre actor motivated him to move to Mumbai and try his hand in television.
From then on, getting work was a constant struggle for him. His appearance did not fit the mould of the conventional hero in an industry that was becoming increasingly glossy. He found little success in television and soon turned to film. He began working as a junior artist appearing as an extra in crowd shots before finally getting one-scene roles. His first such film was the acclaimed Aamir Khan starrer, Sarfarosh (1999), in which he has a one-scene role as a criminal.
For the next 4 years, he played numerous bit roles, from a waiter in Shool (1999) to a pickpocket in Munnabhai MBBS (2003). During this time he met Anurag Kashyap, a writer who was struggling to make it as a director. After an audition on the sets of Satya (1998), Kashyap was impressed by the gifted actor and promised to cast him in a future film. The opportunity came in 2004, when Kashyap gave Nawaz his first substantial role as ‘Asgar Mukadam’ in Black Friday (2004).
Simultaneously, he acted in various short films including The Bypass (2003), which also featured Irrfan Khan, who would become a regular co-star. In 2009, Kashyap gave him a cameo in Dev. D (2009)’s hit song “Emotional Atyachar” as ‘Patna ke Presley’. In the same year, he was seen in New York (2009) as a former 9/11 detainee who is struggling to come terms with normal life.
Although Nawaz was donning increasingly significant roles, it wasn’t till Peepli Live (2010) that he got wide recognition as an actor. His powerful performance as the journalist Rakesh received high praise from audiences and critics. He followed this up with lead roles in the internationally acclaimed films Patang (2011) and Dekh Indian Circus (2011).
While he made his mark with small, content-driven films, his versatility and growing appeal soon drew offers from the mainstream film industry. 2012 was the year of Nawazuddin Siddqui as he delivered exceptional performances in some of the biggest films. He played one of the leads in Anurag Kashyap’s epic crime saga Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). His iconic portrayal of Faizal, the young son of coal mafia don Sardar Khan, portrayed by Manoj Bajpai, had critics across the world singing his praises and earned him a cult following. Nawaz soon became a household name in India with his role as the archetypal intelligence officer in Kahaani (2012) followed by the Aamir Khan starrer Talaash (2012). His performances that year won him the National Film Award and truly established him as one of India’s most talented actors.
Nawaz’s career trajectory continues to reach greater heights. In 2013, he appeared alongside Irrfan Khan in the internationally acclaimed film The Lunchbox (2013). The film crafted a unique place for the two actors as the faces of ‘crossover cinema’. However, Nawaz has tried not to limit himself to a certain genre and has taken on roles in films as varied as Liar’s Dice (2013) and the blockbuster Kick (2014). He also recently appeared in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) alongside Salman Khan, yet another super-hit and spectacular performance delivered by the actor.