First person: “I just play by ear and stand up for what I think is right”
Two odd decades as an actor and you couldn’t tell except for the smattering of pepper-grey hair around Adnan Siddiqui’s temples. “I am actually thinner than I used to be,” he tells me. “People tell me that I look better now.” Then again, Adnan’s no stranger to compliments. Remarkably handsome with a chiseled jaw and expressive, serious eyes, he’s practically had people swooning all his life. It’s what first got him into the limelight back when he was just a first year student. He was asked to model in a commercial after which he appeared in catalogues, took to the ramp and appeared on the cover of the ‘it’ magazine of the ’90s, Men’s Club. Acting offers followed and with his acting role in the serial Uroosa, he quickly became TV’s favourite heartthrob.
Twenty years down the line, he’s still got girls crank calling him. I meet up with Adnan one afternoon in his office, a room plastered with family pictures and drawings by his children, and this married man with three children still has to repeatedly turn his ringing phone to silent mode. His crank calling female fans, apparently, are busy at work. “I recognise most of the regular callers although I haven’t blocked their numbers,” he says. “I think that would hurt their feelings. Instead, I’ve just saved the numbers with names like Uthana matt and Crank caller.” Oh, the travails of being famous, successful and good-looking!
Adnan’s certainly not just eye-candy. Time and again, he’s proven himself to be a superb actor who can fit into whatever role comes his way. For years, he was one of television’s ruling triumvirate of chocolate heroes (the other two being Humayun Saeed and Aijazz Aslam). Age and meatier drama scripts has allowed him to move on from the lovelorn hero and take on a myriad other avatars. To add to his repertoire of work, he’s also got his very own tryst with Hollywood — in a film starring Angelina Jolie, no less.
“I was disappointed when my role in A Mighty Heart went unnoticed by the Pakistani media,” he recalls, of the small but significant role he played in the 2007-released film. “It was a high-profile film with a cast that included Angelina Jolie and Indian actor Irrfan Khan. Other countries applaud and encourage their actors through the media. But here, the work done by myself and Sajid Hasan, who played a smaller part in the film, was largely disregarded.”
The reason behind this neglect was probably because A Mighty Heart told the story of American Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping in Karachi — a hugely controversial plot as far as Pakistan is concerned and one that couldn’t possibly be aired extensively by the media. Nevertheless, as Adnan begins to reminisce, I am riveted and surprised that he hasn’t recounted his Hollywood experiences ever before.
Hollywood’s Mighty Heart
“I almost didn’t go for the audition of A Mighty Heart,” remembers Adnan. “I had had a bad experience when I took part in a documentary for the BBC and they had used me as a prop, making me just stand in the background wearing regional clothes. When I finally did go, I found out that it was a film directed by Michael Winterbottom although the crew refused to reveal the storyline to us. Ultimately, after a few auditions, I asked Michael what the film was going to be about and he whispered, Daniel Pearl. He told me that I had been selected for the project along with Sajid Hassan, Irrfan Khan from India and Angelina. So I told him, ‘Yes, Angelina’s great. She’s a good friend of mine.’ This got Michael confused and he said, ‘What? Angelina Jolie?’ And I got startled and told him, ‘Err… no, didn’t you mean Angelina Malick?’ It’s a joke that we laughed about later,” he grins.
Fast-forwarding to the actual shooting of the film, A Mighty Heart was primarily shot in India since Karachi was considered to be too dangerous. With a role that placed him in fifth place amongst the cast credits, Adnan was looking forward to meeting up with the A-list Hollywood caste and crew. However, on arriving in Pune, he discovered that he had been allocated a hotel with the film’s local technical crew.
“The producer called me in the evening of my first day there and asked me to join them for dinner at the much more prestigious Taj,” says Adnan. “Since they hadn’t provided me with transport, I went there in a rickshaw. When I got there, I discovered that the rest of the cast — even the western technicians — was living there. It made me very angry and I went to the Line Producer and asked her why they were being biased. I told her that she should have pre-booked my room at the Taj when she had arranged my ticket. Before I knew it, they had found me a deluxe room at the Taj. I figured that my little tantrum had helped me gain some respect amongst the Hollywood crew.”
Only a few days later, though, Adnan was being asked by the film’s cast director to move to a smaller room on another floor. “She told me that earlier no other room had been available and they had had no choice but to give me the deluxe room. Now, though, I had to move,” he says. “But I told her that I would not allow them to push me around this way and if the hotel bill was such an ordeal for them, I would pay for it myself. Later that night, some of the cast members and the producer were having refreshments in my hotel room and when I went up to pay the bill, the producer stopped me. Apparently, he hadn’t even been aware of what had been going on. His assistants, in an attempt to save costs, had just been trying to bully the lone actor from Pakistan. They apologised to me and I didn’t end up footing the bill. I did tell them, though, that another actor from Pakistan, Sajid Hassan, was due to arrive in a few more days and if they attempted such antics with him, they were in for trouble. Sajid was treated like a VIP when he came.”
The crew’s discriminatory tactics made A Mighty Heart something of a mixed experience for Adnan. He had to stand up for himself and then, matters turned for the better. It turned out that Adnan was the 35,000th actor to be working for Paramount and consequently, the American Screen Actors Guild took over guarding his rights. His acting fee was renegotiated and once the film had been released, he was asked to represent it at the New York Film Festival as well as at Cannes.
It takes confidence to tell off a Hollywood crew that he would walk out of the film, if necessary. “I told them that while they may not know me, I was a popular actor in my own country and wouldn’t pander to their prejudice,” he says. In another instant, he was also candid enough to tell Irrfan Khan that his role may as well have gone to Sajid Hassan instead.
“Irrfan was watching Sajid film a scene where he had no dialogues and he remarked to me ‘Sajid must be a very big actor in your country’,” says Adnan. “I told him that the only reason he was playing his role was because the film had to sell well in India. Otherwise, Sajid would have beat him to his role easily. It made Irrfan laugh. We became good friends after that.
Irrfan is a seasoned actor who gets into the skin of his character. He was playing an intelligence officer and I once saw him continuously swipe out his identification card from his pocket. He wanted to be able to do it smoothly, as befitted his role in the film — even though he had no such scene in the actual script.”
Nevertheless, despite the friendships he struck and the experiences he gained, Adnan is yet to be signed on for another Hollywood film. “I do attend international film festivals when I can,” he says. “I also have an agent abroad and I know that I am under consideration for a few roles. But no, nothing yet has happened yet.”
Bollywood hasn’t really come calling either. “I haven’t been offered any good role yet,” he explains. “And I’ll only act in an Indian film if it’s a role that I like. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.”
The business of acting
And why should an inconsequential part in an Indian film be worth it when Adnan can instead have his pick of meaty, well-characterised roles in Pakistan? From psychopath to philandering husband to philanthropist, he continues to enact them all convincingly. As a veteran drama actor, does he feel intimidated by the recent onslaught of Turkish soaps on television?
“I just think it’s a fad that will soon fade away,” he shrugs. “I understand that it must be economical for channels to air these soaps rather than buy original Pakistani dramas. However, the prime time should be reserved for local productions. As Pakistani channels, they at least owe this much to the local drama industry.”
As a seasoned actor, he’s well aware of the financial instability associated with his trade. It’s why he’s always maintained other careers on the side. One of these has been the setting up of men’s hair salons. His other, main profession, had been dedicated to outdoor advertising, primarily the creation of billboards.
“From the very onset of my career I knew that I couldn’t depend on acting for my bread and butter,” explains Adnan. “I was shooting my first serial in a studio and I saw Pride of Performance award-winning actor Noor Mohammad Lashari standing there with a placard. He was sick and was asking for financial aid so that he could go to the hospital. It made me decide right there and then that while my heart may belong to acting, I had to earn for my family through another profession.”
It’s a balancing act that he’s perfected over the years… billboards, acting, hair salons and a doting dad. “I just play by ear, do what I like and stand up for what I think is right,” he says.
“It’s worked out well for me so far.”