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In the limelight

Zafri Mudasser Nofil | Updated on April 11, 2021

Missing years: Adil lost two years of school because of the Assam agitation   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Actor Adil Hussain on theatre, communal amity and citizenship in a new book about Assam and its many identities

* Starting his career as a stand-up comedian of Assam’s legendary Bhaya Mama group, he rose to fame post his National School of Drama days

* After acting in the state’s mobile theatres and a few Assamese films, he made his debut in Bengali movies in 2004

    * In 1975, his elder brother married the eldest granddaughter of the great Pramathesh Chandra Barua

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    Adil Hussain, the versatile actor from Assam’s Goalpara district who has etched his name both in Bollywood and Hollywood, grew up offering anjali during Saraswati puja, sitting and singing naam kirtan on Srimanta Sankaradev’s birthday, playing holi and coming home when his mother would give him a shower, and lighting Diwali lamps.

    “While growing up, I never felt any discrimination. Most of my friends were non-Muslims, so were almost all of my father’s friends. Our house was very centrally placed — people of Hindu community on the one side and Muslims on the other. There was a Bengali-speaking Hindu community and they lived behind where we used to stay,” Adil told me, taking out time from his busy schedule.

    The Identity Quotient / Zafri Mudasser Nofil / Har-Anand Publications /Non-fiction /₹595

     

    Adil has come a long way. Starting his career as a stand-up comedian of Assam’s legendary Bhaya Mama group, he rose to fame post his National School of Drama days with his role as Othello in the acclaimed production of Othello: A Play in Black and White.

    The play by the Indian Shakespeare Company and directed by Roysten Abel won the Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1999, where The Scotsman critic described Adil’s performance as “Othello, is bar none, the best acting I have seen in any Shakespeare play, including Peter Brook’s The Tempest.” He was associated with plays and also served as the artistic director and trainer of the Society for Artists and Performers in Hampi, Karnataka before Bollywood beckoned.

    During our chat which lasted more than an hour over several cups of coffee and tea at Le Meridien’s Le Belvedere in Delhi, he talks about various things — his family, his upbringing, his career in theatre and movies, his take on the situation in Assam and also his mother’s cooking. “Everybody would come to our house on Eid and my mother would cook the tastiest of food. This is how we grew up.”

    In 1975, his elder brother married the eldest granddaughter of the great Pramathesh Chandra Barua, the scion of the royal family of Gauripur in Dhubri district, who produced and directed a number of films including Devdas, which had KL Saigal in the lead role. “Inter-religion marriages happened even then. My brother went on to become the most favourite son-in-law of the family. When I was a boy my father told me, ‘Marry whom you like. You don’t have to take permission but you must look after her well’.”

    Movies of Pramathesh Barua always inspired Adil. He found them very realistic and his narratives superior. “I grew up going to Pramathesh Barua’s house since I was in class 6. I was fortunate enough to hear from his son about films and the art of filmmaking.”

    Adil has never been made to feel that he is from a different community barring a small incident that happened around 1979 when the Assam agitation was on.

    “It was during this period that for the first time it was pointed out to me by one of my friends’ elder brother when I went to watch a bhaona. He held my hand and took me out of a specific boundary saying you cannot go in. I was surprised. He just told me you can’t go in, though he did not specifically tell me why. But that was one isolated incident and about one specific person. But apart from that incident, I have never been made to feel that I was from a different community. I never faced any discrimination, not only in Assam but nowhere in India. Some incidents cannot outweigh the love that I have from all across the communities. If somebody wants to take a small little incident which has happened to you and blow it out of proportion, I think that is very unjustified.”

    He told me his father was almost an atheist despite being an expert in Quran and the Shariat. “He never believed in the existence of God but towards the end of his life, fast forward, when I asked him, he said 50-50. He said I am fine and ready to go.”

    Adil lost two years of school because of the Assam agitation. “The Assamese people believed in each other, they trusted each other. If you wanted to do something good, they would believe that you want to actually do good. That is the reason why everyone came out in support of the agitation which included me as well. I went out, gave two precious years. Lot of people lost their lives. Some people also went astray. But the leaders who promised so much failed to provide an able government. They lost people’s trust. The Assamese community feels betrayed by these leaders. We lost our innocence, honesty and trust.”

    About citizenship, Adil has these views: “This law is unacceptable. There cannot be any citizenship based on religion. I think we should have a dialogue and the grievances we have — genuine grievances — should be addressed.”

    During his initial days as a comedian, he also used to mimic a lot of actors, his favourite being Keshto Mukherjee. “I was the first one to mimic Amitabh Bachchan, much before Johnny Lever tried.”

    After acting in the state’s mobile theatres and a few Assamese films, he made his debut in Bengali movies in 2004 with a role in Iti Srikanta opposite debutante Soha Ali Khan. He moved out of the state and bagged a string of roles — Kaminey, Ishqiya, For Real, Gangor and went on to act in Agent Vinod, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, English Vinglish and Life of Pi. And the list is unending.

    After he was selected for the role of protagonist Pi Patel’s father and Tabu’s husband in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Adil had told me that it was a result of luck and a bit of talent. I asked him about his feeling, from working in Bhaya mama’s skits to an Ang Lee film, Hussain said, “Bhaya mama (who along with some members of his troupe died in a tragic accident some years ago) and Ang Lee are both highly creative persons, both are rare in their approach towards a subject in question. Their medium of expressions is different. I feel blessed to work with both of them.”

    (Excerpted with permission from ‘The Identity Quotient’ by Zafri Mudasser Nofil brought out by Har-Anand Publications)

    Zafri Mudasser Nofil is a Delhi-based journalist

    Published on April 11, 2021

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