Just Adil

From mimicking Keshto Mukherjee to playing Othello, Adil Hussain is a mine of acting. With some precious assignments in his kitty, the actor from Assam is all set to cement his place in the top league

August 17, 2012 07:02 pm | Updated August 18, 2012 07:13 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

INTENSITY IS HIS MIDDLE NAME: Adil Hussain in New Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

INTENSITY IS HIS MIDDLE NAME: Adil Hussain in New Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Truth is what matters to Adil Hussain. In acting, and in life. After trying almost every medium of acting, the precocious boy from Goalpara in Assam is on the verge of becoming famous at the ripe age of 49. He is in no hurry though, for, Khalid Tyebji, his teacher at National School of Drama, had once told him: “You are lucky if you don’t become famous soon.”He was right, for fame could be funny. His portrayal of Othello was termed as the best piece of Shakespearean acting by The Scotsman but for lay cine-goers, Adil is the intriguing face who played husband to Vidya Balan in Ishqiya and will soon be seen as the lesser half of Sridevi in English Vinglish and Tabu in Life of Pi . And of course as Colonel, the sinister bête noir of Agent Vinod , his last release. He thanks his stars that the film didn’t become a blockbuster for he would have been anointed as the new villain on the block by now. He cherishes his anonymity in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash where he lives with his wife and kid.

“Occasionally somebody comes up and says that he watched Agent Vinod thrice because of me and I am like, really! I want to play every possible role. When I played Othello it was extremely loud but true,” says the actor who taught acting at NSD and Drama School in Amsterdam. “Truth is what matters. It can be melodrama but very good melodrama if it is true. It can be Bollywood style acting but it can be very true like (Amitabh) Bachchan has managed over the years. It can be Jatra. They are extremely loud but when you watch them you get moved. Truth has degrees. A leaf of a tree is one truth but the same leaf will be unrecognisable if you see it through the electronic microscope,” says Hussain, who started as stand-up comedian as a teenager with his group called Bhayamama in Assam. “I was the first one to mimic Amitabh Bachchan, much before Johnny Lever tried,” he shares with that magnetic spark in the eyes.

After a four-year teaching stint in The Netherlands, he had the offer to become a permanent faculty there but by then Adil had deciphered the importance of being an Indian. “I fell in love when I travelled across the country on my motorcycle and an experience humbled me. I was fresh out of NSD, moving with I-am-the-best kind of attitude. Coming from Bangalore to Delhi, near Hyderabad, I hit a barren patch of land and I was looking for a tea stall. There, I saw a dhoti clad man. Soon two trucks stopped by and the sardar drivers showed concern at my daredevilry and offered a lift, which I obviously refused. As they drove past, this man I mentioned said, these people don’t know you, why are you travelling like this? Frankly speaking, if you had asked me then, I would not have been able to give a coherent answer. Curious, I asked him, does he know? He said, jab aap aise ghoomte hain to hawa se milte hain, ped se baat karte hain, aasman se dosti karte hain . Then he sang a bhajan which talked about the union with nature. He quoted from the Gita. I was stunned. I felt ashamed. I squatted and listened to him. He said he earns 25 rupees a day, spends 75 paise on tea, walks eight kms of barren land to buy one kilo atta which is sufficient for eight rotis that he and his wife eat with some seasonal vegetable that grows naturally in the area. ‘We are very happy. Aap ayenge hamare yahan ,’ he asked. Everything fell apart for me. Communism fell apart instantly. You don’t need equitable distribution of wealth to become happy. I realised that it depends on the way you look at life. And access to wisdom is there for everyone. It was in his genes or he might have acquired it through oral tradition. I am not a nationalist but I realised India has got something special to offer to the rest of the world. The West might have perfected the materialistic way of life, which is very good, but we can give crucial lessons in austerity. That I am not encroaching on your food, I am not eating up your share....”

Perhaps that’s why he is concerned about the present state of affairs in his home State. “When I grew up, it was a very chilled-out society. Ok, chalta hai, ao baitho, kaam karenge baad mein … was the way of life.” Talking about Assamese identity, Adil says Jyoti Prasad Agarwala is called the father of Assamese cinema. “He is much more Assamese than me. In 1989 when the student leaders took charge they betrayed the entire population of Assam so badly that the only thing that remains is distrust.”

He experienced it himself. “My house is on the border. All my friends were Hindus. I also joined the students’ movement. One day at the meeting of AASU (All Assam Students Union, which spearheaded the agitation), the leader said, Adil, please go out. One of my friends later told me they don’t trust you anymore. They think you are from the other side. My father said, you better leave the State. I had to be sent outside the State when the Nellie massacre happened. Muslims who speak Bengali are usually targeted. We are such an old family there, every time I got to Assam, local channels describe me as the pride of Assam but my brother’s daughter whose mother is the granddaughter of the legendary filmmaker Pramathesh Barua, who made the first silent film in India, is listed as a doubtful voter. It shows how flawed the system is. I am not saying there are no Bangladeshis but I don’t trust the figure given by AASU; I don’t trust Congress either because it treats people as vote banks. This is a very tricky place because the border is porous. Somebody’s toilet is in Bangladesh and bedroom is in India. There is no market there, so they have to be allowed to shop in India. It is a human situation.”

With experiences as varied the vibrant mobile theatre in Assam to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, acting seems sorted for Adil but he says the only thing that is sorted is that he doesn’t need to worry. “I don’t know how to do it and that’s the best place to be in. If you know how to do it, then there is no fun. When I get some role and I read it, I invariably say oh! God, how the hell I would do it.”

Compared to theatre, he says, filmmaking is in its infancy. “It is just 120-year-old while theatre is a 10,000 years old craft. We are still dominated by commerce and market. One inherent flaw in the medium is that it requires a lot of money. When the technology will become cheaper there will be a lot of trash but then there will rise talent who will not be concerned about who will buy or sell their movies.” Adil feels we have a lot of talent but the people who invest money in films need to trust them a little more. “They underestimate their audience. When in ‘Ram Leela’, a group of actors take one circle on stage, Indian audience realise that they have moved from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka. They know how to jump space and time. We need to trust them a little more and make something that is deep and entertaining at the same time.”

Playing the father of Pi in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yan Martel’s Booker winner of a novel, Adil says the character is very close to his principal father, who taught him the value of punctuality. “I cannot be late. I take it as disrespect to the person. Will I be late when Spielberg calls me? So why should I make somebody else wait. Ang Lee’s relationship with his father is also very intense. He tries to explore it in the film. In the book, the role of the father is not very significant but in the film it is quite big.”

Calling Ang a personification of humility, Adil says his way of dealing with actors is amazing. “He shows genuine affection which is very rare in the industry. You can pretend, but humility cannot be pretended. You can smell it. He always co-creates and allows you to flourish. Like a child, he plays with you, not in a childish way but a child-like way.”

He cites a scene where he was supposed to be stern with the son. “Ang was sitting with a huge 3D monitor at a distance. He walked down to the set, which took him three minutes and whispered in my ear, can you please add 10 per cent of affection to the sternness. It worked not because of the words but because of vibrations that he actually transmitted. He actually gave me the affection and I had to just let it flow through me.”

This article has been corrected for typographical errors.

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