Adnan Siddiqui talks in prose. He punctuates every possible phrase with poetry or poetic narrative and then smiles to himself, as if sharing a moment with…himself. He’d be a bit of a Shakesperean character had he been born in the 17th century; there is an aura of theatrics and romanticism hovering over him like a hypothetic cherub playing the harp. And he’s in the limelight these days. His second film and Bollywood debut is talk of the town; he’s playing Sridevi’s husband and Sajal Aly’s father in the suspense-thriller Mom, releasing soon. He’s also won audiences over with his silent and yet strong portrayal of Rashid Chan in drama serial Sammi; it wouldn’t be wrong to say that he’s emerged protagonist of the story rather than the sidekick he started out as. And around the corner is Yalghaar, in which he plays a romantic army officer, a role he seems all too comfortable to be in the skin of.
It takes five hours of negotiation for us to finally meet after iftar, at Espresso on Zamzama. His insistence on meeting post roza is evident in the number of cigarettes that go up in smoke or the cups of black coffee that are downed over the stretch of our one-hour meeting. One can sense his need for a nicotine as well as caffeine fix and though he wears a copper bracelet in his wrist – indicative of a man with a healthy streak – by no means does he come across as a health aficionado at the moment. He’s someone with too much to do, and pardon the bumper line, not enough time to do it.
There are 28 years of solid work behind Adnan Siddiqui. There are numerous drama serials in which he’s acted in and then several others which he’s produced under his own banner, Cereal Entertainment. He has a Hollywood film to his credit – he had a small but significant role in A Mighty Heart (2007) – and he will also make his Bollywood debut around the same time as his first Pakistani film – Yalghaar – releases. “Nobody asked me,” he replies candidly when I ask why he hasn’t done a movie in Pakistan yet. It’s evident he has the package deal of skill and personality.
Let’s start with Mom, I ask him. You wrote a huge post on Facebook in which you thanked every producer, director, spot boy, tea boy, etc. Aren’t spot boys in Pakistan good? You’ve never thanked them like this?
“I went there as an ambassador,” he replied earnestly. “So I did something extra. If I go as an ambassador to another country, I should do something that isn’t happening there. Nobody does this over there either. There’s always a first. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
What did you learn from working in India?
“If I were to compare, actually there is no comparison to begin with,” he replied. “An apple should be compared to an apple. But I’ve understood why their films are better and why our dramas are better. Maybe they don’t work that hard on their dramas as much as we do on ours. They work so hard on their films, which we don’t do. I mean, one film, Mom, has been in production since 2014. And in 2016 it went on floor. There must be a reason. Once it went on floor, they finished it in 85, 90 days. But pre-production – there is a lot of groundwork.”
The trailer has come out and there’s minimal word about you and Sajal in the Indian press. So from Pakistani actors being a novelty, they have become excess baggage. How do you feel about that?
“When we first went, the relationship between the two countries was very good,” Adnan remembers. “We were welcomed and then (when things turned bad) they themselves decided that the last shooting spell will take place in Bangkok. Makes it easy for everyone. They did one good thing that they decided not to pre-hype the film too much. It was Boney sahab’s conscious decision to underplay it.
“At least they put Sajal on a poster. I didn’t even ask them; they told me themselves that ‘Adnan, your dramas have been played here. People recognize you more. If we put you in the poster, then maybe people won’t let this film play’. When the trailer launch happened, they called me and said it was very positive. Nobody even asked why Pakistani actors were chosen. I think Hindi Medium’s success has brought acceptance for Pakistani actors. In the end, they are business minded. They want to push their films forward. They said that whatever promotions take place outside India, we will promote you there.”
(The Mom poster with Adnan Siddiqui has since then been released.)
Will you be joining them for promotions outside India, I asked?
“It’s being discussed. They want us to be in America, Dubai. Let’s see.”
Steering the conversation from film to television, we talk about the drama serials he’s worked in and the fact that he has always chosen strong characters over necessarily playing the proverbial hero. He’s been just as comfortable in a supporting role, as long as the role has depth. He has done the lead roles in serials like Mere Humdam Mere Dost, Pakizah, Ahista Ahista. And his choice of roles has been extremely diverse, from playing Hina Dilapzir’s husband in Mohabbat Jaye Bhaar Mein to a negative lead in Meray Qatil, Meray Dildaar. Surprisingly, he points out, the one recurring element in all his recent roles is that he’s a man caught between two women.
Does that have any reflection on reality, I ask him, tongue in cheek? He does, after all, have a reputation of being a bit of a lady-charmer.
“If we were to connect this to real life then there would be too many (women),” he laughed out loud, taking the joke in good spirit. “It’s good if there are only two in the dramas.”
“Somebody asked Marlon Brando the same question that you’ve asked me, and he said if I had to give marks to an actor, so 95 out of 100 I would give based on his looks, which means his mannerism, his clothing, his way of talking…the whole package. 4 per cent is his luck. Only 1 per cent is his acting skill.”
And do you think you have the whole ‘package’?
“I don’t know if I do,” he replied modestly.
You’ve got almost three decades of work behind you; do you have a sense of fulfillment from your career, I ask him?
“It can never be there,” he announced dramatically. “I think in any field, any sense of fulfillment shouldn’t be there. There should be some restlessness.”
Was Yalghaar, your first Pakistani film, fulfilling?
“Yalghaar is a film that talks about war within the country,” he shared. “Also, it talks about the problems in our country and how to solve them. Secondly, as an army officer, that I’m portraying, I’m not just an army officer; I have a personal life too. There is romance in my life. You’ll see all that. Maybe the director didn’t want to reveal that in the trailer on purpose. My character is of a poet who is also a soldier. He loves poetry, so his conversation with his wife is in poetry. They write to each other in poetry.”
It appears that you like to stay in that character…
“I love poetry,” he confessed. “It was very difficult language; we’re using Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, as well as Ahmed Faraz’s poems. I felt that the romance is a little different. It’s very old school. So we wanted to show that an army officer also has romance and friendship in his life and how he balances all that.”
So you are from the old school of thinking. Do you find the social media overwhelming? People become stars overnight.
“There was only one channel when I started out,” he reminisced. “My claim to fame was Uroosa (PTV). And whatever I’m doing is just because of that. If there was social media back then, then I may have achieved a lot more. The new generation has this opportunity; they should use it.
“That said, I am conservative in my approach,” he continued. “I don’t want to be vocal. I want to give credit to Hamza Ali Abbasi for this. Because of him, other people have started becoming vocal. Otherwise who would openly speak before? I credit him for the fact that he has an opinion.
Why do our stars usually not have any opinion on anything? Why are they so afraid?
“Stars are part of the society. They’re not afraid but only those will speak who know. If I don’t know anything, what will I talk about?”
And how important is social media presence in this day and age?
“It is very important. We have to keep up with the times. When in Rome, do as the Romans.”
What else is necessary to keep up with the world, as an actor?
“Fitness is most important,” he started pulling out a mental list. “Everything will be taken from you. My father used to say, till you have the jawline, enjoy yourself, because everything will be taken from you. Black hair will turn white, laugh lines will appear. The one thing no one can take from you is your demeanour. Humanity. Humbleness. This will stay with you all your life. It’s one thing to be a good actor but it’s more important to be remembered as a good human being.”
“Humanity is very important,” he emphasized. “And I feel it’s the most important thing in the world. Humanity and staying humble. Your feet should stay on the ground but you should reach for the stars.
Kaminey jab urooj patay hain, toh apni aukaat bhool jatay hain
Or kitne kamzarf hain ye ghubaray, chand sanson mein phool jatay hain.
I read this somewhere and I remembered it,” he said. “But there’s one poem from my father that I will never forget…
‘Urooj e bakht mubarak. Magar dehan rahay inhi dinon ke ta-aqub mein hai zawal ek din,’ meaning, congratulations for whatever you have achieved but remember, your downfall isn’t far behind.”
Do you feel that your zawal is on its way, I ask, in an equally philosophical way, knowing that his career – with several hit TV drama serials and two high profile films – is at an all time high.
“Of course,” he answered with expected humility. “Other heroes will come. I will compete with all the men my age: Aijaz (Aslam), Faysal (Qureshi) Noman (Ijaz), for example. My competition can’t be Fawad Khan or Fahad Mustafa or Hamza Ali Abbasi. This is how it is and it’s okay.”
– Adnan Siddiqui portraits by Shahbaz Shaz
– This article was originally published in Instep on Sunday, June 18th.