Effendi was the younger brother of Rustam Effendi, a communist-sympathising poet born in 1903. Their family was originally from Padang, West Sumatra, although the brothers left Padang for their education. Effendi dropped out of senior high school – a level of schooling already more than most native children received – and instead of becoming a law student as his parents intended he became a labourer at Tan's Film, working in decor.
Effendi acted in his first acting role in 1930 with Si Ronda. He then became an assistant director with Melati van Agam (1931), also taking a minor acting role. He directed his first film, the talkie Njai Dasima, in 1932, becoming the first native Indonesian film director in the Indies. After, he left Tan's to replace Andjar Asmara as editor in chief of Doenia Film, a Malay-language film magazine.
Effendi joined the Dardanella theatre troupe in 1936, working as an actor. Andjar served as a dramatist. In 1936 the two left Dardanella to establish the Bollero troupe, and sometime later Effendi married Suhara, the sister of Andjar's wife Ratna. After Andjar left the troupe in 1940 to work for The Teng Chun's Java Industrial Film, Effendi remained leader of Bollero, which became increasingly politicised and vocal against the widespread corruption of the time. During this time he married Zuhara.