The Adil Hussain introduction for the uninitiated is usually that he portrayed Sridevi’s husband in English Vinglish. This might be a disservice to his body of work but the Life of Pi actor, who describes his relationship with Bollywood as one of a happy outsider, couldn’t care less.
“It helps that I don’t live in Mumbai… keeps me away from the paraphernalia of acting so that I can concentrate on the act of acting,” the Delhi-based actor told dna over the phone. It doesn’t come as a surprise that he does not keep a publicist.
Hussain, 50, the youngest of seven children of a teacher from Goalpara in Assam, knew even as a kid that acting was what he would do. “Every year during the Bihu functions held in a field in front of my house, I would sit with rapt attention watching these actors impersonate actors like Keshto Mukerjee, Jagdeep, Amitabh Bachchan. And then, go home to make my makeshift stage in the courtyard with curtains and act for my friends and neighbours,” says Hussain, who was part of the popular Bhaya Mama theatre group in Assam before he joined the National School of Drama (NSD). “Once I joined NSD, my acting dreams took an intense U-turn and I wanted to pursue theatre instead.”
Hussain, who has been a visiting professor in NSD for a decade, is popular in his home state and was so even before he reached college. “I did a lot of satirical comic skits that found a fan base early on,” says the actor, who was once part of the jatra, the state’s touring theatre productions, and is now working with Emraan Hashmi in Oscar-winning No Man’s Land director Danish Tonovi’s White Lies.
“One of these production houses once hired me to act in four plays simultaneously for a nine-month contract, just when I was out of NSD and in need of some money. It was an intense exercise. In NSD there were no commercial responsibilities but in jatra there were pressures of making money, of being accepted by the crowd. My personal quest was figuring out the freshest ways I could present the roles,” he remembers.
Bollywood was never the big draw. Before English Vinglish, there were minor roles in Ishqiya, Agent Vinod and Lootera. And then came Ang Lee’s Life of Pi that catapulted Hussain into the indie big league. “In 1982, I saw Franklin J Schaffner’s Papillon in Goalpara through the airwaves in bordering Bangladesh. I can count the number of Bollywood films I have watched since then,” he says. He counts Khalid Tyabji, Naseeruddin Shah, Barry John and Robin Das as major influences.
“Thankfully, avant garde changes in movie-making is throwing up interesting projects for us,” says Hussain, who will next be seen in Raj Amit Kumar’s Indo-American project The Blemished Light, Rajan Kumar Patel’s Indo-British production Feast of Varanasi and Partho Sengupta’s Indo–French film Sunrise. He will also be seen in Subhash Ghai’s Kaanchi and in Amod Kant’s Main Aur Charles, loosely based on the life of Charles Sobhraj.
Hussain, who is rarely seen in public, scoffs at news that is divested in documenting the lives of stars. “I am not newsworthy; there is far more important news to write about. Seymour Hoffman’s death is a sad reminder of how actors resort to external stimuli to get a grasp on their lives. As actors, when we let influences like these creep in, we are either compromising on our craft or our personal lives,” says Hussain, whose NSD thesis explored these concerns.
Hussain’s lesser known prowess as a film theorist has many takers within the halls of NSD — his students call him a “phenomenal teacher”. After NSD, he went to the Drama School London on a Charles Wallace Trust scholarship and soon after started his teaching career in 1997 at the Drama School, Amsterdam, and The Royal Conservatory of Performing Arts, The Hague.
While at NSD, he started experimentations in exploring acting skills within a community at Hampi. “In 2004, three students wanted to learn acting, and since I had time we went to this 22-acre river island in Hampi. We went for six months, but stayed on for three years. Word spread and soon there were students from New Zealand, America, Austria, Denmark, France and Germany,” says Hussain.
“The search was to find an axis, or, a doorway towards the elusive creative reservoir that we all have within. A writer can wait for a while to do away with his writer’s block, but an actor can’t. An actor has to deliver at the sound of ‘action’.”