Adil Hussain has been holed up in his apartment during the coronavirus-induced lockdown, like crores of other Indians, but he hasn’t been idle.
The celebrated actor is preparing to take off for Scotland for the shoot of a film that he can’t talk about. He has been working on a theatre piece revolving around the Bhagavad Gita. He is also awaiting the release of Star Trek: Discovery, a CBS All Access web series that is the seventh chapter in the long-running Star Trek franchise.
Hussain’s character tells Sonequa Martin-Green’s heroine in the teaser: “I watched this office every day believing that my hope was not in vain, and that hope is you, Commander Burnham.”
Contractual obligations prevent Hussain from revealing anything about his role in Star Trek: Discovery, which will be out in October. However, he can talk about how he got the part and what his shooting experience was like.
Over the years, his Hollywood agent Valerie McCaffrey would keep sending him feelers for projects, but nothing seemed to work out. “I didn’t like some of the roles, while others came when I was in the middle of a shoot,” Hussain told Scroll.in. “I am interested but not desperate – unless a role is worthy of leaving behind my family, I won’t audition.”
The Star Trek role was the one that seemed worth it. Hussain shot for the series in Toronto in two schedules in late 2019 and early 2020. On the first day of his shoot, the cast gathered in a circle and were introduced to each other. “Everybody said, welcome to the family,” Hussain recalled. “When they looked at me, the only thing that came to me was that I grew up in a small town where the newspapers arrived three days late, and here I was, crossing the galaxies.”
That childhood in Goalpara in Assam is channelled in Pareeksha, which will be streamed on Zee5 on August 6. Hussain’s role in Prakash Jha’s movie is as tethered to the ground as Star Trek is floating in outer space. Hussain plays Buchi, a rickshaw puller who dreams of educating his bright son in a prestigious and expensive school. In the trailer, Hussain can be seen working up a sweat and pedalling furiously to pay the school fees.
The humble rickshaw puller represents a class of Indians barely seen in the movies any more. Balraj Sahni memorably played one in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953). For Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992), Om Puri practised running on concrete roads barefoot, and was so convincing that he mistaken for a real rickshaw puller.
Hussain did his own share of physical preparation, but his involvement with his character went deeper. “The rickshaw puller is an archetype in a poverty-stricken country like ours – a person dreaming of getting out of the vicious circle of poverty,” he observed. He revisited his formative years of being ferried about by a rickshaw puller neighbour. Hussain says he still remembers the “smell of the banian” the neighbour wore. “The memories are still very strong and vivid,” he said.
Pareeksha evoked other memories too, of the struggles of Hussain’s family to stay afloat. His father was a teacher who later quit his job and became a registrar for weddings and property matters. “We always had issues with finances,” Hussain recalled. “We could not afford milk for tea. Of course, now it’s a fad to drink black tea.”
The family of six children survived on “basic essentials”. There was never enough money to buy more than a pair of clothes in a year. Fortunately for Hussain, his school and college education cost barely anything. “If we had to pay for all of that, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” he said.
Hussain should have sought a job that provided a steady footing and a regular salary. But he had fallen in love with acting as a child. By the time he was 13, he knew what he wanted to become. “My father wasn’t happy about it – he wanted me to get a degree in English and teach at the local college,” Hussain said. “I didn’t entirely fulfill his dream, but I do teach acting.”
Hussain continued to perform in plays and was also a part of the political satire group Bhaya Mama in the mid-1980s. “We were extremely popular – people said we had been covertly responsible for the fall of at least two governments,” he said. In 1990, he enrolled at the prestigious National School of Drama in Delhi, setting himself on the path that has led to the present.
“There too I managed to get a scholarship,” Hussain said. “I was associated with the right kind of people and dreamt of acting.” His character in Pareeksha is also a dreamer. ‘I don’t see him as somebody else – it feels as though he is a part of me,” Hussain said.
Hussain’s early films were in his native Assamese language. His first Hindi film was Vishal Bhardwaj’s drug-themed Kaminey (2009), in which he had a small role as an airline pilot. Over the years, Hussain has balanced mainstream and independent productions in several languages. He never misses the opportunity to appear in a film set in Assam and the rest of the Northeast. He was in Bhaskar Hazarika’s independent horror film Kothanodi (2016), and most recently headlined the Shillong-set Lorni the Flaneur.
Wanphrang Diengdoh’s debut feature is mostly in Khasi but also in English and other languages spoken in the multi-ethnic Meghalayan capital. Hussain plays underemployed detective Shem who gets roped into an intriguing case revolving around the theft of a family ornament.
“I have a kind of attachment to first-time filmmakers,” Hussain said. “What I liked about the script was that it was about precious things that will get stolen. Sometimes, even in a limited budget, a filmmaker with a vision can pull off a subject like this, so I took a chance.”
Modestly financed films can pose challenges for actors who worry over their craft and need time and expansiveness to nail their performances, Hussain observed. Sequences that work best in controlled environments rather than cheaply obtained locations, and constraints on the duration of the shoot can crimp an actor’s efforts, he said.
“But I do such films because the North East has so much to offer the rest of India that hasn’t been explored by mainstream filmmakers at all,” Hussain said. “Whenever there is an interesting script and I see a young director with passion, even though I am not sure of the quality of the end product, I will take the risk and do it.”
He has worked in what he calls “no budget to low budget to high budget” productions. The range is wide and sometimes indiscriminate: Agent Vinod (2010), English Vinglish (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Parched (2015), Sunrise (2015), What Will People Say (2017), 2.0 (2019) and Raahgir (2019).
“The work keeps me busy, and of course, there is the financial aspect at times,” Hussain said. “I am very grateful to do roles in commercial Hindi films that pay well. This way, I can subsidise my participation in more meaningful films.”
Of course, like any serious performer, Hussain would like the well-written and richly detailed screenplay, which contains multiple dimensions rather than binaries. “I feel that we need to put in a lot of hard work at the script level – after all, it’s the script that comes to you first,” he said. Among the films he greatly enjoyed and shone in was Subhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (2016), an understated exploration of life and death. Hussain played a middle-aged man who gives in to his ailing father’s demand to travel to Varanasi and spend his final days there.
Hussain’s character Rajiv has hunched shoulders and a paunch – the latter was fake, since Hussain is tall and lean.
Rajiv is a “person who sits in a couch the whole day and the entire world weighs very heavy on his shoulders”, Hussain said. The film was warmly received and a sleeper hit in Japan.
Hussain’s best performances turn on observation. In his stand-up comedy years, he would perform a great deal of mimicry, which, he said, gave him valuable insights into human behaviour. “You cannot be a mimic if you don’t listen or observe or watch very carefully,” he said. “There is also the danger of not being able to come out of mimicry, so I had to work really hard on that part.”
Theatre, which he has both practised as well as taught, has fallen by the wayside over the past few years, but not for long. Hussain is very excited about a solo performance piece based on the Bhagavad Gita. He will play both Arjun and Krishna, the one who receives the Gita and the one who pours it out as the Kauravas and Pandavas face each other in battle in the Mahabharata epic. The play is by Dilip Shankar, and it has the potential to be staged anywhere – on the stage or in the living room.
“I am willing to perform it anywhere – the play goes with me wherever I go,” Hussain said.