British director Waris Hussein on the influence of his mother Attia Hosain on his work and its reception in India

Waris Hussein is a largely unfamiliar name in this part of the world. But cineastes know him as the man who adapted Firdaus Kanga’s Trying to Grow into Sixth Happiness and directed a television adaptation of A Passage to India, prior to David Lean’s celebrated version. Waris is also the late writer Attia Hosain’s son, whose 99th birth anniversary was recently commemorated with the launch of a selection of her fiction, including previously unpublished work, titled Distant Traveller, brought out by Women’s Unlimited.

Speaking on the sidelines of a retrospective of his films at Epicentre in Gurgaon, Waris begins with the premise that “writing is a very solitary business”. In contrast, Waris chose the worlds of television and film, where the creative act is collaborative. He reveals, however, having started out as a writer in college in England. “These stories which I happened to look at rather recently, I was amazed at how similar my prose and use of words and images were to my mother. If you take my name away and perhaps juxtapose hers on it, people might say it was some of hers.”

“Ironically, I don’t write about anything set in England or America where I spent most of my life. All these stories were in India that was actually from my imagination or what I was told about it,” Waris adds.

The inlay of his mother’s influence is evident in his films as well. Her gift of setting a scene, for instance, illustrated to perfection in the previously unpublished story Storm, is on display in the introductory sequence of Waris’ 1972 film The Possession of Joel Delaney. “I wasn’t just making a psychic thriller. She observes with a silent sense of criticism and humour and that was what I was trying to do in The Possession of Joel Delaney.”

For Waris, who was born in Lucknow in 1938 and spent eight years there before relocating to England, the series of retrospectives constitutes a strange homecoming. “I am hardly known in this country for my work which is an irony. I feel like Rip Van Winkle waking from a long sleep. These films that were shown were done almost as a trial to see how they’d be received and I was fascinated to see how well they were received.”

Recalling a conversation after the screening of his Henry VIII and his Six Wives, Waris says “Someone came to me and said ‘oh we thought there were resonances in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth’. I said well that was made at least two decades after mine. I would be quite flattered if he’d seen mine and taken some of it.’”

This visit to India has also presented him with an opportunity to familiarise himself with current Hindi cinema. “There is sense of pacing, there is narrative thrust and things are more concise,” he reflects. Singling Kahani out for praise, he says “Calcutta came alive in my mind and suddenly I felt the vibrancy of a city. The performances were universally excellent.”

Returning to the subject of his mother, Waris recollects an episode in which the writer’s solitary world and the community of theatre coalesce beautifully. While working in the BBC Eastern Service, Attia received a proposal to act in a theatrical production called The Bird of Time, set in post-independence Kashmir, about two sets of people living on houseboats – a British couple and an Anglo-Indian lady.

The British couple invite the Governor of Kashmir and his wife to dinner, where the Anglo-Indian lady causes a lot of trouble. Attia was offered the role of the Governor’s wife. She rejected the offer initially, but Waris, who used to dabble in theatre then, convinced her to audition for the role. “Against her will I drove her to the audition, she looked at the script, came on the stage, spoke and they cast her in it! But it was a very funny experience and suddenly she got to work with all these extraordinary people and went on a tour to Leeds and Edinburgh and got a billing on the posters. That was her one and only experience of acting on the stage and I think I took a little bit of responsibility for her doing this.”