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Rini Barman | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on December 01, 2017
Strong currents: On the sets of Assamese film Kothanodi (River of Stories), an anthology of four folk tales

Strong currents: On the sets of Assamese film Kothanodi (River of Stories), an anthology of four folk tales

Unusual bedfellows: Theatre actors like Adil Hussain, seen here with Sridevi in English Vinglish, are increasingly finding small but strategic roles in a newly reinventing Bollywood

Unusual bedfellows: Theatre actors like Adil Hussain, seen here with Sridevi in English Vinglish, are increasingly finding small but strategic roles in a newly reinventing Bollywood

Guy from Goalpara: Adil Hussain credits his hometown in Assam for his mixed cultural upbringing. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Guy from Goalpara: Adil Hussain credits his hometown in Assam for his mixed cultural upbringing. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty   -  The Hindu

A rare star from the North-East shining in both Indian and international indie cinema, Adil Hussain brings acting pedigree and a sense of calmness even to unabashedly commercial Bollywood flicks

In a scene from Shubhasish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, Rajiv (played by Adil Hussain) finds himself in a philosophical quandary, caught between two generations. On one hand, he is reconciling with his eccentric father, who seeks freedom from worldly desires, and on the other his younger daughter wishes to follow her heart. The film also compels us to think about the larger quests around life and death. Not long after Mukti Bhawan’s acclaimed release in April 2017, Maaz Ratir Keteki, a film by Santwana Bordoloi in which Hussain plays the lead, had an extended run in his native Assam.

A versatile actor, Hussain is clearly one of the toasts of Indian cinema right now, operating at the peak of his powers. Over the last few years, he has been a part of acclaimed indie films like Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses and Umrika, not to mention international productions Life of Pi and Crash Test Algae. He has also brought acting pedigree and a sense of calmness to the proceedings in unabashedly commercial Bollywood fare like Force 2 and Main Aur Charles. At the 2017 Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) in November, his opening speech — and his Mukti Bhawan performance — were the highlights of the inaugural night.

On the sidelines of the festival, the actor shared with BL ink some thoughts and memories from his career.

The special mention for Mukti Bhawan at the 64th National Film Festival (2017) got him thinking about the turmoil in a father-son relationship, explored so adroitly in the film. “I grew up in a family where the father’s word was the last word. The deep impact of my father’s behaviour never left me. Since I was a rebel, for about seven years I lost out on my father’s company. So, now, when I am a father myself, everyday challenges lie in store,” he says. “There are times when I ask myself whether I have been able to liberate myself from the shackles of the middle-class ritual of rearing a child as a father. Some of my father’s ideals were fantastic and, at other times, I felt a closer affinity towards my mother’s way of parenting. I miss that.”

To watch Hussain in Mukti Bhawan is to see a naturally charismatic stage actor temper his impulses and disappear into a character that’s the opposite of flamboyant. In most places, his body language does the talking, as the film isn’t particularly wordy. Rajiv is constantly juggling the ways of the old and the new. He struggles to manage his office workload while accompanying his father to what the latter insists is a final frontier: the Camus concept of a ‘happy death’, in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga. The scene where Rajiv placates his boss over the phone while tending to his sulky father is pure acting gold. As is the bittersweet jousting between Rajiv and his wife, Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni).

Then there is the supremely affecting sequence where Rajiv and his father discuss the former’s childhood hobby: writing poems. Only a minute ago, Rajiv was loudly and tetchily discussing the most mundane of office problems over the phone. And now, his father suddenly triggers painful memories: we are told that Rajiv’s writing was nipped in the bud by the father, in a burst of parental pragmatism. Much to Rajiv’s surprise, his father remembers his poems very well, and expresses regret at not having encouraged his talent. Rajiv gives a lingering look — genuine surprise tinged with regret and something like pride, eventually settling down into a wry smile. It’s difficult to visualise a lesser actor pulling this off at all, let alone with such aplomb.

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Born in 1963 in Goalpara, a quaint district headquarters town in Assam, Hussain is one of the few faces from the North-East to have made an unforgettable mark in both Indian and international cinema. This was no accident, though. From an early age, Hussain happened to rub shoulders with some of the celebrated and unusual Assamese artists and performers. “Since the age of 12, I was in the family circle of Pratima Pandey Baruah, the legendary folk singer of Gauripur. My elder brother married the legendary filmmaker Pramathesh Barua’s granddaughter. I interacted with Barua’s son, got acquainted with the ideas of filmmaking and art. There was a robust exchange of cinematic and literary debates then, the biggies like Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bisnu Rabha, and Lakshminath Bezbarua all came to life in one room. I owe my mixed cultural upbringing to Goalpara — it has been my lifeline — a true melting pot of cultures,” he says.

Hussain’s first time on the stage was in his kindergarten play, called Catmaker and the Sailor. Growing up, he was fond of performing in the absurd plays of Rukmal Hazarika. “As early as eighth standard (in school), I had come across the brochure of National School of Drama, thanks to Karuna Deka (an NSD alumni) of Nalbari. I had stolen some money from my dad’s pocket to procure it.” Prior to that, since 1985, he was a part of the stand-up comedy group Bhayya Mama. Today, indigenous acts in Assam are not doing too well. The deteriorating state of Assamese mobile theatre is well-documented. Lack of State funds, crumbling roads and infrastructure, apathy towards out-of-state actors — have all contributed to the decline. Today, the only successful troupes blindly ape Bollywood, playing to the lowest common denominator.

“I’d acted in Maaz Nixar Siyor (Screams at Midnight) by Mahendra Borthakur, but many other plays were Bollywood-plagiarised material. Mobile theatre in Assam needs to come back to its native content. I think this industry can actually not finish telling stories for another century if it were to focus on the local ones,” says Hussain . He refuses to blame the Indian audience for the woeful state of cinema and theatre. “People still watch good films and plays, only if you know how to make them well. If you keep making trash, they will get used to feeding on trash. We have created that audience, so now it’s our duty to uncreate.” Giving popular art precedence over meaningful episodes in Assam history erases collective memories, he believes. “I didn’t go to school for two years, 1979-81. Since 1979, the betrayal of State ministers, the futile quest of “Golden Assam” led to utter chaos, militancy and disillusionment among the youth. It was only art that kept my hopes alive.”

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Over the last decade or so, commercial Bollywood has seen theatre actors like Hussain essaying small but strategic roles. This is in line with Bollywood’s overall technical overhaul: better cinematography, sound mixing and so on. Hussain says: “I keep getting all kinds of scripts; my strategy is to strike a balance in order to pursue and subsidise my involvement in meaningful cinema. The latter is to quench my own thirst. But, it’s not that I am any less sincere when I do a (sci-fi drama) Robot 2. I am equally committed in Robot 2 as I am with a film like Mukti Bhawan.”

In August 1999, reviewing Othello: A play in Black and White, directed by Roysten Abel and staged in London, The Scotsman declared, “Adil Hussain playing Othello is the best piece of Shakespearean acting I have ever seen, including Peter Brooks’ Tempest.”

Hussain’s dream roles include the Shakespearean King Lear and Coriolanus — “the bard creates a canvas of emotional volcanoes essential for an actor” — as much as the ones from Indian traditional theatre. “I would like to play Krishna the mythical figure; I am working towards that. The essence of Indian theatre lies in how actors are supposed to be fluid enough to shape-shift. Transparent acting would mean accepting different shades of darkness. Acting isn’t false or untrue. It’s, in fact, a revelation of our truer selves,” he says. Hussain wishes film festivals would travel to every district of every State, to create new audiences and reconnect with old ones. “Makeshift cinema halls can do a good job in this respect. It is an amazing way to abolish stardom and pave the road for a more human connection. It can go a long way, really,” he says.

At the end of the day, what drives an actor like Hussain who can plausibly do anything he applies his mind to onscreen (and onstage)? Is it pure commerce? Is it sheer miscellany, the urge to try one’s hand at as many different kinds of situations as possible? Or is he more informed by whimsy, an inner radar that points him to the weird and the wonderful? I remember watching an earlier interview where he had answered this question in the most Adil Hussain way imaginable. He had said: “ Kuch dil ke liye, kuch bill ke liye (some for the heart, some for the bills).

Rini Barman is a Delhi-based independent writer

Published on December 01, 2017
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