“I have been a clown since childhood,” says Adil Hussain, and I sit up. The remark doesn’t quite gel with his screen image — understated gravitas has been his stock-in-trade in films — or with the soft-spoken man sitting in front of me. Watching Hussain, fit and trim, looking much younger than his 51 years, speaking eloquently about his life, it is difficult to picture him doing stand-up comedy for a raucous audience. But, that is how his career as a performer began in his home state Assam in the early 1980s, when the group he was part of, Bhaya Mama, “became a craze across the state”.
This is also a reminder of how atypical Hussain’s acting trajectory has been. Most viewers who know him only through his movie roles — of which there has been a steady flow in the past four or five years such as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish and Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s recent Zed Plus — would reckon that he is a late bloomer, someone who came into the public gaze when he was well into his forties. Yet, as Hussain points out — not boastfully, just putting things in perspective — he was a teenager when he signed his first autograph.
The kind of humour Bhaya Mama dealt in was mostly satire, founded on sociopolitical engagement — something that came naturally to young people in the politically turbulent northeast of the time. “We were brutally honest, and covertly responsible for the fall of two governments in Assam,” he says. “We did hundreds of shows to make people aware of what was going on — but we did it with sophistication. It wasn’t slapstick comedy.” The students’ agitation of 1979 had created a tense atmosphere, and many frustrated youngsters either took up guns or found catharsis and an anchor in artistic expression. Hussain fell in the latter category. “My father was nervous. If I came home at 2 AM, he didn’t believe I had only been singing or performing. He thought it must be something more dangerous.”
At the same time, he was doing serious plays in school, which meant that without planning it, he was tapping into two sides of his personality simultaneously; feeling his way around, seeing what worked for him. “The universe was very kindly conspiring to prepare me for acting,” he says. The results have been visible over the past few years, with Hussain appearing in many different sorts of high-profile movies: from international productions by Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Danis Tanović (Tigers) to mainstream and multiplex Hindi cinema (Agent Vinod, Lootera). He has not had to carry these films on his shoulders. Indeed, there’s probably still a question mark on whether he has the right screen presence to do this. But, he has played solid supporting parts in all of them.
For a boy from small-town Assam (he grew up in Goalpara, “which is probably the most neglected district in the country. Even the newspaper came to us three days late”), it must feel surreal walking the red carpet at international film festivals alongside celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, or performing a scene with French superstar Gérard Depardieu (in Life of Pi). But, success hasn’t turned his head. “It is a blessing in disguise that I got recognition at this level of maturity because my feet are already on the ground,” he says. Besides, if he was going to be swayed by praise, it would have happened long ago, with the rave reviews in British newspapers for his stage performance in Othello: A Play in Black and White. “Adil Hussain playing Othello is the best piece of Shakespearean acting I have ever seen,” gushed a 1999 article in The Scotsman. No wonder he isn’t distracted by the paraphernalia that comes with being in the film industry. “All this stuff we are going to do in a little while,” he says, rolling his eyes in mock terror as he points towards our photographer setting up his equipment in the next room, “it’s nice, but I don’t take it too seriously.”
“I did once have the dream to become a big commercial star,” he concedes. “But, then, I happened to watch Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen in Papillon — knowing nothing about American cinema — and they seemed so authentic. I thought they were non-professional actors who had been picked up just for that project.” Later, he was astonished to see the same actors in other films. “If it wasn’t for that experience, I might have gone to Bombay directly. Instead, I came to the National School of Drama (NSD), in Delhi.” In the process, he realised that acting is as large and complex as life. “There are personality actors and there are character actors. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Bachchansaab — fantastic performers but they have found a persona that is loved by the audience and they stick with it. I was more interested in being a shape-shifter.”
Staying away from comfort zones has been important for him. Take what is arguably his best-known film part, as Sridevi’s slightly patriarchal and condescending husband in English Vinglish. This is an unsympathetic character, but Hussain leapt at the opportunity because he found the role truthful. “This man is not likeable, but he is real. He is a product of a society and a way of thinking: that a woman should only be in the kitchen and invisible. Playing it truthfully allows a viewer to say, ‘Yes, he is like that, and even I am like that sometimes.’ Or, ‘My husband is like that.’ It is important to recognise yourself even in uncomfortable things.”
In any case, he doesn’t find it useful to think of characters as good or bad. “I don’t even use the word ‘character’ or charitra, because that amounts to diminishing a person. I prefer ‘role’, called paatra in the old Sanskrit tradition, which recognises the complexities of people.” The foundation of good acting, for him, is empathy. “An actor has to become like water to fit the paatra: transparent, fluid and a quencher of thirst. To become like that is a lifelong journey, maybe several lifetimes.” This is why he sees himself as a student even during his teaching stints at the NSD, and says he is constantly aware of his limitations. For instance, though his versatile face has enabled him to be cast as a South Indian, a Bengali and a Maharashtrian, he admits to struggling with accents. “I would need a lot of preparation time to play a Haryanvi or a Punjabi character. After watching myself in Zed Plus, I realised that a few of the pronunciations were off.”
Though, Hussain speaks with enthusiasm about his forthcoming films such as Feast of Varanasi, “a fantastic thriller that weaves in Indian casteism”, he says he wants to get back to theatre. Plus, there are other activities that demand his time such as cooking, which he enjoys very much. Or, painting, which he discovered a flair for when doing a scene in a film in which his character had to sketch on a canvas. He improvised for the lengthy take, but later decided to finish the painting. It now hangs on a wall in the friend’s house where we are meeting. On the opposite wall is an MF Husain original. As our man jokes about not wanting to sign his own work because he is still only “the other Hussain”, I think I see a glimpse of the comedian from the Bhaya Mama days.