Born to a farmer family in Uttar Pradesh, his parents wanted him to secure a stable job which would ensure a regular monthly income. One of nine siblings, Siddiqui completed his graduation in chemistry from the Gurukul Kangri University in Haridwar, following which he moved to Vadodara in Gujarat and worked as the chief chemist at a petrochemical factory for a year-and-a-half. The monotony, though, got to him and soon he was “bored of that job”. The only thrill in his life at the time was his occasional participation in Gujarati plays organised by the drama department at Vadodara’s MS University. (He pushed himself despite his lack of familiarity with the language.) The turning point was when he saw the play Thank You Mr. Glad. That experience sowed the seeds of the actor in him. “I was inspired by the amazing chemistry between the actors and the crowd after watching that show. And I decided to pursue theatre seriously.”
A friend suggested that he move to Delhi and study at the National School of Drama (NSD) since Vadodara only staged Gujarati plays. But it was easier said than done. Siddiqui failed to get admission. However, he did not leave the capital. Instead, he worked as a watchman in the city for nearly two years, earning a measly sum of Rs 600-700 a month to make ends meet. “I had to pay Rs 5,000 as deposit to get the job [of a watchman]. I mortgaged my mother’s gold jewellery in Uttar Pradesh to get that money, thinking that I’d repay the amount from my salary,” recalls Siddiqui. The financial hardships, however, did not deter him from pursuing what was slowly becoming an unquenchable passion—acting. He enrolled himself with an amateur theatre group in the capital, rehearsed for plays in the evenings and acted on stage in the mornings while diligently doing night shifts as a watchman.
Eventually, Siddiqui did crack the competitive NSD entrance exam and graduated from the institution in 1996. His stint there exposed him to a variety of Western drama and literature, and gave him a strong foundation in acting. “After joining NSD, I realised what one must not do in acting. That is also important. Till then, we thought changing one’s physicality or being loud was acting,” says Siddiqui. NSD, he adds, “taught everything lavishly”; it also opened a window to new worlds, for instance the Stanislavski school of method acting apart from opportunities to act in plays as diverse as Shakespearean comedies and those by Anton Chekhov. “Theatre explores all the traits of your personality. It has many forms and there’s experimentation involved. You become rich as an actor,” says Siddiqui. “Theatre belongs to an actor; films are a director’s medium.”
This explains why Bollywood as well as regional cinema in India have been blessed with several actors and directors who emerged from theatre: From Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur to Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee. It is impossible to leave Siddiqui out of that list today. In fact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest that his popularity rivals that of any ‘mainstream’ talent.