‘In Mumbai I can walk around aimlessly’

The move to Maximum City might have been alienating initially, but it has given actor-storyteller-director Danish Husain plenty of work, an appreciative audience and a home

January 21, 2017 12:43 am | Updated 12:43 am IST

One afternoon in late 2001, renowned playwright and theatre-director Habib Tanvir walked into the Connaught Place branch of Standard Chartered bank in Delhi and changed the course of life of one of its employees. Danish Husain, then an operations manager at the bank by day and a part-time theatre actor in the evenings, spotted Tanvir waiting patiently for his turn in the cash line. “I ran up to him and invited him into my cabin. I told him he didn’t have to wait in the line,” remembers Husain. Tanvir was amused, but acceded to the request. For each of his subsequent visits, until Husain quit banking to turn to full-time theatre the next year, Tanvir remained his personal guest.

Dramatic guidance

Three years later, Husain, who was then acting in M.S. Sathyu’s Dara Shikoh , was introduced to Tanvir formally at a dinner. Tanvir, who remembered their meetings at the bank, kept Husain in mind and invited him six months later to audition for a role in Agra Bazaar , one of Tanvir’s iconic plays. From 2005 till Tanvir’s death in 2009, and even a couple of years after, Husain essayed the role of the patangwala , the central character of the sutradhar in Agra Bazaar . It was to be a formative and abiding mentorship for Husain, teaching him things he still lives by as an artiste. “I learnt a lot from observing Habib sahab . But most of all, I learnt how to manage crises, and stay unperturbed in the face of adversity,” says Husain.

Apart from Tanvir, there have been two other guides who helped mould Husain into the accomplished storyteller (as part of Dastangoi and The Hoshruba Repertory), actor and director ( Chinese Coffee , Krapp’s Last Tape , Ek Punjab Ye Bhi ) that he is today. One of them is Barry John, director, teacher and founder of the Theatre Action Group, who coached him during a three-month workshop. “Our films sell such a dream, especially to men, that every young Indian boy grows up thinking he is a natural actor. I was no different,” says Husain. Under John, his illusions were shattered, and he began appreciating the craft: emoting with nuance, the hard work required to become a character. And then there was the third influence, Sabina Mehta Jaitly, the theatre director for whom he acted in the play Mirzabagh .

Art all around

The impeccable professional grounding aside, if one were to look at Husain’s personal life, his immersion into the performing arts might seem something of an anomaly in retrospect. He grew up in a scholarly and conservative Shia Muslim family in Delhi. Poetry, literature and books in Urdu and Persian were frequently discussed, as was religion. Not so much dance, theatre and cinema. But the erudition of those early years defines his work now. For instance, his reliance and love for deeply literary texts. “I enjoy breaking down a difficult text, assimilating it, and making it accessible to audiences beyond the barriers of culture and language. More than device theatre or physical theatre, text-heavy theatre is what excites me.”

The frequent discussions, as a Shia Muslim, of [the Battle of] Karbala, and the suffering of Imam Husayn (commemorated during Moharram) also seeped into his artistic concerns. “As a young Shia boy, there’s an overarching sense of how there’s injustice around,” says Husain. It made him keener to the suffering of the underdog and the injustice of those oppressed and denied dignity. “Through my work, I want the underdog to speak. He may not win, but he will be not be sidelined, he will be heard.”

Husain has a professorial air about him. He speaks calmly, with understated force, chooses his words carefully, and goes to great lengths to ensure that he isn’t misunderstood. Often, he weaves his thoughts from different threads, offering additional context as well as insights into his own politics and preferences. Inevitably, he also has an actor’s aura about him; listening to his responses in an interview can often feel like witnessing a low-key rehearsal where his thoughts are being announced not just to the interviewer, but any listener within earshot.

Taking a stand

Husain’s clarity about his politics has informed his work and his life from the beginning. He admits a growing sense of unease at the increased percolation of right-wing ideology into everyday life. In October 2015, Husain joined a growing number of artists and writers when he returned his Sangeet Natak Akademi award in protest against growing intolerance for freedom of expression.

“I was under no delusion that returning my award would make a difference. That requires a huge effort. Things don’t change so quickly. But it was me, as a citizen, taking a stand and putting my cards on the table. It was me volunteering for the cause. Now the fight begins,” he says.

However, he’s keen to emphasise that he prefers his politics to be a subconscious part of his work. “I believe in the integrity of the original text. I won’t tweak it to suit my politics.”

Disruptive moves

One major personal statement was deciding to move to Mumbai in 2014. Having lived most of his life in Delhi, it was an uprooting that caused a deep sense of alienation and dislocation. “I felt like I was marooned on an island, disconnected from the mainland.”

But it was a necessary move. Delhi’s pastures weren’t as bountiful, Mumbai seemed much more in love with the performing arts. “It’s easier to get an audience for a play in Mumbai as compared to Delhi,” he says.

His first production in Mumbai was the crowd-funded play Ek Punjab Ye Bhi , based on four Urdu tales by Ali Akbar Natiq. After a key sponsor backed out, Husain raised about 80% of the required funds through Ketto, a crowd-funding website co-founded by Kunal Kapoor, who was part of the play as well.

Even though he mentions it only tangentially, perhaps there was a need to disconnect from Delhi, the city where he grew up, and where his formative years as an actor were intricately tied with his ambivalent relationship with his father. Despite an underlying affection, both resented each other: Husain, for his father’s imprecations that appeared to come true; his father, for Husain not living up to his expectations. “It’s difficult to make sense of the different strands in my life. So much of my life feels like it’s gone through a grinder,” says Husain.

When he quit a plum job in banking, Husain admits he was clueless about the future. In addition, for almost seven years, he had to tend to his ailing father, who succumbed to his illness in 2010. Theatre work, and a growing appreciation for Dastangoi (an Urdu oral storytelling form that Husain re-popularised, in partnership with Mahmood Farooqui) provided respite from a life that had become intertwined with interminable hospital visits.

Moving to Mumbai turned out to be disruptive in more ways than one. Soon after, his partner in Dastangoi, Mahmood Farooqui, was implicated in a rape case. Husain turned key witness for the prosecution. As a result, an association of nine years fell apart and Husain lost a key thread of his life. Is there a sense of loss? “I don’t know, I am still doing those stories, albeit in a different form. I don’t think I’m in a state of mind where I can talk about it; maybe I will a decade from now. At this point of time, it’s too raw in my mind,” he says.

But the move seems to be paying off. Work is plentiful, and growing. Husain will appear in three independent films this year: Newton, Mantra, and Alif. He is also writing dialogues of another film. A grand new play is in the works. Meanwhile, two ongoing projects — Qizzebaazi , a multi-lingual story-telling platform, and Poetrification , a poetry-with-music collaboration with Denzil Smith — will have regular performances in the coming months.

Is he partial to any particular type of performance? “Not really. But I enjoy storytelling a lot. I am really laying out a buffet here; the idea is not to make one dish more delectable than the other,” he says.

Does he like living in Mumbai as compared to Delhi? “Well, Delhi is home. It’s where I grew up. But I live here now, so this is home. I like the city. I like any city that treats women well. It has good, accessible public transport. Then there’s the sea as a visual treat. And, it also has a sense of public spaces. You can loiter. In Delhi, everything is about getting to a final destination. Here, I can walk around aimlessly.”

Qizzebaaziwill be performed at the Havana Cafe & Bar, Gordon House Hotel, Colaba at 7 p. m. on January 22. See bookmyshow for details.

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