Interview Bengali Hindi

Films like Mukti Bhawan can propagate Indian culture better: Adil Hussain

Adil Hussain, internationally acclaimed actor, speaks of the relevance of regional cinema, the need to go back to one's roots, how he did Aiyaary (2018) without reading the script, and more.

Photo: Shutterbus Images

Mayur Lookhar

A buzzing plush bistro in Goa is hardly the ideal place for an interview. There is music playing in the background and most guests are indulging in talk.

Adil Hussain, sporting a salt-and-pepper look, is in conversation with on the sidelines of the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in November last year. His Bengali film Abyakto was screened at the festival.

The actor, born in Assam, is an alumnus of the National School of Drama. He earned a scholarship at the Drama Studio, London. Youngest of seven siblings, Adil Hussain hails from a family of academicians. “My father once beat me up, but I went ahead and followed my passion,” he says. 

After years of experience in theatre and regional films, Hussain made his mark in Hindi cinema with Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera (2013), in which he played the cop KN Singh.

What was meant to be a short interaction turned out to be an engaging conversation that lasted over 30 minutes.

Adil Hussain has hit a purple patch in the past two years and quite a few of his films have been received well internationally. But through the course of the conversation, the actor played down his contribution to the films and credited the directors and writers for his success. Excerpts:

First Mukti Bhavan (2017), then What Will People Say (2018), and now Abyakto (2019), the cinematic festivities haven’t stopped for you since 2016. What has the experience been like when you travel to various film festivals?

I was just introducing another film in the ‘viewing room’ [at the Film Bazaar] called Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein [The Joyous Nights Of A Ridiculous Man] based on [the work of] Fyodor Dostoevsky and a Premchand story. This man, director Sharad Raj, has made the film by begging and borrowing and it talks about something so beautiful!

People like them [Sharad Raj] are heroes for me. It’s not that he is trying to be a filmmaker, but he is also telling a story that talks about the beauty of human life, the ridiculousness of human life, and what best way one can serve the country. They [directors of his films] are equally heroes as our jawans, or the farmers, or the person who planted thousands of trees in Assam.

So, when I travel with them, I feel that I am so privileged to be a part of a certain endeavour of that nature, and represented across the globe. By watching such work, or by doing it, I have evolved as a human being. By seeing that, if one person across the globe widens their horizon or understanding and becomes a bit large-hearted, then I think that it is a great achievement.

When Indian films travel across the globe, it is widely reported in the Indian media, but what’s the ground reality? What is the kind of traction these films get in international markets?

I can only talk about the films that I have travelled with. I can talk about Mukti Bhawan. From Australia to San Francisco, Scandinavia to Singapore to Oregon... the responses are huge. It [Mukti Bhawan] ran for five weeks in England, was released in 30 countries. Not all Indian diaspora is watching it, it’s the locals who are watching too. These films get dubbed into different languages.

I’ll give you a beautiful example. My grandmother-in-law lives in New York. She came to see Mukti Bhawan. I was presenting the film as the director and  the producer were not there. After the film got over, we had a Q&A that went on for an hour. Lots of questions were asked on Indian philosophies, the idea of death, what is my view....

After a month, she called my wife and said, "Adil was talking about Aurobindo and the books, I want to read those." She is 85. How long would you live? 100 or 110, at the most? She got interested to know about the idea of death in the Indian system.

So how else do you propagate your culture? This is one of the best ways. Dancing to 'Bollywood' songs is not the way to propagate Indian culture. It’s films like Mukti Bhawan that do it. I am proud to be a part of it. If one person who has nothing to do with India, she is a Greek-Cypriot woman, from the Greek Orthodox Greek, and if she is looking for a book from Aurobindo, that is a real exchange of ideas and culture.

Coming to Abyakto, can you tell us what the film is about?

Adil Hussain and Arpita Chatterjee in Abyakto

Abyakto (The Unsaid) is about a subject which has slowly become... (pauses) okay to talk about. A couple has a five-year-old child who doesn’t understand why his mother hates this friend of his father. He finds the friend Rudra Kaku (Adil Hussain) to be a very nice man, but the mother hates him.

There is no explanation at all. She is almost proved to be a bitch. She doesn’t like her son to interact with Rudra. When the father dies in the middle of the film, and the son has grown up, he tries to find out what the hell was happening. He gathers the courage to confront his mother, and finally she lets him speak to Rudra.

The friend explains that his mother did the best she could. She knew we were lovers, and after getting married we [men] didn’t have any relationship. We were in deep love, but your father never told your mother. But she still respected me and allowed me to come. A beautiful story told in a simple manner by a first-time director [Arjun Dutta]. He shows empathy for all characters.

Section 377 has been repealed, but in India, it’s always a different ground reality. Is there a worry that it may struggle to get a decent release here?

It was in the competition for the Indian Panorama at IFFI.

But what happens once it comes for theatrical release?

I think it has been so beautifully told that I don’t think it should have any problem, unless you find a few hired hands (perhaps referring to fringe groups). I can’t say much on that.

Once you make it count in 'Bollywood', you are likely to be flooded with offers. What’s admirable about you is that you still keep going back to regional cinema. As an actor, how important is to go back to your roots?

Not just as actors, but I think every human being should go back to their roots. If you think you are a star, then forget about it. If I cannot remember where I have grown, where most of my subconscious software is created... ah, it's my hometown. The music I heard, the things I have done, tasted. As soon as I smell fermented bamboo shoot, I’m like (sniffs) where is it? It’s that deeply ingrained within us.

I would like to be a tree, who can grow roots deeper into the ground. I would like not to be broken by a storm. It is a metaphor, but so true. I dedicated the Norwegian award to my hometown. Without that place, I wouldn’t be here. How can I derecognize it?

Festival acclaim is fine, but isn’t it vital for these films to also get theatrical release? Despite the acclaim, some films take time or are still struggling to get theatrical release. Say your film is niche, and distributors won’t back it....

I think it is very difficult to make a film which will be loved by all kinds of people. That’s the hardest thing to do. Often filmmakers take shortcuts to make a film which he likes. But what is the harm in sharing that space that I love with another person?

If a filmmaker calls his/her film niche, I think that is terminology being [used] out of habit. I don’t think filmmakers would say [proudly] this is a niche film. They are simply saying, ‘Look, this is a niche film. Hope you understand what I am trying to say.'

If someone says that with pride, then there is a big problem with that person. I am making a film that should be accessible to everybody. I try my best without comprising my artistic values, I widen my horizon, my hands to embrace, but it is very difficult.

You played a little part in Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi (2012). Is there an interesting anecdote to share?

Adil Hussain in Life Of Pi (2012) 

I worked on the film for a month and a half. The most memorable moment was when I first met him. He saw my audition and asked me to meet him at Taj Land’s End, Mumbai, on 6 December 2011.

I come into his big suite. We sat across the table. He just kept looking at me for two-three minutes without saying a word. Finally, I broke the silence. I asked him why do you want to do this film? He took a few seconds and then explained why. He then asked me my idea of acting, Nikolai Stanislofsky, theatre. We connected on these lines.

I am taller than him. He kept looking at my eyes. He then held my face, looked at my eyes. The next thing I know,  after a week, I was doing the role.

I saw the film for the first time in Goa and was totally mesmerized with it. Ang Lee wasn’t there, but the producer David Womark watched it. I looked at him and said, 'Whoa, what the hell have you made?' He simply said, 'That’s Ang Lee.’

I recently saw Mukti Bhawan (2017). It’s very rare to have the first scene that takes you back to your childhood. Man or woman, if you are in the twilight of your life, often you would wish to revisit your childhood, connect with your parents. What did you make of that scene?

It is interesting that you mention it because nobody asked me this. I have watched the film so many times and I have not been able to be objective about it. I look at it as the filmmaker is setting the rhythm, pace, and mood of the film. That opening scene tells the whole story of the film.

You are a Muslim who played this character of a Hindu man. Through this story, you get to experience the true essence of faith, especially what one goes through upon losing a dear one. How humbling was that experience?

I grew up in a household with such liberal ideas. All my best friends are non-Muslims. I used to give anjali in the Sanskriti puja. I played Holi, Diwali at home. I have been to cremation grounds. I have carried too [as a pall-bearer]. I have played the nagara. Srimanta Sankardev was the father of Assamese literature, theatre. I am a big fan.

I grew up in a liberal society. So, it was easy for me to connect. I have read [the works of] Aurobindo, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rig Veda, Gita, so I am well versed with this idea of Indian understanding of spirituality (smiles). Yeah, I guess I was prepared for this since childhood.

On the face of it, Aiyaary (2018) seemed like a good story, but sadly it didn’t live up to expectation. Do you introspect on what goes wrong with your films?

In spite of having a great intention to make a good film… (pauses) no director wants to make a bad film. You think you are making a story which makes sense to everybody, and feel people will find all the scenes integral to the real story, but it wasn’t [so].

Your character, retired colonel Mukesh Kapoor, too, was not like the Adil Hussain we know and love.

(Laughs) With Aiyaary, I didn’t read the script as I was in Berlin. I was told there is a four-day shoot in London and if I would be able to join. I asked who was making the film. Neeraj Pandey. I thought, he makes good films. I went to London, just went through the scenes and shot them as best as I was directed. If I get any credit for my acting, then 70% of that credit should go to the director. And also vice versa. If I am bad, it is the director.

I read that you have also done stand-up comedy and mimicry. Whom can you imitate best?

I used to mimic Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Ajit, Keshto Mukherjee, Jagdeep, Raaj Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Asit Sen, Jeevan, Dev Anand and Rajiv Gandhi.

Have you ever been able to show your skills to a living legend?

I met Bachchan sir. He hasn’t seen me imitating him, but I told him that I owe you a lot of money, because I sold your voice to earn my bread and butter at certain times. He just said, "No problem."

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