Acting did not start as a profession, it started as love – Adil Hussain
“I don’t consider that I’m late or early, because I have been acting since my childhood,” says the multifaceted actor, Adil Hussain. A National School of Drama graduate, he has done TV shows, theater and of course a multifarious mix of films including Hindi cinema, Hollywood and regional films. He also takes classes at the NSD as and when possible. His coveted filmography includes titles like English Vinglish, Life of Pi, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Lessons in Forgetting and many more.
Not just a talented actor but a man who is thoroughly connected to his roots and inner self, Adil is a treasure house of knowledge. In a freewheeling conversation with Pandolin, he talks about his love for acting, juggling various forms of the art, his philosophies, the stalwarts who have mentored him, his dream role and much more.
You have been acting since a very early age and have done standup comedy, theater, movies etc. How has your emotional evolution through the years been like?
For me, it has never been a question of a struggle, it never came to my mind that it is a struggle. Of course struggle in a different way but not to arrive at the success of my career. I have always strived hard to be a better actor and in order to be a better actor there have been a lot of struggles in my personal life in terms of how I perceive my relations, my parents, my friends etc. Because the fundamental requirement of an actor, who can be perceived as a good actor, not even extraordinary but a basic actor, in my perception, is the ‘quiethood’ he has. How quiet he is within and is not easily shaken by the outside stimuli, it could be emotional stimuli or physical injury. All this stimuli should not ideally shake you in life. You need to be that quite, that the depth of the sea is not touched by the storm on the surface of the sea – that is the metaphor that I had been taught by my teachers of an actor’s stability. How is it possible to have stability of that kind when you are a person who grew up in the society and is constantly prone to tensions, stress etc? That has been and is still a struggle for me, not to be shaken.
The way I perceive myself now as an actor and my journey as an actor is that it has brought me to understand that the emotional reality of any human being. It is one of the most dramatic realities and most often the entire human race perceives that as the ultimate reality. What we feel, the emotions that we experience, this is not the ultimate reality. This is just one huge reality. There is another reality behind that emotional reality which is stable, still, silent. This is what I have experienced in my journey from my childhood till today.
[pullquote_right]To be able to get into the skin of the character, I read the script several times and then do not think about it. Several ideas come to my mind but I try to not keep them. In my unconscious moment, something comes and that is what dictates how I should do the scene rather than me doing it purposely.[/pullquote_right]
When did you realize that your calling lies in acting? How were you introduced to this profession?
It did not start as a profession, it started as love. Like it starts with love and then that person becomes your wife. I fell in love with acting and married it and we are together and we are partners. If you love something you don’t consider it as a profession but you consider it as your love and you enjoy it. For me, it was never about looking at it as my career but always my love. You do have to live your life and earn money. So if the thing you love gives you money there is nothing better than that.
You have done ‘Mobile Theater’, a popular theater form in Assam. How was the experience working with it?
Mobile theater has seasons and one season is around nine months. It includes one and a half months of rehearsal, four different plays or some theater companies do three plays. Then you perform for almost seven months. The first performance starts around September and goes upto April. I was in a theater company called ‘Hengool theater’ and the experience of performing every day, was in the beginning very strenuous but it gave me the opportunity to do the same role every third day and to find ways of doing it as though I’m doing it for the very first time. That experience very few (film) actors would have in life because they do it just once. So when you do it again and again, I had to think of ways to be new and fresh each time as though I’m doing it for the first time. So that craft of finding ways within oneself, to speak the dialog as if it is for the first time, that is a craft that I began to grasp and acquire during my mobile theater days.
As an actor what is the creative process/ methodology that you follow to get into the skin of your character for any film?
The approach has been changing quite often as one grows in the craft and understands it. Nowadays to be able to get into the skin of the character, I read the script several times and then do not think about it. Several ideas come to my mind but I try not to keep them. In my unconscious moment, something comes up and that is what dictates how I should do the scene rather than me doing it purposely. It’s a difficult process to explain but I don’t think about it and allow my unconscious mind to take over my body. It is very much like meditation.
After your film or play is done, how difficult is it for you to separate yourself from your character and come to back your real self?
I think it is always very mysterious. In order to allow the unconscious or subconscious mind to take over, you have to be beyond unconscious and subconscious. I have been given a way by my guide, who introduced me to my deepest self. That area is absolutely pure and that is unshakable. So when my unconscious or subconscious takes over for my character, once I’m done with the role, then I have the reference point of my depth and I know how to reach there. I get in touch with that and come back to my real self.
[pullquote_left]The experience of performing every day gave me the opportunity to do the same role every third day and to find ways of doing it as though I’m doing it for the very first time. So that craft of finding ways within oneself, to speak the dialog as if it is for the first time, that is a craft that I began to grasp and acquire during my mobile theater days.[/pullquote_left]
Mainstream films happened a little later in your career. Do you think these films have got you the recognition you deserve?
Any film industry be it Bollywood or anything else, should not be used as though they have to legitimize your acting career. They are doing their work and theater actors are doing theirs. Then why does one have to compare a theater actor and a film actor just because the quantity of the audience changes. That does not qualify anything; quantity never justifies quality. If an actor is happy in theater why does he necessarily need to do films? I understand that the Indian audience would have enjoyed this person performing on the big screen and as an actor, one would enjoy being watched by a large number of people, but it could also be that the actor is happy being watched by a small group. The two teachers that I had, one refused Spielberg, the other didn’t want to talk about and take credit for training one of the finest actors in India. So there are people like that who don’t want the credit and they are happy where they are. So I don’t consider that I’m late or early, because I have been acting since my childhood, so how can I be late? Yes, I am doing films more often now, which is at the right time, if at all there is a right time.
What is the criterion that you keep in mind while selecting a script or a project? Does the length of your character matter?
There is no recipe that I follow. I try to follow my intuition and sometimes it so happens that even after following my intuition the film doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen or they find someone else etc. So if I had to say simply, I follow my intuition in order to choose a script.
The length of the role doesn’t matter if the role is vital to the storyline. If the role has significance and it does have some layers and allows the character to be challenged, like I would like to be challenged by a role, then that is fantastic. Sometimes the role is so repulsive, few films that I have done, that I would have never consciously chosen to play such roles. But it was that particular reason that I decided to do it because it widens my horizon as a person. When I do something that I have not done, my perceptions change, become wider and larger. So that could be one of the reasons I’ve decided to do some roles but otherwise there is no specific criteria as such.
Every director has his/her own methodology of making a film. What is the kind of relationship that you share with your directors? What is the methodology that suits you best?
Being open to respect the other person’s idiosyncrasies, ways of approaching actors and life, is a unique ensemble of habits and conditioning every human being has. Every director is first a human being so I consider them as a human being first and that human being has decided to direct a piece of theater/ film etc. I try to connect to the human being and not the director. That is when I come to know the many things that are behind the mask of the director, about the person who wants me to do the role and if that appeals to me and I get emotionally convinced, then I do it. Or I give a counter view of what I feel and ask the director’s thoughts. If the other person is open enough he would receive it and look at the advantages of what I’m saying. If the person doesn’t agree then I follow the director because after all it is the director’s film and not an actor’s film. It’s always the director’s vision that gets an upper hand.
How was the experience of working with a brilliant director like Ang Lee? What has your association with him taught you?
There are lots of things that I’ve learnt from him. He is a director who does things so quietly, that you don’t see him doing them. He speaks very little and is very soft spoken. To be able to communicate in such a non – directorial way is genius; he doesn’t presume that he is the director. He is there to feel, receive and accommodate everybody’s creative urges. That is one of the finest qualities that he has. He allows the rest of the group to let their creative urges flow around him and he simply navigates it and takes it towards the idea that he has envisioned. It is a rare quality to have. He is very meticulous and he would want what he wants but without disrespecting your creative flow and urges. His vision is very clear but very open so that he can accommodate other people’s vision as well.
[pullquote_right]The length of the role doesn’t matter if the role is vital to the storyline. If the role has significance and it does have some layers and allows the character to be challenged, I would like to be challenged by the role.[/pullquote_right]
You have worked with several Indian as well as international filmmakers. What is the major difference that you have observed in their approaches towards filmmaking?
I don’t think it’s about national or international directors. When it comes to differences in the approach, every individual would have a different approach.
What are the kind of projects or characters that you look forward to doing?
Playing the role of Lord Krishna is my dream role. You can’t play Krishna truthfully unless you have had some sort of a revolution within yourself. Krishna for me, as one of my teachers correctly put it, is the future man. A human being needs to be like him in every sense of the word. He is a vision of the potential of a human being. Krishna is an epitome for me. So to be able to play that role I have to have some quality. Like I need to have a substantial amount of unconditional love, that unconditional respect for the enemy and for the people he is fighting for. It is an amazing quality which people like Gandhi and Jesus had. I do know of some people who are like that, but I am not. So my struggle is to find a way within myself where I can cultivate that unconditional love.
You are doing the play ‘Karm Nishtha’ with your mentor, theater veteran, Dilip Shankar. Can you tell us more about the play and your relationship with your mentor? Besides Mr. Shankar, who else do you consider as your mentor?
Well I have my teachers, Khalid Tyabji, one of the most important teachers of my life, who taught me when I started my NSD training and after Khalidji it was Mr. Shaupan Boshu. Dilip Shankar is my spiritual guide and mentor. He plays Krishna and I play Arjun where Arjun is trying to find answers to why he has to do what he has to do. There’s a difficult question that he asks and Krishna tries to make him understand; that is what the play is about. We are already performing and we have kept aside few months this year to rehearse again and perform.[pullquote_left]I don’t think it’s about national or international directors. When it comes to differences in the approach, every individual would have a different approach.[/pullquote_left]
Who are the actors from the industry that you look up to and consider as your teachers?
Naseeruddin Shah is another teacher of mine who taught me and helped me to understand the nuances of acting. And then Mr. Barry John who had been my teacher and co-actor; an amazingly generous teacher and actor. These are the people who have shaped my philosophy. And another teacher whom I’d like to mention is Robin Das who is my NSD teacher and has influenced my perception about acting.
As you are working in two different mediums now – theater and films, what is your approach towards each of them? What difference do you feel in both these mediums and how do you cope up with them?
The fundamental difference is that film is shot in a haphazard fashion; we do the first scene on the last day, last scene on the first day and so on. So one has to be so aware and it needs a different kind of attention to be able to maintain the continuity in your performance. Since it is not shot in continuity, one has to imagine a lot of things that have not happened in the film. While doing the fifth scene you have to imagine what has happened on the first day which has not been shot yet. So these kind of basic differences are there.
Also there is difference in proximity to the audience. Because in theater you are always in a long shot but in film the camera comes so close that it almost touches your face. That proximity is only practiced by your friends, your lover etc. So the film camera comes so close that it’s a very difficult and different proximity that one has to deal with. On the stage you are far away all the time. To be able to maintain the loudness of your performance according to the proximity is another important difference. It’s a very different practice so one has to keep doing it in order to be comfortable with it.
So when you shoot for the first time, the DoP tells you not to forget the mark and stand there. And the mark is on the floor and you can’t look at it, you need to keep looking at the character in front of you. And yet you have to stand at the right place. In theater it is easy because you have done it hundred times in the rehearsal. But in films you have not rehearsed at all and they expect you to be there. So the more films you do, the more accustomed you get. It’s not a big deal, it’s a technical thing.
But the big deal for me is to be true to the moment and the word action. In theater you have a continuous flow, you come, rehearse, enter into the show, prepare, warm up and then your flowing through the entire performance. In films you are in the middle of chaos, the makeup guy, sound guy, light guy are all around you and amidst that the director screams action and you have to be there. So there is a truthful concentration that is required. And I’m slowly struggling towards getting there.
You have been doing a lot of regional cinema like Assamese, Bengali and even South Indian. What is your take on regional cinema and its growth in the industry?
I see it very simply. You are an actor and you speak some languages and you don’t speak some languages. You have been given an assignment and asked to play the role and if you like the script, you do the role and I consider myself lucky and grateful for the roles that come to me sitting in a city like Delhi.
Every regional cinema needs to be respected and supported so that the diversity of filmmaking happens. Like the Hollywood film industry has taken over the world. Why should it be like that? Why doesn’t European cinema dubbed in English come to India, it should have come. But there are no good cinema halls in India which would exhibit good European cinema or Iranian cinema dubbed in Hindi or English. So that is a lack of wisdom on the part of entrepreneurs in India. The audience too needs a way to choose, they don’t have a choice. It is the responsibility of the filmmakers to make good films and most of the filmmakers would like to make good films. But when the business part comes in, that is where most of the problem lies. So the distributors, producers, exhibitors etc, they wouldn’t want to reduce the profits they earn and hence wouldn’t want to take any risk.
[pullquote_right]The first thing I’d like to do is to find money to build atleast 15 – 20 theater halls in every city of India where they can project and create a culture of watching cinema which is not mainstream cinema, which has no stars or even with stars but those that are not being released by distributors.[/pullquote_right]
How do you think this scenario can be changed? If you were given a position of a governing authority, what changes would you like to bring in the industry?
I wish I had some brilliant idea but unfortunately I don’t. It’s an inherent human problem of greed. And how do you tackle greed? You can make legislations etc. but people with greed will always find a way to surpass and find loopholes in the law. I don’t know any other way to tackle greed but to self reflect and that calling has to come from within. The only solution that I see is for every human being to work on themselves and contain their greed and be self sufficient. But then you cannot force that on anyone. Every person gets what he deserves and that is what you need to learn to find happiness in. The problem is that people feel that they deserve much more.
The first thing I’d like to do is to find money to build atleast 15 – 20 theater halls in every city of India where they can project and create a culture of watching cinema which is not mainstream, which has no stars or even with stars but those that are not being released by distributors. And create a habit amongst people to go and watch this kind of cinema. That is what filmmakers, who want to make good films but cannot make because of the domination of the producers etc, should get together, get some money, ask the government to support them on a partnership basis and make atleast 20-30 cinema halls in every city.
Lastly, you also teach at the National School of Drama. What is the one advice that you tell your students to follow?
I tell them to fall in love with acting. If you fall in love you’ll find a way. Don’t treat acting as a profession. It might become your profession. But first find out if you love acting.
– As told to Priyanka Verma