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An eye for the different

Vidya Ram | Updated on February 16, 2018

New takes: Hussein (left) is working on a film and script based on his experiences of working with Burton (right) and Taylor image   -  Image Courtesy: Waris Hussein Collection

A retrospective on Waris Hussein, the India-born maverick BBC director, whose extensive filmography includes the first episode of Doctor Who and Burton-Taylor’s only TV drama

Through February, the British Film Institute, on London’s scenic South Bank, will run a retrospective on the works of Waris Hussein, the Lucknow-born British television director who, in the 1960s, became the youngest drama director at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Perhaps best known for directing the first-ever episode of Doctor Who — the iconic sci-fi series on the eccentric time traveller that has become the BBC’s most successful TV series internationally, Hussein’s body of work is diverse — ranging from a televised version of EM Forster’s Passage to India to the American horror film The Possession of Joel Delaney, starring Shirley MacLaine; a drama on the abdication of King Edward III of England; Shoulder to Shoulder — a drama on the suffrage movement; and the one and only foray into television drama by the turbulent couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Hussein’s background is as unconventional as the stories he chose to tell. While he was still a young boy, his family moved to Britain from pre-Independence Mumbai, as his father took up the role of the British government’s supply commissioner for textiles, charged with supervising Manchester cotton mills. However, the family was swiftly forced to change course as Independence and the trauma of Partition followed months after their arrival in Britain. While his father chose to return (to the newly-created state of Pakistan), Hussein’s mother, a writer and broadcaster, chose to remain in Britain with her children.

Put into boarding school, the children’s spartan existence couldn’t have been more different from the life they’d been used to in India (“It was grim,” says Hussein. “Victoria and Victorian England ruled”), but an encouraging arts teacher helped Hussein nurture his creative abilities. Unlike his sister, he faced little overt discrimination, he recalls. Studying English at Cambridge gave him the opportunity to be part of Britain’s up-and-coming theatrical talent, directing, for instance, Ian McKellen (the Shakespearean actor known in popular culture for his role as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings), among other works.

After attempts at a career in art and acting failed (the latter, he notes, because of the lack of roles for Indian actors — his one and only foray involved casting as a West Indian sailor), he made it into a competitive BBC directing programme, where he kicked-off and drew attention with an innovative televised version of a little-known one-act Tennessee Williams play about a dying prostitute and the landlady trying to get rid of her. “I guess I alerted them to the fact that I was different — if I had chosen a desi story there, what would have been the point? I’d have been regressing to what I considered what they considered I should regress to — but I showed them something different.”

It was his willingness to try new and experimental work that led him to Doctor Who — the first series was set in the Stone Age and was treated by many potential directors within the BBC with scepticism. Its success swiftly brought Hussein more opportunities — including directing the first televised production of Forster’s Passage to India in 1965, and giving him the chance to engage with the author himself. However, among his most challenging moments was the Burton-Taylor drama Divorce His, Divorce Hers, which was plagued by tensions between the couple as well as other complex situations. Hussein recalls the moment when his mother came to watch the shoot, and was appalled by the behaviour she saw, particularly from Taylor, “who was then in decline”. “You have to remember who you are and where you come from,” he recalls his mother telling him. “You have to realise this is ephemeral and your roots matter more than the job,” she told him.

While Hussein rarely encountered overt prejudice in the early days at least (he has not directed a single production in the US since 9/11, which, he believes, is because of his name and age, despite being a person of multiple faiths), he believes the colonial legacy continued to loom large over British Asians trying to make it in the artistic and theatrical world. Roles and opportunities often fall into stereotypes. “Britain with its colonial focus never got out of that trap… what upsets me is that after 300 years of colonialism, the Brits still haven’t got it… they haven’t understood the relationship — there are second and third generations who don’t identify with the mother country; what is happening to all of us who have contributed to this society — we have no brides running away from irate parents — the clichés you always see on television. It bothers me,” he says, pointing to a recent television drama partly revolving around a Muslim family that inevitably has a family member linked to terrorism. He believes his failure to fall neatly into expectations is one reason why he’s, by and large, been overlooked for his contribution to British film and drama.

Hussein is currently working on a film and script focused on his experiences of working with Burton and Taylor, which, he believes, will be a more nuanced reflection on the challenges and perspectives of British Asians such as himself.

“I have a story to tell and, almost contemporarily, it is to do with the price of fame, what your aspirations are when you start life, your cultural background and how it conflicts with what you are trying to do.”

vidya ram

Published on February 16, 2018

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