Adil Hussain : Musings of an artiste

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Adil Hussain : Musings of an artiste

Sunday, 21 February 2016 | Ananya Borgohain

Adil Hussain : Musings of an artiste

Driven by creative vigour and the pursuit of soul searching, actor Adil Hussain traversed through new places to find his calling. Through his perceptive mind and resolute articulation, he takes ANANYA BORGOHAIN through his eclectic journey

Unfazed by the deceitfulness of riches, merging with the world, and in pursuit of finding meaning in chaos, actor Adil Hussain’s journey sprouted from an eclectic ground of culture, art, and politics. He has established himself as a versatile, spectacular performer through a varied range of films — life of Pi, English Vinglish, lootera, Main Aur Charles, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, to name a few, and has also appeared in cameos in Kaminey, Ishqiya etc. His lessons in Forgetting had won the National Award for the Best Feature Film in English in 2012, Parched is shot by Oscar-winner Russell Carpenter (Titanic), and Tigers is directed by yet another Oscar awardee, Danis Tanovic (No Man’s land), and he will play a transvestite doctor in the French film, Crash Test Aglaé. Besides the international projects, his regional films (in Assamese, Bengali, Malayalam etc) keep him occupied.

Based in Greater Kailash in Delhi with his wife Kristen Jain and son Kabir, in his aesthetic home that faces a forest at the back, he is perpetually travelling, on the job as well as in pursuit of happiness. But it is the ubiquitous urge to explore that crafted his journey with pearls of wisdom and embellished experiences that in turn bestowed upon him the strength of character.

Calling himself the clown in the family, he reminisces the era when television had not forayed into Indian households. He had always gravitated towards the performing arts and been a mimic, standup comedian, and theatre artiste. He fondly recalls watching Mera Naam Joker at age 10 or even younger — the film being the longest he had ever seen and with two intervals — walking out of the theatre emulating Dharmendra after watching Yadon Ki Baaraat, and also mimicking the stars of the time such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna etc.

He grew up in an ambience where the Bihu functions were held at the field literally in front of his house and he recollects being inspired by two standup comedians named Ratan and Shankar who had come from Cooch Behar in Bengal for performing. All this happened in his early years at Goalpara in Assam. Needless to say, in the early Seventies in Assam, his sense of a performance must have been rather unconventional and much ahead of his time.

He says, “I think Goalpara is one of the most neglected parts of the country. We used to have the newspaper delivered three days late. I think I was lucky to have that one person, out of the blue, who drove me towards this discipline. Even in cultural events in school, I would perform his plays. His name was Rukmal Hazarika who came from Sipajhar nearby. But at the same time, Assam also has a culture of theatre. Every town will have some musical group, or someone dances, sings, acts, writes, or simply reads. The State cultivates much respect for performing arts. So many musicians in the Hindi film industry — and I am not talking about big names like Papon or Zubeen Garg — but many of the composers, technicians and recording artistes who are doing incredible work are from Assam.”

Inspired by a group named Sound and Comedy, created by mime artistes Moinul Haque and Dhrubajit Kishore Choudhury, which later became the famous Bhaya Mama comedy group of Assam, he formed his own group in Goalpara when he was in the eighth standard. It dwelled upon both serious theatre and mimicry. He says, “Films have such an impact on shaping a person’s psyche. I watched a lot of films and plays and almost internalised them. Ours was a wooden house with a long veranda, where I used to build a makeshift stage and perform on it. I even organised award functions, cutting lovely photographs and pasting them on cardboards and then having a competition to see who wins. For serious theatre, I persistently urged Rukmal Hazarika to help me. Finally succumbing to my nagging, he familiarised me with Samuel Beckett’s theatre of the absurd and gave me a rather complicated play titled Sanglap, Sanket aru Akhora (Dialogue, Indications, and Rehearsals). I remember when our audience, confined by their own interpretations of the ‘strange’ play, was still much responsive and loved it.”

Hussain grew up in the most politically charged moments of the conflict-ridden Assam. He has seen the Assam Agitation movement forming, the disconcerting strife of militancy in the State, and the collapse of the ‘Assamese identity’, if ever there was one. In the State, political discourse and commentaries are a part of one’s mundane life and his childhood was ridden with such political conversations. The youngest in the family, he grew up with four brothers and two sisters. His father, Zaharul Haque Md Muhiuddin was a school teacher, who later retired as a Muslim marriage registrar. He could speak five languages — Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Assamese. His mother, Syada Asia Khatoon is 87 and still based in Goalpara.

But it was his brother, Azhar Hussain, who had an enduring impression on him. “I was in awe of my brother. He is the State committee member of SUCI, Assam, and the most genuine Communist I have come across. He was a State level badminton player as well, very handsome and disciplined, intelligent and politically aware. My first lessons of communism were imparted by him. He believed that the issue of illegal immigration was raised to create regionalism; it was a pretext to make people believe that the deeper threat was that Assamese culture will be submerged by these foreign cultures. Illegal immigration could be legally and politically resolved but the sense of threat it posed for the people was the dominant rhetoric.”

The sentiments of equality that were inseparable in his upbringing were dislocated in the politically volatile State. He continues, “The Assam Agitation started full throttle when I was in the ninth standard. There were two moments when my sense of identity was challenged. My house was on the border between Assam and Bangladesh. My friends were Hindu and along with them, I joined the students’ movement against illegal immigration into the State. It was a volatile time. We didn’t go to school for two years! At a meeting of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the leader asked me to leave, as they had doubts about my sincerity towards the movement. Another time, on Sankardeva Tithi — which is a significant day in Assam and cultural events are organised throughout the State — a friend’s elder brother caught me by the neck and walked me out of a function. His brother was, in fact, part of the comedy group which I had formed. That was when I wondered, ‘Is this because I am a MuslimIJ’”

Did that also lead to the collapse of communism for himIJ “That happened much later, actually. There was also this one time in Guwahati, after the Nellie massacre (1983) when we performed Bhupen Hazarika’s Juie pura tirashir nirbasonir bosor, mur bhaity nuhua hol, nepalu khobor, toi janone khobor (Brittle ashes of 1983, the year of burning elections, do you know I lost my brother in the fireIJ) based on the riots all across the State and we became very popular among the students. Once when I was chatting with one of the leaders, who later went on to become a minister, in an inebriated state, spilled the beans, ‘I hope to at least build a political career worth Rs 100 crore’. I was left aghast.”

Far away from the capricious conflict zone, he later came to Delhi in pursuit of his love for acting. He says, “I was already 27 by the time I joined the National School of Drama and felt that I was much late in making the move. That made me sleep less and work doubly hard, be it in the lessons, or the physical practices including martial arts, boxing etc. They used to pay us Rs 550 per month as stipend, which compelled me to cut down on my smoking and drinking too. I think I lost 11 kg during that time.”

After NSD, he went to the UK as a Charles Wallace scholar to study theatre. However, as he recalls, “My questions were very different from what the UK was offering me. They were training me to pertain to the market whereas I was looking for deeply philosophical nuances.” He returned to India and consulted his teacher at NSD, theatre veteran Khalid Tyabji. Tyabji asked him to bring Rs 1 lakh and a bike (“because what we were seeking would not have fetched us riches anyway”) and meet him after a year in 1995. “My friend Pabitra Deka was an influencing journalistic voice in Assam at that time. He noted that if I approached theatre troupes for work, they will not pay me and therefore I will have to ensure that it is they who come to me. He asked me to send him my photos from the plays that I did in the UK and branding me as a UK returned actor, wrote an article on my performances. In the conclusion, he passingly mentioned that I was probably considering working in the local theatre circuit. Then he asked me to station myself in Guwahati for a few days. Soon, he received phone calls for me and he told them, ‘Well, coincidently Adil is in town at present for some work. I will convey your message to him and see if he considers it’”, he laughs.

After a year, he had earned some money and bought an Enfield, which he still has. He joined Tyabji in 1995 and set out on a bike tour across the country, just to explore the country, merge with people, live their lives, and seek answers to their questions. They covered Delhi, MP, Pune, Goa, and Pondicherry; they also taught drama and conducted workshops in the course of it.

He recalls, “It was on my way back to Delhi (it was the last leg of the trip and this time I was alone), where I was supposed to meet a director from Holland, that I stopped at a tea stall on the highway between Hyderabad and Bhopal. Two truck drivers who saw me asked where I was off to all alone. They laughed and told me to get married and settle down when I described my journey to them. It was after they had left when the owner of the stall remarked, ‘Inko pata nahi aap aisa kyun karte hai. Aise aap magan ho sakte hai, jab aap aise ghoomte hain to hawa se milte hain, ped se baat karte hain, aasman se dosti karte hain’. He quoted from the Gita and Mahabharata and sang a bhajan as well. He said that he earned Rs 25 everyday and would split eight rotis between him and his wife and was contented with life. It was at that moment when communism collapsed for me. I agree with the idea of communism, but I realised that wisdom lies in not reacting to the hazards of the outside world but in finding inner peace. From my travels too, I observed that the talented tribals (Durua) in Bastar had such pragmatic and progressive approach to life. They are not even Hindus, for that matter, and worship nature.

Their ideas of the justice system, romanticism, community, courtship, environment are far modern than even what Europe and America could imagine. Their understanding of environment is so profound that Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter too had learned so much from them.”

Probably that is why acting is so cathartic for him, as he can merge and be so many people in one lifetime. Through his travels, he learned to merge in a situation and live a parallel life. He even lived in a river island in Hampi for three and a half years. He says, “Embodiment of a role was originally called patra (or patri) in Sanskrit theatre (Bhavabhuti, Sudraka, Kalidas), and is now charitra. Patra is a vessel, and an actor is like water — the best element in nature, fluid and transparent. Water does not colour the pot, instead it takes the vessel’s colour and

it also quenches thirst. Now, what kind of thirst is it quenching — excitement or fulfillmentIJ I am interested in the latter.”

Are we talking about method acting thenIJ “No, Konstantin Stanislavsky’s ideas probably had that quality, but it is not so now. I think method acting is characterisation and for me, characterisation diminishes the endless possibilities of an individual. Stanislavsky’s paradigm (Building a Character, Creating a Role, and An Actor Prepares) and another book that he had written, My life in Art, emphasised that an actor must prepare spiritually, but it has been disregarded as it is seen as esoteric. But spirit for me is neither the soul nor the bewitching definition, rather it is what is inside a person that defines his moods and feelings. If I die right now, I will be referred to as ‘Adil’s body’, I will no longer be just Adil. So what is it in me thenIJ I am talking about that life force. Method acting was propagated by lee Strasberg who approached the Stanislavskian system, but it was still much distanced. Method acting also was extremely efficient for the requirements of the American film industry then. I may use it but it’s still not enough. The way Indians have formulated it, you embody, which is called tanmaya bhava in Natyashastra. Even sangam (coming together) is the way to experience the other and become one; which is also the premise of Indian mysticism, that you become one with the divine.”

And has that helped him find the self he was seekingIJ Assamese, Bengali, Delhiite, international — how does he identify himself todayIJ He says, “I thought about it when I was awarded the Assamese of the year award. I have grown up admiring Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, lakshminath Bezbarua, Bhupen Hazarika etc, so culturally I am Assamese. I have acted in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, French, and English films, and I am also a Muslim who has been eyed suspiciously at airports. But in this mayhem, what one needs to realise is that I was born as a tiny human being who came out of my mother’s womb. Religion was imposed upon me. I don’t confine myself to any one identity. My wife is also half Indian and half American and when our son was born, we named him Kabir (after Sant Kabir) as it had deep significance, although I learned later that the word Kabir has an Arabic association too and means unbound.”

Also, he is still based in Delhi, unlike his counterparts who are based in Mumbai. He says, “I like this home and have so many memories in Delhi that I don’t think I will shift base. Besides, I think Mumbai has a different approach than mine. They call it showbiz. I think speculation and debates about one’s clothes is one of the most unnecessary topics that could ever be. It’s a more consumerist setup. The word ‘profession’ comes from prophecy and prophecy comes from an immense understanding of the past. Hollywood is very disciplined, there 10 am means 10 am whereas in our case, many times, if you are asked to come at 10 and you do reach at 10, they will ask, ‘But it’s only 10 now, why are you here alreadyIJ’”

In the film industry, he considers Kalki Koechlin, Randeep Hooda, Tisca Chopra, among others to be his friends. He says Tabu (life of Pi), Saif-Kareena (Agent Vinod), Sridevi (English Vinglish) were all very cordial. He also holds Vidya Balan (he played her husband in Ishqiya) in high esteem and says, “When Vidya got married, she sent me a pack of sweets to my home here in Delhi. She keeps in touch. When English Vinglish had released, she said, ‘I am eager to watch Adil again’. I think that was really sweet of her. She is not only talented but also a very grounded person.”

About how Hollywood happened, he says, “I was just sitting at my home when I got a call from my friend, casting director Dilip Shankar, asking if I would like to meet Ang lee (life of Pi). I met Ang lee for the first time in Taj lands End, Mumbai, to discuss the role before being cast.”

His forthcoming appearances can be expected to be an assorted set of fascinating roles: “Among the films that are already ready, I have Feast of Varanasi, Umrika (with Suraj Sharma and Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel fame), Parched (which was the second runner up in the Toronto Film Festival this year), Tigers, Sunrise, and Zahhak (with lisa Ray, Huma Qureshi, Saqib Saleem). The ones I am shooting now are Crash Test Aglaé, Bioscopewala with Danny Denzongpa (which is a modern adaptation of Tagore’s Kabuliwala), Salvation Home which is directed by 24-year-old Shubhashish Bhutiani, whose film won the Best Short Film Award in the Venice Film Festival last year. I also shot bits of Force 2, and just signed Robot 2 with Rajinikanth.”

His film Unfreedom was, however, banned. He says, “People were much freer in the Mughal era, in fact. The limitations to individual freedom emerged after the arrival of the British. Even in America, films are issued certification and the ones that raise doubts are put under ‘parental guidance’. Cinema is very powerful. It can shape one’s character as well as destroy it. I was surprised to read the recent reports about a young girl’s stalker kidnapping her after being inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s Darr. I understand one needs to be responsible but I doubt banning, that too in this digital era, could be a solution.”

Knowing his personality, it isn’t difficult to guess why he has not yet hired a PR team in spite of being repeatedly approached by companies. He says, “I think it’s the producer’s job to publicise, not the actor’s.”

Although much agreeable, that also makes one wonder if it has left him underrated. He says, “I think people who are fond of my sense of cinema will find their way to my films anyway. I am happy this way. Remember I like merging with the crowd, living their livesIJ”

(Photo Credit Tarun Garg)

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