In 2022 everyone is asking, who is this motor-mouthed self-opinionated Tamil actor whose cocky tweet responding to badminton champ Saina Nehwal has landed him in a soup?
In 2006 everyone was asking.who’s that dark brooding guy in Rang De Basanti? Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra chose him to play the confused capitalist Karan Singhania because of his vulnerable boyish looks.
But back then, Siddharth had no intentions of moving bag and baggage to Mumbai to pursue a career.
“Has Rang De Basanti been well received?” he asked me curiously, from Down South. “I’m glad. We all worked hard on it, but specially Rakeysh Mehra and Aamir Khan. I was with the project for just six months. But they nurtured it together for three years.”
Siddharth was practical enough to realise there wasn’t a clamour by filmmakers waiting for him in Bollywood.
“But of course I’m open to good offers. The only problem,” he revealed shyly after the release of Rang De Basanti, “is that I’m very picky. In five years I’ve done only five films. I like to choose my roles carefully. There’s no point in doing work that makes you unhappy. At the end of the day you’ve to look yourself in the eye.”
Such …err… cocky conviction for an actor who, at that point of time, had been in the Tamil blockbuster, Boys (2003), and the Telugu hit, Nuvvostanante Nenodannatana (2004). Siddharth was apparently being offered a fee close to Rs 2 crore! But he wasn’t talking about his price, let alone doing the avalanche of films being offered to him.
In an interview he did with me in 2017 Siddharth declared “It takes time to make films that satisfy me at the stage I’m in. I’d rather stay home or do something else than go to work on something I don’t enjoy. Not getting better work isn’t an excuse I can use any longer. I’ve worked on making things happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
What prompted him to take on Rang De Basanti….his first Hindi film? “Interestingly, I was actually steering clear of industries other than Telugu when Mehra’s office called. I was very non-committal. They sent me a bound script, and that’s when things really took off. The moment I read it, I knew this was not a film to reject. In two days, I was a part of Rang De Basanti. I was moved by the script, and felt Mehra was definitely on to something.”
Wasn’t he deterred by the fact that it was an ensemble piece, and the fact that Aamir would get centrestage? “I cannot possibly explain how exciting it is to hear the word ensemble piece with respect to Indian cinema. The most exciting aspect of RDB at the script stage was this very ambitiously equanimous treatment of all the protagonists. The reason I believed it could be pulled off was that Aamir was a part of it. Also, there is no centrestage in RDB. It’s a huge stage, and all of us get to run around, just doing our own thing! It always hurt me when people said unfair, accusatory things about Aamir and his attitude towards his coactors’ roles. RDB should go a long way in rubbishing these silly allegations. An individual like Aamir really does not deserve them.”
What was the experience of working with Rakeysh? Sid(as he’s called by his friends) had replied, “Mehra is at the cutting edge of two very important horizons. The first is in the realm of heartfelt Indian storytelling. Mehra is Indian, period. His food, his humour, his nostalgia, all swim in hardcore India juice. That’s why the friends in RDB jump out from the screen and bite you. They exist, all over this huge country. The second area Mehra astonishes you in is his craft. He is by far the most ambitious technical filmmaker in Indian cinema. In effect, he combines state-of-the-art film wizardry with lorry art (Horn please, ok!). As Mehra would put it, ‘stuff like that’ .”
At one time Siddharth was known as the Aamir of the South. Why such meager amount of work? He had an answer for that too. “I am a bit of a paranoid actor. I started off as an assistant director to Mani Ratnam. Direction was passionately my ultimate dream. When I suddenly became a screen actor, I took a reality check, and promised myself to only commit to work that completely excited me. It isn’t really my fault that such projects were very few in number also, I am building a CV of serious standing. Mani Ratnam, Shankar, Prabhudeva, Rakeysh Mehra…these guys make going to work so much fun.I am a Tamil. My school education was spread over Delhi and Chennai. I did my B.Com (Hons) from KMC in Delhi Univ. I got my MBA from the S.P. Jain Institute of Management in Mumbai. Then came the assistant director stint with Mani Ratnam for a couple of years. Acting happened by chance, and the rest is a blur.”
Didn’t scarce work scare him? “Strangely, scarce work is a really welcome proposition. No work might be really frightening. I haven’t been there yet. I want to be proud of my films. It’s much better to show your kids 10 good films, than to make excuses to them about why you made 20 bad ones. Again, good and bad doesn’t reflect commercial success. I judge films on how they justify my conviction in them. It’s hugely gratifying when they do.”
However the tall talks didn’t translate into great offers of opportunities in Hindi cinema. Siddharth dismissed Bollywood as unwelcoming. “I’ve never put enough pressure on myself in Hindi cinema for it to be a disappointment. It’s a convenient situation where I get to come test a different audience with something interesting every few years. There is no expectation of my stardom in Hindi cinema. That is a mix of my results there as an actor and the industry’s nature of being exclusive and not particularly welcoming as a permanent workplace.”
He also expressed displeasure with the kind of cinema which was becoming successful in India. “Cinema is not the problem. It’s the people and the system that runs it that’s making it difficult for films to cross over and become pan-Indian winners. There is myopia, a cultural bias stemming from ignorance, and a lazy approach to classifying everything in specific templates that’s stopping filmmakers from just making films that all audiences like to see. The biggest hits in Indian cinema are not even remotely the best films being made. That should make it clear who is deciding what is being seen. As an independent producer and an actor who believes in scripts over stardom, Baahubali has no impact on our way of life. It may have an impact on big-studio pictures that get fuelled by its victory. It is an important film, and needs to be respected for its success. It’s a great achievement, but I don’t think it changes the dynamics too elaborately.
About his numerous link-ups in the South and in Mumbai Siddharth had quipped, “My mother says if rumours on my love life are to be believed, I’m the biggest Casanova ever. In 10 films I’ve been linked with 10 heroines. I’ve even been married to a couple of them and had babies.Either I am ‘aashiq mizaaz’ or not. I’d rather be because the image is quite helpful. I think I need to take time off to find romance in my life. Right now I see no chance to take time off.”
Apart from acting, Siddharth is a singer as well. “I’ve sung two songs in Striker(his second Hindi film which bombed) .I’ve sung many No.1 singles in my south films. As long as people want to hear me sing I will.”
After Rang De Basanti Siddharth bought a home in Bandra in Mumbai. He intended to shift base from Hyderabad to Mumbai for the next one year to consolidate his position in Hindi cinema.”I won’t have only one home. I’ve been living out of suitcases all my life. Now I’ll be living out of bigger suitcases called home. I’ll have different homes in different cities. But I’ll give my best shot to Hindi films.However, I can’t move to Mumbai permanently. I’m an actor. I cannot stay in one place. And why should I?”
Siddharth dreamt of becoming a pan-India actor.”I think we keep talking about cross-over cinema in the wrong context. What about our cinema crossing over from one language and region to another? There’re fabulous films being made in every part of the country.I’ve this very cute dream of being a pan-Indian actor. Insha Allah, in 10 years I’ll have films in different languages and I’ll be appreciated across the country. We need to look at Indian cinema as one entity before we look at global acceptance.”
Asked why actors from the south have not been successful in Mumbai, Siddharth said: “There’re two ways to answer that. The politically correct is most south Indian actors have a fan base in the south and don’t need to start from scratch in Hindi cinema.When they gave me the best debut award for ‘Rang De Basanti’, I returned it with a very nasty scowl. Not fair. You can’t call me a debutant just because I’m working in a different language. You can’t give Amitabh Bachchan the best debutant award if he does a film in Bhojpuri.And if you want a cockier answer as to why south Indian actors are not successful in Hindi, at least some south actors succeeded in Hindi. No Hindi actor has succeeded in the south. We in south get paid as much money as the guys in Bollywood, if not more. If we guys haven’t made it here, you guys haven’t made it there.One more thing… I’ve the power to commission projects down south, not here.Either I’m called honest or arrogant. I’m okay with both images. My friends and family always clip my wings. People like Karan Johar rag me about being bratty and unapproachable. But I’m not unapproachable to those I want to be close to.”
And now, so many years later Siddharth has almost no films on hand (his last Telugu release Maha Samudram was a flop) and is busy building an image on the social media as an anti-rightwinger.Best of luck with that. But remember,an actor is only good at what he was born to do: act.