It is a story worthy of a Bollywood plot: the son of a north Indian farmer, one of nine children, rising to become the face of independent Hindi cinema.
But Nawazuddin Siddiqui is still getting used to his success.
"When someone is looking at me, I feel they are looking at someone standing behind me, not at me," the 40-year-old confessed to AFP during an interview at a Mumbai hotel.
"I have not got used to it and I won't allow myself to feel like a star."
Winning awards for his roles in internationally-feted films such as Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012 and The Lunchbox the following year, Siddiqui has become one of India's most respected actors.
It is a long way from his humble beginnings in Uttar Pradesh state, where he became the first graduate from his village with a degree in chemistry.
After training at Delhi's National School of Drama, smitten with acting, he landed his first film appearance in the 1999 Aamir Khan movie "Sarfarosh" (Fervour), and moved to Mumbai, the entertainment capital, in 2000.
But he faced years of struggle and bit parts, often earning little cash, before he really became established.
The year 2012 was perhaps his best to date: along with the Wasseypur gangster epic and Miss Lovely, both selected for the Cannes Film Festival, he turned heads in crime thrillers Kahaani (Story) and Talaash (Search).
He said his family are still surprised by how far he has come.
"And you cannot blame them. I am a five-foot six-inch, dark, ordinary-looking man. People didn't imagine that I would make it," he said. "It is the mindset of our country too, that people like (me) don't become stars. Maybe it's a result of 200 years of colonial rule."
Being this "ordinary-looking" outsider to a dynastic industry, Siddiqui struggled to get a designer suit for his first red carpet appearance at Cannes in 2012.
But three years later he just has to pick up the phone, and when he comes to meet AFP he is accompanied by a manager, a valet and a publicist.
Despite his success he says "nothing much has changed". He still hangs out with old friends "who remind me of our days of struggle", and goes home to help out on the farm.
Aside from Talaash and the 2014 action film Kick with Salman Khan, he has mostly avoided Bollywood blockbusters, tending towards more serious Hindi indie roles.
But his forthcoming features are big budget flicks alongside A-list superstars -- much to the delight of his family, who travel 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the nearest cinema hall to watch his films.
He will appear again with Salman Khan in upcoming romantic drama Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and with Shah Rukh Khan in Raees (Rich Man), in which he plays a cop who is chasing Khan's mafia character.
Siddiqui says he admires Bollywood megastars for their longevity -- "they're very well-maintained" -- and he wouldn't rule out doing a song-and-dance number himself, despite his reservations about Bollywood musicals.
He describes them as a "borrowed culture", not rooted in the Indian tradition of folk music and classical songs and dance.
"However I would do one such formula film to prove that I can dance and romance a heroine," he said.
Siddiqui is also appearing in his first Hollywood film, with two scenes in the upcoming drama Lion directed by Garth Davis, and starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. But he is "not dying" to do more foreign movies.
"I am very proud of the films I am doing here because they are of an international standard," he said.
"I am very confident about my work because I have worked very hard."