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Adil Hussain: Films like Force 2 and Commando 2 subsidise my involvement in indie cinema

Adil Hussain, a renowned face in the world of theatre, art house cinema and Bollywood, has created quite a niche fan base for himself with his content-driven films like English Vinglish, Life of Pi and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  He is now gearing up for the release of Mukti Bhawan, which received a standing ovation at the Venice International Film Festival and won him a special mention at the 64th National Film Awards 2017. It was also invited to reputed film festivals like the Busan International Film Festival, Dubai Film Festival, Swedish Film Festival, Berlinale Festival and Vesoul Film Festival.  Mukti Bhawan is the story of a reluctant son, played by Adil, who must take his father to Varanasi where the latter wants to die and attain salvation.  Firstpost met up for an exclusive interview with the acclaimed actor.

Adil Hussain. Image from News 18

Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us something more about your role. Initially, you were not recognised in the look you sport in the film.

(Laughs) That is the idea. Shubhi (director Shubhashish Bhutiani) wanted me to look absolutely different, so we added the stomach with an extra pad. We experimented with several moustaches and finally chose a thin one. Then, with the body posture, language and style of walking, slowly it happened. I am playing a small town guy who sits in an office the whole day. He is middle-aged, has a bit of paunch and doesn’t care a damn about how he looks. The film is about a father and son in a dreadful situation, where the father emotionally blackmails the son to go with him to Varanasi, where people go to die. Both have differences and grudges against each other, but as they spend time together in Varanasi, they introspect about their relationship and a bond grows. My character is full of conflicts. He doesn’t want to accompany his dad, but is dutiful towards him and also has a soft corner for him.

What was your reaction when you were offered the film? It must have sounded quite bizarre.

Absolutely. I didn’t know there was an institution like Mukti Bhavan; I thought people would individually go check in to some hotel by themselves. I have heard the phrase,”Kashi mein jaake marenge.” But I didn’t know about the existence of an established institution where one spends 15 days… A friend, who has also directed me, forwarded the text from the film’s producer telling me that this is the story, this is the director’s profile, that the director’s first film was in the Best Short Film category at Venice, that he is 24 and that he is making a film about death. I said, “Wow!” This was an amazing combination. Without reading the script, I said yes. And when I read the script, it was way more than I had expected. One doesn’t get to do such unusual stories. After stories written by great writers like Shakespeare, Kafka and Tolstoy, which I’m used to permorning in theatre, quite often the scripts I get are not what I’d like to be a part of.

When I met Shubhi, I asked him, “How old are you?” He said 24, and mentioned that he wrote the script when he was 23. “How old are you actually?” I asked him this several times even during the course of the shoot, because when I was 23-24, I was only thinking about girls, not about death (laughs). It is humbling to see someone talking about the philosophy of death at 24.  Shubhi has probably come to an understanding about relationships. Actually, his film is more about life than death. Death is there, it is inevitable, but the film tells us that we better get a grip on our lives.

The film is also quite light-hearted, despite dealing with a sombre issue.

I saw the fun, the wit, the humour and lightness of the film, which did not reduce the depth and gravity of the situation. All of us are senior actors, and the way Shubhi dealt with us was a lesson for me in humility. That quality is also reflected in the film. I consider myself very lucky to be cast in these kind of films, which I think are the future of Indian cinema in a sense. These films are away from the unnecessary gloss and glitter. I have nothing against that kind of cinema, just that there should be space for films that deal with in-depth issues which are sensitive, important and relevant. It need not give out a message; it can be pure entertainment as well.

But as an actor I would always want to act in films that challenge me, take me out of my comfort zone and take my sleep away. Otherwise, you don’t grow as an actor. If you always do what you know then you remain stagnant. These films challenge me to make something believable. I have never faced this kind of situation in my life, so to make it look convincing was challenging.  The film is also quite entertaining. I laughed the whole time when I watched it; I laugh loud. I have watched it eight to nine times across the globe.

What was your experience while shooting the film?

There is a scene where I walk through the pyres. It was the first time I went so close and saw several bodies being washed and stuff.  It sort of made me realise something that I knew intellectually but had not experienced yet, that I may have to be here tomorrow, so I should not take myself so seriously. I am a very insignificant entity in the face of universe, so I should behave accordingly. I had that feeling before, but now it was reaffirmed, reconfirmed and fortified that I will merged into the dirt of planet earth… so I should just relax and behave myself (Laughs).

Of late, you have been active in commercial cinema, and have been part of films like Force 2, Commando 2. Why don’t you take up more projects in Bollywood? Isn’t it tempting?

Commercial mainstream films are not tempting at all. What would be tempting for me is getting more money, doing less films and doing more theatre. So I act in two Bollywood films a year which will fund two years of theatre and family life. For that reason the box office matters, but otherwise, I am so happy where I am. Bollywood never inspired me before and it will not inspire me anymore. I did Robot 2, Force 2, Commando 2… these films subsidise my involvement in independent films and I am grateful to them. Otherwise, I keep refusing many films. They keep casting me in a cop’s role, but now I don’t want to play a cop for the next five years.

You are extremely choosy, so how do you decide to take up a Bollywood project?

My role should be inevitable to the script; it should make sense.  If the director is good enough and the script is convincing enough and the money is good, I pick the film. If I don’t get the creative satisfaction and money, then why should I do films in Bollywood? I would rather cook for my family, for my son and wife, or I could teach at the National School of Drama (NSD). I also have teaching offers from various universities. I am hoping that my market price goes up so that I don’t have to do many films (laughs). Otherwise I am very happy with small things in life.

Are you wary of getting typecast in the Hindi film industry?

Yes, that’s the whole issue. After graduating from NSD, I didn’t feel like coming to Mumbai because I knew the industry here will slot me into a set image on the basis of my skin colour and things like that. That typecasting in Bollywood, it kills the actor. Actors here play a certain image that has been created. It sells, you are successful and then you don’t want to change it because you are scared. Fame, money and box office figures are tempting. So if an actor is happy doing it, it is fine, but I am not. I realised this is not the place I want to go to. But I started getting offers even as I didn’t come looking for them. I did Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, I did few more and luckily there are independent films happening. I satisfy my thirst for acting in different roles by doing independent cinema.

Which are your upcoming projects?

A paranormal thriller film called Dobara which will be releasing soon. Lisa Ray and I play husband and wife in the film. It’s a remake of a Hollywood paranormal thriller called Oculus. I play an important role in Love Sonia, which is a very intense movie. There is also Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha and Freida Pinto in it. Danny Denzongpa is making Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala in Hindi, where I play Mini’s father. I recently finished shooting for a Bengali movie Maati in Kolkata. I am also doing a Norwegian film called What Will People Say for director Iram Haq whose first feature film was an official entry in the Academy Awards from Norway. I play an Iranian intelligence officer in a Malayalam film which has been made with young international actors from the US. It is set in Iran and shot in Oman and Kerala. Not to forget, Robot 2 is coming this Diwali!

What about your first love – theatre?

I have many releases coming up, but I have taken a break from films till the end of this year to concentrate on theatre. Since 2010, I have worked non-stop. I have done 50 films including short ones, and I am a bit tired in spite of acting in good films because the demand of film acting is almost 10 per cent of what is demanded on stage. So I am going back to stage till about the end of this year. I want to revitalise myself, because I am getting tired and bored, to some extent. Even for a film like Mukti Bhawan, the demand from an actor is very little in comparison to theatre. I have done very serious and rigorous avant-garde and experimental theatre for which I travelled across the globe. I am preparing a piece for a solo performance which is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, called Karam Nishtha. I have dreamed of doing this since 1994.  It is my dream to play Krishna and to start with that, I will slide into the theatre world. I will start training with Kutiyattam guru Venugopalan Nair from 14 May on the connection between breath and emotion. That is a very ancient technique. But before that, I will represent Mukti Bhawan in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.