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Adil Hussain: the uncrowned czar of independent cinema by Sharad Raj

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

The posters and the images on social media confused me. I was wondering which film is this that has a Kanwaljeet Singh look alike as the protagonist. I was curious and I was “not so curious”, as well. Somehow the title of the film did not please me much. “Mukti Bhawan” was released on April 7, 2017, and on April 8,2017 the National Film Awards were announced and Akshay Kumar won the Best Actor award for “Rustom”, a special mention was awarded to a certain Adil Hussain for “Mukti Bhawan”. “Oh, he is the “English Vinglish” man! He looks totally transformed here!” I exclaimed.

After a class at Whistling Woods International, while crossing one of Mumbai’s saddest multiplex, Movie Time-The Hub I entered to see Shubhashish Bhutiani’s, “Mukti Bhawan”. What I saw unravel on screen was magical. Adil Hussain, as Rajiv the reluctant son to his father Daya(Lalit Behl) who finally comes to terms with his dad seemed to be on some inexplicable trip as an actor. A very special “lack of performance” was unfolding on the screen. It was authentic and truthful.

That was also the time I was casting for my own debut film, “Ek Betuke Aadmi ki Afrah Raatein” and was dumped by both the leading ladies in the film. I was anxious. To add to my anxiety was a story of Hindi writer, Munshi Premchand, “Bhoot” that I decided to adapt as a part of my film. Bhoot is about a foster father lusting for his adopted daughter. It was a complex role, and I was completely clueless who to cast as the father. One wrong note by the actor and the whole film would have collapsed. I had to get it right. While coming out of “Mukti Bhawan” I was sure that if anyone could play the lusting father without making a mess of it, it was Adil Hussain. But how do I reach him?

I met my old colleague, now a well-known casting director Jogi, to help me cast my female main leads. Jogi told me he works dedicatedly for Shoojit Sircar and will not be able to help me even if it was pro bono. Then I asked him if he had any contact with, Adil Hussain? Jogi said he knew him well and was in a way instrumental in making him agree to do “Ishqiya” where he played Vidya Balan’s husband. I had until then thought “English Vinglish” was his first film. Jogi shared his number with me and said the best he can do is allow me to use his reference while talking to Adil. By then we were already in the month of Ramzan of 2017.

I messaged Adil and was told to call at 11 the next day. Adil has this habit of giving very specific time for phone calls. The next day I was to drive to town, but I pulled over on a street in Bandra and called him. “I have decided not to do any films this year and get back to theatre, my first love. I don’t enjoy doing films, at least the kind of offers I am getting. And if at all I would agree it will be if the money is good or the role.” “Adil, I have no money to pay, mine is a crowd funded film and no actor or crew member is getting any money. I cannot pay you alone, but what I think you may like is the script and the role, but…but…it is not the main role, I know post “Mukti Bhavan” you would want to do only lead roles, but it is a character from Munshi Premchand short story”. I briefly narrated the role to him over the phone, with me perspiring by now due to humidity. He asked me to send the script but said it would take time for him to read and that I should contact him only after Eid, in July. From the disappointing experiences I had had with well-known actors, I was very sure he would not take my calls or reply to my messages by July. Nevertheless, I mailed the script to him and promptly called him few days after Eid, and he said that he but would want to meet in August, but it will have to be in Delhi. I was anyway scheduled to be in Delhi, and we agreed to meet on August 12 at 2 PM at his residence in Greater Kailash. He said and repeated 2 PM, sharp. He also told me that he gets upset when people are late. I said to myself that he is preparing a ground to either say no or probably wants me to give up by sounding difficult. I must confess I was cynical. Past experiences you see.

On August 12, at 5 to 14 hundred hours I was at his door in South Delhi. Lo and behold, the door was locked. I called him and he said he was just reaching and that no one is home. I waited and at ten past two, Adil walks up with his family. I was thinking to myself, “what happened to 2 PM sharp!!! I still think he said yes to the film as he was guilty of making me wait at the door for 15 minutes, for he climbed the steps apologizing in his loud, baritone voice.

Pleasantries exchanged both of us made ourselves comfortable, until tea with some roasted nuts arrived. And then he asked me, taking a drag, “why me?” I told him, “Mukti Bhawan”. "It was just a very fine film and he stood tall in it. While watching the film I realized that my film needs someone as consummate as you to play the lusting father, for a note put wrong will make the whole story cheap.” Adil immediately agreed to work in the film, and we discussed timelines etc. I was bursting with excitement within, I simply could not believe that the actor who was directed by Ang Lee, had worked with Sridevi was doing a crowd funded film, like mine with absolutely no gain for him. Then he asked, “how would you want me to play the part?” I just told him please don’t show that you are acting and please respect the character, don’t dislike him for what he is doing. He agreed. We decided to stay in touch and meet in Lucknow for the shoot. There was just one request he made and that was to stay in a hotel instead of the guest house. He said he travels a lot, practically staying out of suitcases and needs some basic room service kind of comfort. Bingo! I agreed.

We finally received him at Lucknow airport in the November of 2017 and then he reported for shooting. The atmosphere was agog with excitement, people started to gather to see Adil, unit members brought in their families and my stress levels increased. I immediately remembered Naseeruddin Shah losing his temper when we attended his shooting many years back in Lucknow. I feared the same with Adil, but in came the affable actor, smiling and laughing, met everyone warmly, clicked a dozen photos, never declined a request, and immediately became a part of the unit. I was at ease.

Then came the first scene to be shot with Adil. Take no: 12. I again get a flash of a story narrated to me recently about Shahrukh Khan and Shimit Amin having a stressful relationship during the shooting of “Chak De”, for Shimit kept asking for retakes! I didn’t want Adil to throw a fit, so I walked meekly to him and said, “Adil, I am sorry about the retakes but there is a certain way I want this scene to happen” and he immediately replied, “ not at all, I will give as many takes you want, not to worry, in fact I prefer more takes, for I can not only better myself but also give you variations. Never apologize for retakes, as many you want until you are happy.” I was instantly at ease and what followed were four days of fun at work, with Adil regaling us with anecdotes from the big budget masala films he does, to his experience as an acting teacher, why he will never shift to Mumbai, on doing Othello, shooting with Ang Lee and Sridevi, why he doesn’t patronize Amazon and of course his own love story. But his most invaluable input was what reminded me of Robert Bresson. That an actor needs to rehearse 30-40 times before he goes through the entire process and comes out spontaneous, as himself again!!! Wow, I exclaimed!!! After the shooting we had a wonderful time at the film’s premiere in Toulouse in April 2019 for four days.

(Trailer of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein, 2019)

I must accept that at any point in time my experience of working with artists like Raghuvir Yadav, Irrfan, Kay Kay etc. has been more than pleasurable and I never thought the commitment of any of these actors was questionable just because they were working in films of frugal means. However, all that was in the last century when there were no agents or media created hullabaloo and creation of stars and touting of talent. The world has transformed since. This rather prolonged narration of the sequence of events and my experience of working with Adil, needs to be contextualized in the present times when artists are not willing to talk without agents, when the mounting and reach of the project has more significance that the quality of the script and the role, when the so-called non-mainstream actors, most of them from theatre background harping on “commitment to good cinema” are trapped in cliches of their own making and are not interested in venturing beyond what their limited understanding tells them is “good cinema”. After interacting with some, one starts to question their understanding of “cinema” and their definition of “good” which to put it mildly is very limited. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect from these “committed actors” to at least give independent filmmakers a hearing? Trust me most of them do not. And what they call “independent” is not “independent”, neither in its mode of production, choice of subject nor cinematic form. Can you imagine how hopelessly these actors are limiting themselves?

One envies the era when someone as Avant Garde as Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul could get an Amol Palekar, Smita Patil, Shekhar Kapur and Shatrughan Sinha! This is not to compare us, the modern-day independent filmmakers with these outstanding artists but then am sure both Mani and Kumar went through their own process of exploring and experimentation, so it was not that these actors were working with makers on a sure footing. The truth of the matter is we do not have our Monica Vitis, Jeanne Moreaus, Gerard Depardieus and Marcello Mastroiannis, some of the leading lights of the French New wave and Avant Garde Italian cinema and they were all mainstream stars as well. It was not that when they did a Truffaut film or an Antonioni film these masters were not struggling to find their place in the cinema firmament. Antonioni had no funds for “L’ Aventura” and it was Monica Viti who would generate piece meal funding.

Such parallels in India existed only in the context of a Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan or the Hindi New Wave. Ever since the New Wave ran out of ideas and was annihilated by efforts to please the market, it all changed. I have personally experienced stalwarts of the Hindi New Wave keeping but not reading a script for a whole year or not responding after showing initial interest. Now in the agent era they put everything on the agent. And in most cases my hunch is that agents do not share the scripts of independent makers with these artists. The idea of working as a central character excites them but when truly confronted with a script that gives them majority of screen time they shy away from the proposed radical treatment or the absence of plot in a film and prefer playing wives and husbands in big projects with a scene or two where they can showcase their talent. That to me is the way how things are probably working for most so-called “hatke actors”. I am saying this from my personal experience with three of our finest actors, recently.

(Trailer of Lorni-The Flaneur, 2019)

Then there is someone called Adil Hussain. Fourteen independent films and only two big banner films for him in two years (2019-2021), including short films. Not all films including mine have him as the central character! The only well-known makers in this list of fourteen are Gautam Ghose and Prakash Jha. This two-year filmography of Adil is not impressive because of the banners or the makers but for its diversity. I Am sure all the films of the fourteen are not brilliant films, some may well be bad as well. They may well be baby steps of a filmmaker to make more films and better films, but that doesn’t deter Adil from working in them. He had no clue how my film, “Ek Betuke Aadmi ki Afrah Raatein” … will shape up? After all he just had the script to go by add to that that there was no remuneration and I had never made a feature before. As I went through his two-year filmography, I realized most films mustn’t have paid him well, whole lot of them are yet to satisfy or may never satisfy the ubiquitous query, “where can we see the film? Netflix?” That doesn’t seem to affect Adil’s decision making.

I asked him in a tele phonic conversation for the purpose of this article, as to why he makes these choices, it is not that he doesn’t get mainstream offers, or requests to shift to Mumbai? This is what he had to say, and I am sharing my conversation with him in the audio file below as it is, with all our fumbles for the readers to get firsthand access to his intent as to why he chooses a plethora of independent films.

(Adil Hussain in conversation with Sharad Raj)

The fourteen films that he has done from 2019-2021 are as follows:

1. Footprints of Water by Nathalia Syam

2. India Sweets and Spices by Geeta Malik

3. Tea and a Rose by Indrani Ray (short film)

4. Lord of the Orphans by Ranjan Palit

5. Saving Chintu by Tushar Tyagi (short film)

6. Every 68 Minutes by Anindita Sarbadhicari

7. Lorni-The Flaneur by Wanphrang Diengdoh

8. Rahgir by Gautam Ghose

9. Axone by Nicholas Kharkongor

10. The Illegal by Danish Renzu

11. Ek Betuke Aadmi ki Afrah Raatein by Sharad Raj

12. Nirvana Inn by Vijay Jayapal

13. Pareeksha by Prakash Jha

14. Bambairiya by Pia Sukanya

This is not to suggest that any of these makers are at par with the torch bearers of the Avant Garde in India or internationally but as I said most of them are trying. Filmmaking is both a creative and financial struggle. Somewhere one needs to start but if we are to be dismissed with disdain by actors at large then it is a genuine crisis. A lot of self-proclaimed actors of repute, winners of National Awards etc. have a lot to learn from this lone warrior. All actors, all over the world do mainstream cinema, for it gets them money, name, and fame but the ones who are good or great are the ones who venture into unchartered territories. Of the lot of actors who are from the National School of Drama (NSD), and have worked with renowned national and international directors, it is Adil, who to the best of my knowledge is living dangerously and fearlessly. Considering the formidable actor that he is he adds a lot of weight to a film, not only due to his talent but also by his presence.

(Adil Hussain in Ranjan Palit's Lord of the Orphans, 2020)

We need more of his kind for sure.

Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker, faculty and editor of Just Cinema.

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