On the charm meter, Adnan Siddiqui has the force of a hurricane. As an actor, he is unmindful of the consequences of being absent from the public eye. On social media, his isms and asks have a separate, ever-growing fandom.
Siddiqui, 53, one of Pakistani entertainment industry’s best recognised faces, became India’s own in Mom (2017)―Sridevi’s last titular role before her demise in 2018. Ten years before Mom, Siddiqui starred alongside the late Irrfan Khan in A Mighty Heart.
Siddiqui’s last Pakistani drama appearance was in the wildly popular Mere Paas Tum Ho (MPTH, 2019). His most recent television outing was in Tamasha (2022)―a daring format loosely based on Big Brother. It could have turned into a moral morass, what with men and women living in the same house for 43 days in a deeply conservative country. Puritans raised some ‘lapses’, such as contestants never shown praying on TV.
Siddiqui, however, says that he is but a nautankiya (entertainer) whose screen presence entails neither judgment nor education. “One’s relationship with the Almighty, be it Allah or bhagwan, is a private matter,” he says. “Who are we to interfere?”
The introductory shot of Tamasha is of Siddiqui playing the flute―an instrument he loves as it soothes and relaxes. He carries it around the world and can leave you awestruck with his experimentations, such as teasing out ‘Hotel California’. He wanted to learn it professionally, but lessons were expensive. A flute cost just 040. “I thought it better to buy one and teach myself,” he says.
With Tamasha came the inevitable comparisons with Bigg Boss host Salman Khan. But Siddiqui, who was both host and the ‘voice of God’ in the show, stuck to his inimitable style, popping in and out of the house, ejecting badly behaved contestants without a second’s notice, doling cooking tips and creating mischief. By week two, the audiences warmed up to it. Some two and a half weeks later, Salman did a first by entering the Bigg Boss house to dine with the contestants. “I rest my case,” says Siddiqui.
In an actor’s life, three plus years of not being on screen comes with the danger of oblivion. Not for Siddiqui. “I am at a stage of contentment where I am not looking to work like them (peers),” he says. “With age comes acceptance…. I will play a hero in his 50s, but definitely not one in his 30s. Neither will I do justice to it nor will I feel good. I am currently writing something which will place me where I want to be.” And, he is gathering his thoughts to become the first Pakistani actor to pen an autobiography.
As an industry veteran, he has deeper concerns such as ensuring that no domestic abuse finds its way on screen in the work that his company, Cereal Entertainment, produces and harassment is a no within his workspace. He says that he will ensure that anyone who indulges in any mischief will never find work in the industry again.
When Siddiqui came to India, he evaluated the space best suited for him. It had to be something like what Nawazzudin Siddiqui had carved for himself. To date, he regrets that the two never shared a scene in Mom. By the time Mom released, the Uri attack had happened and Indo-Pak relations had soured. But Siddiqui took back warm memories with him. So, when a Pakistani talk show host remarked that those who worked with Siddiqui died soon after, he apologised to the families of Sridevi and Irrfan on social media, saying that the comment had shown the entire country in bad light.
Despite his acting chops, Siddiqui’s Hollywood career stalled. He attributes it largely to the lack of support from the Pakistani media. “A senior journalist wrote, ‘Angelina Jolie did a great [job] (in A Mighty Heart), Irrfan Khan was very good, too, and a ‘Pakistani actor’ made a couple of appearances’. I wasn’t given the dignity of even being named,” he recalls. “When I called the journalist, he snapped, saying it was not his job to promote me.”
He has been auditioning though. He had also hired an agent. But as agents take a cut from an actor’s fees, they promote talents with a bigger pay cheque. It made better sense to approach casting directors who are paid by producers. Disappointed? “Nah, my time will come,” he quips.
Our conversation veers to the burden of being a celebrity―the trolling stars receive just for checking in on each other. Perhaps, that is why Indian celebrities remained silent when Pakistan faced its worst floods. “May India never face it (natural calamity), but were it to happen, I would be the first to speak out,” says Siddiqui. “When the Peshawar school shootings happened, celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan spoke out. It is not about [being a] celebrity, it is about the human beneath it.”
It is that human beneath that makes Siddiqui travel the world to raise funds for schools and clinics built by the Shahid Afridi Foundation and talk about breast cancer awareness.
This human was cultivated in large measure by Siddiqui’s banker father, Mohd Afzal-Ullah Siddiqui, who had migrated from Ghazipur (some 340km from Lucknow). A well-read, well-spoken, large-hearted man who could waltz just as easily as he could discuss history, the senior Siddiqui, implanted, among many other things, a love for reading and a sharp sense of style in his son.
The son was a tough one to train though. When his father would hand him books with some pages dog-eared, Siddiqui would read only those, thinking that was where the questions would come from. But every time, he was caught. “My retort to Abba was, ‘even if I don’t read, I will be able to lead my life’. Abba said, ‘you will, but you won’t be able to live it’,” he remembers. And so books became his thing, though he admits to short attention spans. He is more adept at cooking and can whip up some nine varieties of okra dishes in his customised kitchen.
Till his last days, memories of Ghazipur gripped Siddiqui’s father. “He said that given a choice he would return to India where his childhood memories lived,” recalls Siddiqui. That hold of memory finally made sense when Siddiqui’s childhood home was demolished. He parked his car in front of the crumbling structure and cried, mourning the loss of his boyhood’s most tangible marker. Someday, he hopes to visit Ghazipur.
Siddiqui latest project is Selahaddin Eyyubi, an OTT series on the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, to be shot in Turkey. “This is our way of taking Pakistan to the world,” he says. Two Hollywood A-list actors are in contention, too.
“There is no space for mediocrity,” says Siddiqui. “If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space, and I was born to fly high.” In that perhaps lies the enduring charm of Siddiqui.