Photos: Shahbaz Shazi
Photos: Shahbaz Shazi

This year started off on a high for Adnan Siddiqui. Meray Paas Tum Ho (MPTH), the drama in which he was playing a pivotal role, was a huge, record-breaking hit. Avid audiences were referring to him by his on-screen name and Adnan was having a rollicking time, posting jokes on social media, playing showstopper at a fashion show, hosting awards shows, making special appearances at events and playing the flute every now and again, an instrument for which he has quite a flair.

“I have never seen a drama become such an unprecedented success,” he had told me at the time. “Social media has really helped hype it up and the way audiences have responded is phenomenal.”

Adnan had played the suave antagonist Shehwaar in MPTH, who lures the hero’s wife away from him and, rather than hate him, fans were raving about his acting and how good he looked. Nearly three decades into his career, had he expected to still be recognised as one of TV’s most good-looking actors? He had grinned and replied back then, “I don’t expect anything but I do work hard on every role that I do, deciding what I will wear and how I will depict a certain character. For Meray Paas Tum Ho, I went the extra mile because my director Nadeem Baig required it. I was playing a business tycoon and I had to have an extensive line-up of suits. I even brought in clothes from my own wardrobe.” Obviously, he was enjoying the attention and the accolades. The year was off to a great start.

Later, he jetted off to Dubai to attend a ceremony that soon became notorious for having invited and then spurned a considerable number of local actors by not sending them their tickets. Adnan, though, was having a great time. His social media coverage of the event made for an interesting, behind-the-scenes travelogue, where he quipped with fellow actors, had breakfast with them, watched rehearsals and, ultimately, attended the final ceremony. One picture inevitably turned up from the event: of Adnan, sitting with a host of female actresses, a very happy ladies’ man.

He could have been just a chocolate hero. But he chose to take a path that challenged him as an actor. Adnan Siddiqui may still be sweeping viewers off their feet with his undeniable charm but, as he turns producer, he’s also showing there’s far more to him than meets the eye...

“I think that I’m able to interact with young actors just as easily as I do with the old. Perhaps it’s just that my work has remained current and that I’ve been able to adapt to present-day technology. And awards ceremonies are always enjoyable, not just because they offer an additional source of revenue but also because they allow me to spend time with such a varied group of people from my fraternity — the young, my contemporaries and the ones senior to me.”

Ideally, this enjoyable phase in his life would have continued. Ideally, this interview with Adnan would have highlighted a new milestone that he was planning to achieve: his first movie as a producer, Dum Mastam (co-produced with Akhtar Hasnain), which was tentatively aiming to release on Eidul Fitr this year.

Photos: Shahbaz Shazi
Photos: Shahbaz Shazi

Unfortunately, then Covid-19 happened. The year spiraled out of control and normal life came to a halt. Social distancing became the ‘new normal’, sitting in a packed cinema, a health hazard. Film and TV shootings, red carpet premieres and even basic travel is stalled for now. At a time when he should have been promoting his movie and putting in the final tweaks, Adnan is quarantined at home.

“These things happen,” he says pragmatically, “and just my movie hasn’t gotten delayed. Work, all over the world, has gotten postponed. We are all going to endure financially difficult times, but there is no point in getting depressed about it. Perhaps my movie just wasn’t destined to release at this point in time.”

Adnan continues, “I’ve seen highs and lows in my career, kaantay bhi, sehra bhi [both thorns and deserts]. The show will go on.”

Poetic expressions like these tend to come naturally to Adnan. And self-isolated in his home, he is particularly eloquent when he comes on to social media, ‘live’ on Instagram, answering fans’ queries in real-time or conversing with his celebrity friends. Roaming about his home with his phone in his hands, he has lately been seen cooking, quoting Jaun Elia’s poetry or remembering his childhood. Insta-live sessions are, of course, all the rage right now, with multiple people having impromptu sessions all through the day. What made him decide to adopt the trend?

“I don’t really care about trends during these difficult times,” he says. “I think Humayun Saeed and I were two of the very first celebrities in Pakistan to come live on Instagram, when we returned from our trip to the US and assured our followers that we would be quarantining in order to ensure that we were not infected with the coronavirus. Also, it’s a great way of connecting with people. We would all go crazy in our homes if we didn’t find respite in some way or the other. And this technology is available to us — why shouldn’t we use it?”

Photos: Shahbaz Shazi
Photos: Shahbaz Shazi

People are making fun of Insta-live sessions and how everyone just wants to gather publicity through it. Will he be decreasing his live appearances in response? “Why should I? If I enjoy it, I’ll do it. We have bigger problems to solve rather than why or why not someone should be visible on social media.”

We move on to topics that are more relevant to his acting career: he has so far been seen in two dramas this year, MPTH and the currently airing Yeh Dil Mera, and, while he has interesting roles in both, they are not of the main hero. Does he ever worry that his scenes will be cut off, with more screen time allotted to the lead pair? “I’m not an insecure person,” he muses. “Naseeruddin Shah was asked why he played such a small role in the movie Khuda Ke Liye, to which he had replied, ‘Role chhota ya barra nahin hota, actor chhota ya barra hota hai’ [a role isn’t big or small, it’s the actor who is big or small]. I know my worth and my focus is on doing quality work, playing interesting characters.”

A look at Adnan’s acting trajectory reveals carefully made choices that are often unconventional. Back in 2013, he played father to eight children in Hum Network’s Mohabbat Jaaye Bhaar Mein. It was a quintessentially desi character from the lower economic class. Adnan perpetually wore a banyaan and a careworn shalwar and his wife, played by Hina Dilpazeer, had a penchant for trying to find lice in his hair! But right afterwards, he had effortlessly slipped into the role of a man who was at home in a Lamborghini, playing the rich man caught in a triangle between his two wives in Aahista Aahista.

Earlier on, Adnan was a significant member of TV’s ruling triumvirate of chocolate heroes, along with Aijazz Aslam and Humayun Saeed. However, he realised that scripts pairing him with Humayun often slotted the latter in the lead, with Adnan playing second fiddle. He chose to opt out, waiting instead for dramas that would place the spotlight solely on him. MPTH is Humayun and Adnan’s first project together after 20 years.

Photos: Shahbaz Shazi
Photos: Shahbaz Shazi

He also has two major international acting roles to his credit: Hollywood’s 2007 release A Mighty Heart, which also starred Angelina Jolie and Irrfan Khan, and the Bollywood movie Mom in 2017, opposite Sri Devi. “I’m lucky. I have worked in some exceptional projects, in Pakistan as well as internationally.”

This doesn’t mean that he also doesn’t have regrets. His worst experience was of acting in the 2017 cinematic release Yalghaar — incidentally, the movie has the dubious honour of being cited as the worst experience for veritably every actor who worked in it. “I was supposed to play a patriotic soldier who had a jovial personality and was romantic with his wife. Instead, all my comic dialogues and romantic scenes were cut off, and all that was left was the fact that I was ultimately martyred!”

Does he feel that Pakistani cinema has improved since this first bad experience from a few years ago? “Of course. I loved watching Laal Kabootar, which released last year,” says Adnan. “After the movie released, its director, Kamal Khan, told me that he had wanted to offer me the role that was played by Rashid Farooqui but hadn’t approached me because he had felt that I would refuse. If only he had come to me, I would have grabbed the role. Having said this, no one could have done a better job than Rashid Farooqui.”

Why has he opted to stay completely behind the scenes in his own production debut, Dum Mastam (DM)? “There wasn’t a role in it for me,” he answers simply. “It’s a very well-knit story where every role makes sense. Amar Khan, who also plays the female lead, has written the script and the dialogues and she knows just where to add in the filmi dialogues and the twists and turns. The movie’s director Mohammed Ehteshamuddin and I spent hours dissecting every character’s personality. And Imran Ashraf is going to be brilliant as a hero.”

Imran Ashraf is an exceptional TV actor but he is new to the cinematic terrain. What prompted Adnan to take him on board in a movie that is also his first as a producer? “I think Imran has the knack to endear himself to audiences. He has worked so hard and he is going to make an amazing hero. He has a rod in his leg and, yet, he danced so well. I have great faith in him.”

Photos: Shahbaz Shazi
Photos: Shahbaz Shazi

He continues, “The ensemble cast, in fact, consists of some of our finest actors: Salim Mairaj, Adnan Shah Tipu and Sohail Ahmed among them. Even the music has been composed by a multitude of music directors, which include Azaan Sami Khan, Naveed Naushad, Bilal Saeed, Shani Arshad and Shiraz Uppal. I wanted every song to have a different flavour, and I really wanted to give Bilal Saeed the chance to compose for a Pakistani movie. He is immensely talented and has created so many songs for Bollywood, but hasn’t yet become visible within Pakistani cinematic music.”

Rewinding to a few months ago, Adnan had been roaming the streets of androon shehr Lahore in the winter, wrapping up DM’s final scenes and sampling heavily fried street food. He had been very excited. “I’m still excited but I know that I’ll have to wait,” he says. “I’m spending more time writing now and coming up with new ideas. I miss my father who was always my biggest critic, and also reveled in my successes. But this time will pass.”

It will. And once it does pass, chances are that Adnan Siddiqui will be raring to go, still one of local entertainment’s best-looking men, still a consummate actor, and still — may I add — a very entertaining interviewee.

He will still speak out loud in poetry and yoyo seamlessly from anecdotes of TV’s heydays to some very current observations, as connected to his extensive past repertoire as to his present day avatar as a tech-savvy actor-producer. And in that interview, he will talk more extensively about his movie which will then be just about to release. He may even tell you about it in an Insta-live session.

Till that day, then.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 19th, 2020