Photography & styling: The Rohail | Grooming: Nabila’s (N-Gents) | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq | Special thanks to Mindmap
Photography & styling: The Rohail | Grooming: Nabila’s (N-Gents) | Coordination: Umer Mushtaq | Special thanks to Mindmap

He’s played the handsome chocolate hero. The no-good, two-timing husband. The playboy. The Machiavellian millionaire with a murky past. The lascivious, always-intoxicated poet. And most recently, the cunning mafia lord.

He might be the protagonist, the antagonist, the main lead, the character with a meaty role, the glib host of a hit reality show or a participant in a celebrity game show. But no matter what he might be, when Adnan Siddiqui appears on TV, he draws the eye.

It’s part of his magic and testament to his prowess as an actor that every role that Adnan takes up ends up being a memorable one. It also means that he’s very careful about the roles he agrees to do.

There have been many times when I have discussed the possibility of a no-holds-barred interview with Adnan but it is only now that we meet, when he’s been winning accolades in international film festivals for his role in the short film Jamun Ka Darakht and can be seen on TV twice a week, in two completely disparate dramas — the slow but absorbing Khushboo Mein Basay Khat and the multi-starrer entertainer Gentleman.

The veteran has become a pro at hosting and is also regarded as one of TV’s most good-looking persons. But it’s his versatility as an actor, over more than three decades in the profession, that really sets him apart. Does he enjoy the challenge of playing roles that are not the typical leads?

His last acting tryst before all this had been more than three years ago, in the hit drama Mere Paas Tum Ho (MPTH). And, as a result, it has been nearly as long since my last interview with Adnan.

He now sits across from me, in a cotton shalwar kameez calculated to beat Karachi’s sweltering heat, his pepper grey hair framing his face — he tells me that he’s growing it long in preparation for his next role. Adnan may have taken his time in agreeing to enact his current line-up of roles but, apparently, his next acting project isn’t too far away.

“I have been picky,” he agrees, “but perhaps I won’t be as much now. My daughter’s now studying abroad and I have to earn accordingly.” He laughs, adding, “But that doesn’t mean that I’ll agree to a role that is boring.”

Picking and choosing

So were most of the roles being offered to him post-MPTH boring?

“They were repetitive,” he says. “There is a problem prevalent in the Subcontinent that, once an actor plays a certain character well, he starts getting offered countless similar roles. Mere Paas Tum Ho aired around the same time as my other drama, Yeh Dil Mera [YDM], and both the characters that I was playing were markedly different.

“Afterwards, though, I was constantly offered scripts in which I was either playing the ladies’ man — as in [MPTH] — or a father — as in [YDM]. The father I played in Yeh Dil Mera had shades but, then, people started offering me roles of the ‘by the way’ father, the one who merely asks his children when they are coming home at night. I am already one, in real life, and I certainly don’t want to be one on screen! And I didn’t want to play the sophisticated other man either.”

He continues: “The thing is, sometimes you act in a drama and you don’t know what the feedback will be and the audience loves it so much that it ends up becoming your claim to fame. Everyone starts relating it with you and you end up becoming very careful that your next role should live up to the expectations that the audience now has of you.”

This may make sense from a creative perspective, but is it a viable decision? More dramas mean more money after all.

“I can strike a good deal when it comes to money!” He grins. “I may not have acted for nearly three years, but I became the host of the reality show Tamasha on ARY. It has become very popular and I really enjoy being part of it. Also, I am a regular in the Ramazan edition of the game show JeetoPakistan. I love it. I have a whole fan following of children simply because I am part of Jeeto!”

I recall his recent appearances in JeetoPakistan — Adnan would enter the show doing a little jig and proceed to lead the audience into a collective ‘dua’, entreating God to allow his team to win the tournament. From cheating playfully in games to teasing his fellow ‘celebrity captains’, he would be on a roll throughout the three-odd-hours-long show.

“It’s all completely natural,” he tells Icon. “I don’t even think about what I am doing. I am just there, having fun. Hats off to the host Fahad Mustafa for bringing so much energy to the show, day after day.”

I change the focus to Tamasha, now about to roll out its third season. When the reality show started off, it was criticised as a rip-off of a similar show in India, Bigg Boss.

“But Bigg Boss follows the same format of Big Brother, an international show,” Adnan points out. “These are licensed programmes following the same pattern. People love Tamasha — so do I.”

Characters that matter

Does he also love Khushboo Mein Basay Khat (KMBK), the Hum TV Network drama in which he plays philandering poet Ahmed Zaryab, who cheats on his wife, flirts compulsively with young girls, is perpetually drunk and frequently slips into gloom and sings yesteryear hit Pakistani songs?

The drama started off quite well but had, in my opinion, been dragging lately. “Of course, I am happy with the drama although yes, it has been dragging a bit,” he agrees.

“The story is interesting, but not awami [popular with the masses]. It’s the sort of drama which attracts a certain audience but may not bring in ratings.”

Does that bother him?

“Ratings? No!” he professes. “The channel and the producers worry about ratings. As an actor, I just do my job.” He ponders a bit and adds, “Of course, it would interest me if production houses started viewing me as an actor who brought in ratings. But I’ve been here for 34 years now. I am not in that race anymore. People know me, they want to see me on TV, and I just feel very lucky.”

In KMBK, he’s a ladies’ man yet again. I tease him: why do people so frequently perceive him to be one? “I find it funny that they actually think that I am one,” he smiles.

You’re not one, then? “No, I am a simple man.” He shrugs.

In Jamun Ka Darakht — a short film which has won international acclaim in festivals but which I haven’t seen since it hasn’t released in Pakistan — he is the lone male protagonist navigating dalliances with a predominantly female ensemble cast. It all sounds very similar.

“When you’re not expecting anything from life, you sometimes get the best,” he says. “I didn’t have any expectations while shooting the film but I have really enjoyed how it has been appreciated. About my role in it, I don’t know, people must see something in me…”

I suggest that his looks most probably have a lot to do with people’s assumptions about him. Adnan has always been regarded as one of TV’s most good-looking actors. How much have his looks helped in furthering his career?

“I thank God and my parents every day after namaz for my good genes!” he quips. “Of course, looks helped me start off my modelling and acting careers back in the day, but then I built upon my craft. I am still learning every day, wondering if I could have acted a scene out differently and made it better.”

The thing is, sometimes you act in a drama and you don’t know what the feedback will be and the audience loves it so much that it ends up becoming your claim to fame. Everyone starts relating it with you and you end up becoming very careful that your next role should live up to the expectations that the audience now has of you.”

Adnan’s humility is admirable — and it also comes as a surprise, considering what a brilliant actor he is. Most recently, for instance, he has slipped effortlessly into the skin of Rehmati, the mafia lord in the drama Gentleman, airing on Green Entertainment.

Rehmati, with his slicked-back hair, gold jewellery and sharp eyes, is Adnan as never seen before. Much of the drama’s story may be focused on the star-crossed romance between lead actors Humayun Saeed and Yumna Zaidi and, yet, most reviewers will agree that Rehmati is a riveting lynchpin, who keeps the audience gripped.

“Developing Rehmati’s character has been a group effort,” he tells me. “I have worked with many producers, but the way the producers of Gentleman [Sana Shahnawaz and Samina Humayun Saeed of Next Level Entertainment] are involved is rare.

“From discussing the wardrobe to procuring a particular pair of shoes that I thought would work for the character, they were involved in all the details. I wanted to have a clean-shaved look in the drama and I lost weight so that my face wouldn’t look too full. There were other details that I planned out with the help of the drama’s team: Rehmati puts surma in his eyes, he wears black shalwar kameez when he’s sombre and white when he’s happier.

“And then, I had observed a friend of mine in Dubai, who kept tobacco with him in a pouch, spitting it out now and then in a small glass that he would have with him. He told me that he had got into the habit back when he had had no money and couldn’t afford cigarettes. Instead, he would chew tobacco. I stowed the gesture away in my mind and was eager to apply it to an on-screen character when Rehmati came my way.

“I had a discussion with my director Haissam Hussain and he said that this little idiosyncrasy could absolutely become part of Rehmati’s persona. I don’t smoke, so I would fill up my pouch with green tea leaves and chew them!

“I also took the liberty of giving Rehmati a slightly softer side,” he continues. “He’s a tough guy, a criminal, but I added a bit of wit to him to make him more likeable. Once again, Haissam allowed me to do so.”

Did it irk him that he was playing a character who was slightly older than the one played by Humayun Saeed, although in reality both actors are peers?

“I am slightly older than Humayun in reality too,” he tells me, “but these things don’t matter to me. I played Hina Dilpazeer’s husband and the father of eight children in the drama Mohabbat Jaaye Bhaarr Mein. Then, immediately afterwards, I had flown off to the US and enacted a tycoon in the drama Aahista Aahista. The character should be interesting, have shades.”

Coming back to his on-screen pairing with Humayun Saeed, he says, “Humayun’s done some brilliant work over the course of his career but I feel that the chemistry that he and I share is particularly amazing.”

They are certainly a hit pair, I agree, recalling MPTH and, now, Gentleman. Both dramas have been written by Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar — which one does he like better?

“I can’t compare. No one writes better than Khalil sahib. The sentences all fit so well, connecting seamlessly. His writing is poetic. In [MPTH], I played a sophisticated man and, in Gentleman, my character is street-smart, merely a BA pass and that too, through cheating!

“Both characters are so different and, yet, the dialogues that he wrote for either fit perfectly. I sometimes find it difficult to learn sentences, but I feel that I would be doing a disservice to Khalil sahib’s script if I ad-libbed and didn’t say every dialogue word by word!”

Treading carefully

Speaking of Khalil sahib, Adnan recently had a telephonic conversation with the writer which was recorded on video and had promptly gone viral. His voice clearly audible on Khalil sahib’s speaker phone, Adnan had discussed a recent controversy. Had Adnan known that the conversation was being filmed by the journalist who had been sitting next to Khalil sahib?

“Why would I have said all that I did if I had known that it was being filmed?” he says. “And why would I give an interview to that journalist who I didn’t even know. I asked Khalil sahib about it and he said that he had informed me that he had a colleague sitting with him. What could I say to that?”

He continues, “I didn’t feel like arguing. If he had told me, I didn’t remember. It must have been my fault. You learn from your mistakes every time. Now I know what to say and when to say it.”

Could he be referring to his recent tussles with controversy? “Yes, I have now realised that there can be locker room talk with friends and they will know that I am joking. When I say the same things on TV, people can misunderstand and take offence.”

Has he become more careful about what he says now, on social media and in interviews?

“Yes, I have suffered quite a bit recently. So, I am more careful. But I do enjoy sharing my views, tweeting — when the app isn’t blocked in the country — and Instagramming. I don’t do it to gain millions of views. I do it just because it’s something that I find interesting.”

So you’ll sometimes post a video of yourself playing the flute, I suggest. “Or playing the harmonium,” he says. “I have taught myself to play both instruments. I also cook.”

He’s also a pro at hosting. And a very entertaining interviewee. But for all his many merits, anyone familiar with Adnan Siddiqui’s 34-year-long career would define him first and foremost as an actor — and an exceptional one, at that.

“I am very loyal to my craft,” he agrees. “Once I am part of a project, I am passionate about it. I love getting immersed in a character and I enjoy the challenge of playing a role that isn’t a typical lead and still getting the audience’s attention and becoming memorable. It isn’t important to be the hero in a story as long as I continue to be the masses’ hero.”

That he is. He’s probably been one from the very onset of his career 34-odd years ago. Despite, or more likely because of, his reinventions of himself. It’s part of his magic.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 16th, 2024

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