Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on Dawn.com.

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience

.

THE ICON INTERVIEW: SMALL TOWN, BIG ACTOR

September 01, 2017
Photo by the writer
Photo by the writer

It would be safe to say that the acting bug bit Adil Hussain fairly early on in his life. When he was five or six years old, he witnessed two Bengali comedians performing on a big makeshift stage, in a wide-open field in front of his childhood home in Assam. He saw them mimic Bollywood actors and was so fascinated by it that he began to study their mannerisms. The next day, he invited all of his neighbourhood friends around and repeated the routine.

Today, Hussain is one of the most recognised faces in Indian cinema. Whenever he appears on screen, no matter for how long, he leaves an impression. He’s made a name for himself not only in his home country but also internationally, having worked with directors such as Mira Nair and Ang Lee.

Currently he’s doing promotional rounds in Europe for Shubashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, the 26-year-old director’s debut film about a complex father-and-son relationship. After a dream, the father (Lalit Behl) decides to leave everything and move to Benares, thinking he will soon die there and then attain salvation. Hussain pitches in an emotionally precise and nuanced performance as the irritated son.

I meet with the actor in Berlin, where Mukti Bhawan is opening a local Indian film festival. His warm demeanour betrays his sombre, all-black fashion sense. He takes an active interest in every single question, never shying away from any query. “I believe the definition of acting is that I’m simply a doer of an action. And how truthfully, how intensely, how honestly, how sincerely I can do that action. Like right now, I’m talking to you. Am I distracted? Am I here? If I’m here, what is the degree of my presence? If I’m thinking about my son, or what I have to do next, then I’m not here. And if I’m not here, my words wouldn’t have the kind of impact as they ideally should.”

Indian actor Adil Hussain reflects on the art of acting, the lure of the stage and his latest film that explores the idea of attaining salvation after death

I ask him about what attracted him to a film like Mukti Bhawan. “I said yes to the film before I even read the script.

Adil Hussain as Aslam Puncturewala in the 2014 film Zed Plus
Adil Hussain as Aslam Puncturewala in the 2014 film Zed Plus

I got a message on WhatsApp, saying that there’s this 23-year-old guy who has written a script on death and that the film will premiere in Venice. I met the director and instantly liked him. His humility and wisdom reminded me of Ang Lee. I mean, when I was that age, I was thinking about girls! I read the script and knew I had made the right choice.” It was the right choice indeed and lucky too, given that Hussain is inundated with too many scripts at any given time. And, dare I say, it’s his own fault: “I get a lot of work through Twitter or Facebook Messenger. I keep my DMs on. It’s difficult and time-consuming. Many of them I can’t even read. I’m carrying many of them on my tab and few of them are from friends — those are the difficult ones. Today I got one more. It’s piling up.”

Mukti Bhawan talks about big themes such as death, which has been a constant source of fascination for Hussain. It made him think of his own father’s demise, which he approached in a unique way. “I was shooting a television series in Rajasthan, near the Pakistan border, when I got the news. I was quite surprised that I felt no remorse at all. I was like, that’s great, he’s gone for another journey and he’ll be back if he chooses to. Everybody was ready to cry with me and I said ‘no, let’s celebrate’. If you weep or cry, the soul doesn’t travel out. We had a feast and everybody started smiling. And everybody was ready for him to go. He had lived his full life. Saw his children growing up. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. Aur kya chahiye matlab? [What else does one need?]”

While Hussain has played a few Pakistani characters on screen, he’s never been to Pakistan. “The trouble is that if I have a Pakistani visa on my passport, I’ll have a terrible time travelling. I had been offered a role in a fantastic Pakistani project, about the underground mafia, called The Lyari Project. That film didn’t happen, but I couldn’t have done it any way.” There’s some consolation though: next up, he’s at least playing a Norwegian-Pakistani in Iram Haq’s sophomore feature What Will People Say. The film, premiering at the Toronto Film Festival next month, is the story of a young woman straddling two different cultures.

Mukti Bhawan talks about big themes such as death, which has been a constant source of fascination for Hussain. It made him think of his own father’s demise, which he approached in a unique way. “I was shooting a television series in Rajasthan, near the Pakistan border, when I got the news. I was quite surprised that I felt no remorse at all. I was like, that’s great, he’s gone for another journey and he’ll be back if he chooses to. Everybody was ready to cry with me and I said ‘no, let’s celebrate’. If you weep or cry, the soul doesn’t travel out. We had a feast and everybody started smiling. And everybody was ready for him to go. He had lived his full life. Saw his children growing up. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. Aur kya chahiye matlab? [What else does one need?]”

At present, Adil Hussain is based in Delhi but whenever there is a mention of his roots, he glows. I ask him to paint me a picture of Goalpara, the city in Assam he’s from. “It’s a small, very small town. It’s so beautiful, which I didn’t even realise until I came to Delhi. It rains eight months a year. The backyard of our house has a pond, with fish, trees, jackfruit and all that. I used to climb trees and steal mangoes from our neighbour’s house. I still remember all the mischievous things I did. Like, when I had to smoke for the first time in my life, I had to go 50 metres and climb a hill, hide myself. I had a naughty friend who taught me to smoke.”

Lalit Behl as Daya and Adil Hussain as Rajiv in Mukti Bhawan
Lalit Behl as Daya and Adil Hussain as Rajiv in Mukti Bhawan

In such paradisiacal surroundings, Hussain found art quite naturally. “Assam is gifted with a lot of artistic people. Practising musicians, amateur theatre groups or folk singers, dancers… I grew up with all of that. And there was no distinguishing factor between Muslims or Hindus. I would participate in singing songs for the most revered Saint of Assam, Shankar Deva. I would go and do the Saraswati Pooja in school and play Holi. I’d come home smeared with all the colours and my mom would have to give me a shower.”

Given that he grew up with such communal harmony, far removed from an India that is growing ever more nationalistic by the day, I ask him about his own sense of identity. Has he ever encountered difficulties in this regard? And is he a religious man? “No, I’m not. But I believe in the spirit. And I’ve never felt discrimination at all. I’m extremely respected in the industry. Because they are artists and actors, all broad-minded.” The respect for him and his craft surely stems from the fact that he is also a very skilled stage actor. One reviewer for the Scotsman newspaper called his performance in a 1999 production of Othello touring Edinburgh “the best piece of Shakespearean acting I have ever seen.”

It’s a medium he wants to return to now. “I feel like I’m stagnating. Theatre has been my passion, right from childhood. Of course, I had the dream of becoming a Bollywood hero, watching Bachchan Sahib on screen. But I came to the National School of Drama and that changed my perception of acting. I fell in love with theatre, where you actually explore and rehearse. Those are the most interesting parts. Three months of rehearsal, eight hours a day. In films, out of 12 hours, I get to act five minutes. So, after all these years, I’m bored.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 1st, 2017