Actor Adil Hussain on starring in 'Star Trek: Discovery', Hollywood and more

Adil Hussain in Star Trek: Discovery  

A website tells me Adil Hussain’s biceps measure 12 inches. It is down as one of my questions (How did they know? Is it true?), but though we’re in the relaxed atmosphere of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), which Hussain calls his “most favourite in the country because films are the stars and not the individuals”, I can’t ask it. We’re surrounded by mountains that have seen their first snowfall, in a city that holds the Tibetan government in exile, and it seems appropriate to talk only of the larger things in life.

Hussain doesn’t disappoint — you’d expect nothing less from a man who lived on a river-island in Hampi for three-and-a-half years, experimenting with one emotion a week (amongst other things), to find answers to life and the craft he practises. “The artistic version of a tree is a bonsai,” and life when represented in cinema is like that — “it is condensed, concentrated,” he says at one point, telling the story of how he ran from the National School of Drama reception to his then girlfriend (in 1992) to tell her he’d found the difference between art and real life.

In the past, the 53-year-old, who still lives in Delhi, has been a part of movies like What Will People Say, Norway’s entry to the Oscars last year; English Vinglish, Life of Pi, and Ishqiya, among several others.

Deconstructing an actor Adil Hussain

Deconstructing an actor Adil Hussain   | Photo Credit: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

But first, Star Trek

There’s a lot of speculation about Hussain’s appearance in Star Trek: Discovery, CBS’s third season that’ll screen in spring 2020. All he can say is, “My character description was ‘human, South-Asian’. My scenes are very intense, very emotional,” and the fact that he’s not just “another Indian guy” in the series.

He does speak, however, of the difference between a movie on a Bollywood and Hollywood set. “On the shoot’s first day, I entered and saw these people standing in a circle. The director says, ‘Here’s Adil; welcome to the Star Trek family.’” Everyone looked at Hussain, expecting him to say something. “I wanted it to be short, so I said, ‘I was born in a town [Goalpara, Assam] where newspapers used to come three days after it was published, and here I am today, in Star Trek, trying to cross the galaxies. It has been quite a journey.”

What happened after, he says, would never happen in India: the lead actor, Sonequa Martin-Green, came to the centre of the circle and asked if she could hug him, a relatively unknown actor in the States. Embracing him, she whispered into his ear that she was looking forward to working with him. “The boundary broke and we were just two creative people on equal terms. I had one of the best shooting experiences of my film career. There is no feudal residue, no ego.”

A still from Raahgir

A still from Raahgir   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Up on screen

Hussain is looking forward to people watching a few other movies he is in too: Lorni, in Khasi, a low-budget film shot in Shillong about the loss of identity, that will be screened at Estonia’s ongoing avant-garde Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. “My vehicle to go from the hotel to the shoot was a scooter,” he laughs.

There’s Prakash Jha’s Pariksha, to première on November 22 at the International Film Festival of India, in Goa — “the story of a rickshaw puller who wants to educate his son in a good school, which he can’t afford.” Nirvana Inn is a “paranormal thriller” that premièred at the recently-concluded Busan International Film Festival and Goutam Ghose’s Raahgir, about three people who cross paths and develop a relationship, which will be released at the end of the year.

What they said
  • “About 18 years ago, I was asked by Roysten Abel the theatre director from Delhi who was making his first film, In Othello, to be his associate director, because he had never worked on a film. I agreed — I don’t normally work on anyone else’s project — and Adil was the lead. Barry John, Dilip Shankar, Vivek Mansukhani, Sheeba Chaddha were in it together. What I find about Adil is he’s truly passionate about independent cinema.” - Ritu Sarin, filmmaker and festival director, Dharamshala International Film Festival
  • “We decided we would work together in the first 10 minutes of meeting each other. He put a lot of trust in me, talked to me, gave me the space to make mistakes or try new things. I just explained to him what I wanted to do with it in the larger scheme of things. He was one of the most experienced people on the set but he was never imposing.” - Shubhashish Bhutiani, director, Mukti Bhawan
  • “There is a full heart beating inside Adil. A heart that loves food, loves the people who cook the food, and loves the people who grow the food. I find his curiosity for the inter-connectedness of things very precious and endearing. I remember seeing him on stage the first time in Othello many years ago and feeling pure awe. I was extremely nervous to work with him the very first time. But the child in him was so much bigger than the actor that I immediately felt safe. He has really done time, time as an actor. There is something about time and him, dancing, they are dancing to a groovy tune. I respect that and it makes me wish him well.” - Tillotama Shome, co-actor

Peeling away the layers

On the last day of DIFF, on a terrace at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, with a gathering of about 200 people, Hussain answers questions from a diverse audience. The battle, he says, is to be constantly vigilant against arrogance. “It is like cancer.” He adds later that being guarded against patriarchy is another “conscious practice”. He and his wife, Kirsten Jain, named their now 10-year-old son Kabir Om Angan, for instance.

Hussain (the name ironically means ‘the best’) downplays his fame: He says he has been asked, “aap KK Menon?” He won’t call himself an actor — “That’s a bit arrogant, I love acting and I practise the craft”. He tells us of his failings. Like the time he was so involved he began to dissect his 87-year-old father’s tears in his head to hone his craft. “I wondered if I was deteriorating as a human being to be a better actor.” When he takes the stage though, he owns the space and the audience, and his straight-backed body language is of someone used to throwing their voice.

“An actor,” he says, answering a question about how he preps for a role, “means the one who does the action; nothing more than that.” He prefers the word patra, or vessel, used best as a receptacle for water. He says actors must have the three qualities of water: transparency, fluidity, and the ability to quench thirst.

Hussain comes across as someone who has read widely (he talks about everything from quantum mechanics to spirituality), and thought deeply about using words wisely. He also delivers much like someone used to taking a class. In fact, he does take classes at NSD.

A still from English Vinglish

A still from English Vinglish   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Reading about the lives of great actors, but miserable in life, Hussain took the journey to be a good actor and a decent human being. “The quest for when you look for answers of the five basic Ws, which we were taught by Stanislavski, the father of modern acting, makes you act better. I said, why can’t I ask these in my life? Then I’ll act better in life.” That was 20 years ago and since, this grandson of a mystic and son of a teacher, says he has found some “light”.

He doesn’t seem to withhold information or be guarded like many actors, and there’s a sense that he gives of himself even in an interview. But he does seem to draw from a script (perhaps like a good actor, he has prepared for this role too), answering different interviews in a similar vein. His performances though, are always contained, bringing together experiences of a lifetime to the here and now.

“Life is really short. I would love to sing. I’d like to learn dancing. I love painting and I have done a few which turned out to be good. I enjoy it, but I have to learn the craft. I would like to learn about herbal medicines.” He is a part of The Green Hub, a video documentation centre to record the biodiversity of the Northeast.

As for the size of the bicep — his Hollywood costume designers will know. After all they took eight days to do the perfect fit. Hussain jokes that in India, we’re okay with mediocrity because “agle life mein dekh lenge”. The upside is that “it’s not the end of the world, it’s just a film”.

At the end of the day, success for him is about how fast he can fall asleep at night: “I sleep in 15 minutes, no matter when I get to bed.”

The writer was in Dharamshala at the invitation of DIFF, held from November 7-10.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2021 1:57:53 PM |

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