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Interview Hindi

LIFFT India: There is a lot of wit in our country which is underused, says Danish Hussain

Actor and 'dastango' Danish Hussain opens up on the art of telling a story, his tryst with the great Habib Tanvir, and the wit in the forthcoming film Newton, at LIFFT India 2017 Awards and Filmotsav.

Danish Hussain. Photo: LIFFT India

Shriram Iyengar

Few can tell a tale like Danish Hussain. Actor, writer and storyteller, or dastango, par excellence, Hussain has earned a reputation for reviving the lost art of storytelling. At the LIFFT India 2017 Awards and Filmotsav, Hussain performed a brilliant rendition of a story from the fable of Amir Hamza to peals of laughter and appreciation from the crowd. When Danish Hussain tells a story, the dastango travels in time from the past to the present, changing language, time, and even voice to suit the narrative. 

As Hussain performed, the crowd at LIFFT India, which included actors Rajit Kapoor, Kanwaljit Singh, Vipin Sharma and Tanuja, were rolling in the aisles laughing. Trained under Barry John and Habib Tanvir, Hussain's talent as a narrator should come as no surprise. The actor has also been part of films like Dhobi Ghat (2011) and Ankhon Dekhi (2014), which are again tales with a difference. 

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Danish Hussain emphasized the nature of dastangoi, and why he thinks Newton is a fabulous film. Excerpts: 

Talk to us about dastangoi, and the style of storytelling you performed on stage.

Well, dastangoi is an art of storytelling where essentially long romance epics and, especially, dastan-e-Amir Hamza, the adventures of Amir Hamza, are repeated. 

Dastan basically means a story, while goi in Farsi means the act of telling. Dastangoi is the art of reciting 'dastans'. The whole art form came around this one specific story of Amir Hamza, as a Ram Katha vachak would recite stories of Lord Ram. 

At the same time, there are other storytelling formats such as qissebaazi, or qissagoi. Essentially, it is part of the pantheon of oral storytelling that our country has, which reached its apogee around the 19th century. With the advent of the 20th century, with technology, with political movement and the changing social atmosphere, a lot of oral storytelling kind of got lost, or lost attention. But a lot of it still survives, and is thriving. 

I am happy that I am part of this whole thing where we are reviving storytelling and presenting these stories to the world at large. 

Everytime I see it, the format reminds me of Kurosawa's Rashomon, I don't know why. Tell us how you came upon the idea of becoming a 21st century dastango?

Well, I did not choose. In fact, all these things just chose me. But it is like when you embark upon something, and one thing leads to another, and the next, and that is how it happened. When I decided to chuck my job at the bank and be an actor, I started doing theatre. Theatre led to storytelling, and storytelling led to films. 

Somehow, whenever I picked up something new, I wouldn't leave what I was doing before. Now, I am doing all three. I am juggling my time between theatre, storytelling and films. 

I came across this fascinating story of Habib Tanvir's role in getting you out of the bank and into theatre. Tell us about it.

To be honest, I had known about Habib saheb, but I had no idea how great his work was. I only got to know that when I worked with him. To begin with, I was not able to reach Habib saheb. I went to Barry John, and Barry had been doing theatre for very long, and most people in Delhi's, and India's, theatre circuit knew Barry. But that time when I decided to do theatre, Barry had become famous for the fact that he had tutored Shah Rukh Khan and Manoj Bajpayee. So everybody would talk about him being the man to go to in Delhi. As a man with no theatre experience, I started working with Barry. 

As it so happened, while I was working in the bank, Habib saheb would drop in, because he held an account at the bank. I knew who he was, so I would take him to my cabin, and I would assist him in his problems. Habib saheb would be amused and curious at my willingness to help him, and the fact that I was a banker but had an interest in theatre. 

Later, when I started working with him, I reminded him who I was. He remembered the young officer who worked in a bank helping him out. All I can say is that working with him was very rewarding. He was an institution. 

For someone who has only gone through the stories and the plays of Tanvir, what was he like as a person?

He was phenomenally funny. The greatest thing about Habib saheb was that everything sat lightly on his shoulder. Wisdom, erudition, knowledge. People often, when they are doing something, they look like the weight of the world is upon their shoulder. With Habib saheb, that was never the case. He made everything seem so light, so easy, in the moment. I thought that is what wisdom should do. When wisdom comes, for anything, it should not sit like a heavy boulder on your shoulder. It should sit as something light, very endearing, very funny, and allure you towards it. That's what he did. He made me realize that whatever you do, at the end of the day, there needs to be an element of lightness to it. An element of irreverence. I kind of move forward with that. 

As someone from the world of theatre, and cinema, do you ever find the other arts struggling to get out of the shadow of cinema?

No, I think these are various forms of expression. I don't think anyone is encroaching upon the other. Just because you love biryani doesn't mean you will stop eating halwa. The menu is laid out for you, and your love for one particular food does not diminish the appetite for another. They are all different forms of storytelling — newspapers, cinema, books, columns, even architecture. All of them co-exist.

Is there a reason you have avoided being more active in Hindi cinema?

I work in cinema full time, I don't know what that means actually. But if you mean why I don't have much presence, well, I get offered a role and I do it. I go and act and I come out. That's it.

You are a part of Amit Masurkar's Newton though?

Oh yes, it is a phenomenal film. You should watch Newton, and I would urge anyone reading this to go and watch the film. It is being released on 22 September, and is a very dark satire on our democracy. 

I think there is a lot of wit in our country which is underused. I think if filmmakers and people in various public fields start using wit, perhaps we will have more happening answers to the events around us (laughs).

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