As Adil Hussain settles down in his Greater Kailash apartment in Delhi for a conversation, his seven-year-old son Kabir bounds into the room. Hussain asks him if he wants to sit in on the interview, but Kabir wants to play badminton instead. One is tempted to ask if Hussain consciously wants to normalise his acting career, with all its frills, to his young son, in ways his father never did.
Every actor draws from personal relationships, he tells me in response. “Yes, it had been a strained relationship. My father didn’t want me to be an actor. He wanted me to be an English professor at a local college, get married, produce children and die. I rebelled. He didn’t speak to me for years,” he says. Hussain’s father passed away in 2003, but “he saw a bit of what I had achieved before that.” The BBC had interviewed him when he went to England for a play. His father saw it and said, “You must be doing something good.” “I told him, ‘You trust the BBC, but not your son!’ He laughed, but I was definitely a bit sad,” says Hussain.
The strains of a father-son relationship laid threadbare by the many complicacies of a lower middle class set-up is something Hussain has showcased in his latest film, Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation). Directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani, the film has gotten Hussain a special mention at the National Awards this year. Though the idea of death runs through the film, the director “also wanted it to be about life and its quirks”. It was a role tailormade for Hussain. Early in his life, he moulded his identity as a performer, choosing to assert what he felt was his true calling over a safer, more conventional “role” of a settled man with a secure job and a family. But vocation apart, his life seems like a curious case of reconciling and grappling with conflicting identities.
Born in Goalpara, Assam, Hussain was always aware of his Muslim identity. His maternal grandfather was from Iraq. However, his father was “allergic to the orthodoxy of religion.” “My father couldn’t believe how his dear friend Mr Biswas — who was a very nice and honest man — wouldn’t go to heaven, but other Muslim acquaintances, who were pretty dishonest, would go to heaven instead!” he says. While growing up, almost all his friends were non-Muslims and he never felt the need to assert his faith. “The essential understanding of Islam is that your ishq-e-illahi — the love for the divine — shouldn’t be shown off or displayed,” he says. That Goalpara lay on the border of Bangladesh and West Bengal also meant that Bengali cultural influences were predominant. “So, I always had a blurry line in terms of my identity. In 1971, when the Assam agitation started, it was the first time that I was made to feel that I was a Muslim. It was very disturbing. Eventually, I left home and ended up becoming an Assamese in Delhi. Thankfully, acting helped me have a separate identity above all else.”
Assam’s charged political climate at the time resulted in not just the Assam agitation, but also the Nellie massacre in 1983. Surrounded by people and family, who associated themselves with one ideology or the other, Hussain was left thinking, briefly, if he should reassess his priorities. “I was definitely at the receiving end of the politics of the time back home. My eldest brother practised communism, I was part of IPTA. But, I had questions about that brand of politics as well. I realised that those who were heading the political agitations had very little wisdom about life itself, let alone politics,” he says. As recently as in 2014, Hussain was offered the chance to contest elections by the ruling party in the state. Again, he had to choose. “I asked myself if I am an activist, would I be helping someone by my political work? Or, should I listen to my inner calling, my swadharma, and be an actor?” he says.
Hussain chose the latter, but when he first began, he had taken a circuitous route to acting. He joined Dhrubojit Kishore Chowdhury, a well-known stand-up comedian who had formed a group called Bhaya Mama. From ’85 till the ’90s, just before he left for National School of Drama (NSD), Hussain was part of the very popular group. “I think I was the first to mimic Amitabh Bachchan in the country at the time. Imitation, I guess, is the first step towards acting,” he says. It wasn’t exactly a small-scale success story. “Almost 10,000 people would be waiting at even two in the night for our shows,” he says. NSD happened in 1990 and, afterwards, he went to Drama Studio London for a six-month acting course. It was much later, in 1999, that Hussain’s performance as Othello, in the play Othello — A Play in Black and White, directed by Roysten Abel, pitched him in the big league. However, the play which was “damn serious” would go on to decide the “grim” roles that casting directors would pitch for him. “I am a born comedian. I was also trained as a clown. I don’t know why they give me these serious roles constantly,” he says.
He had other issues, too, to resolve, in particular his “huge ego”. Back home, he was quite a celebrity. Hussain had already done four feature films in Assam before joining the NSD and was the lead in the first telefilm broadcast from the Assamese Doordarshan Kendra. This was besides his theatre work and the raging success of his stand-up comic group. NSD would jolt him out of his complacency. “My youngest classmate was 17 and I was 27. I was coming from a culture where, even if you are a year older, you are addressed with the suffix ‘dada’. Here, they would go, ‘Aye Adil, tu idhar aa!’ or a 21-year-old would say, ‘Arey, tumko nahi samajh mein aa raha hai!’,” he says.
Does he still have the same problem? “I’m sure some of it is still there, but, hopefully, most of it has gone,” he says, with a laugh. It was travel, he says, that brought him the clarity he needed in life. His trips to Madhya Pradesh in 1995 and 1996 remain close to Hussain’s heart. After his stint in London, he felt “like I didn’t know anything at all about the craft.” He sought out Khalid Tyabji, his NSD mentor, and asked for help. “He told me to go and earn Rs 100,000 in one year, and get a motorbike. I went back to Assam, joined the mobile theatre for a year, did some terrible plays and managed to save Rs 160,000. I bought a bike for Rs 20,000-odd and saved the rest, plus some cash for the Madhya Pradesh trip with Tyabji,” says Hussain. The wisdom of the tribal people he met during the trip affected his worldview. Afterwards, he took off to the river island of Hampi — first, in 1998, and, later in 2004 — where he gave lessons in acting. He spent some time in Puducherry, too, in between. “I went to Aurobindo Ashram to work with my acting teacher. I owe him a lot and I keep going back every year. He puts me on my toes. ‘You think you’re a good actor? You’re becoming complacent,’ he says,” says Hussain.
With a slew of releases lined up in multiple languages, from Norwegian to Tamil and Bengali, Hussain already has his next few travel plans in place. “I’m taking a break from May 14 for a year. First, I’m going to learn the traditional way of establishing connection between breath and emotion from a Koodiyattam guru in Kerala. There will be a family vacation afterwards, and then, it’ll be time to spend some time alone,” he says. There’s an island on the Tungabhadra, near Hampi, where Hussain is hoping to spend some days, working on his voice for a play directed by Dilip Shankar in collaboration with his guru from Puducherry. “It’s a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna on the brink of war. It’s basically a concise version of the Gita in ordinary English,” he says.
He will also soon be seen in Enthiran 2, with Rajinikanth. “I’m his fan because I think he’s the only actor in India who follows the philosophy that an actor should disappear in everyday life. It was humbling to act alongside him,” he says. There’s one more project that has Hussain excited — a biopic on Rabindranath Tagore, talks for which are still on.