It’s tough to be acknowledged as a phenomenal actor in one country, let alone all over the world—but that’s exactly the reputation Adil Hussain has managed to carve out for himself. The characters he embodies are multi-layered, each highlighting a different facet and nuance of life.
His most recent accolade has been to be nominated for the top acting award in Norway for his role in What Will People Say. We spoke to the English Vinglish actor about the difficulties in portraying some characters, his favourite Netflix series and what kind of films we can expect from the Pondicherry International Film Festival, for which he’ll be serving as a mentor.
You recently mentioned in a tweet that you’d like to see someone of Assamese origin play the role of Hima Das. Is there any one in particular that you would like to portray?
I’d like to play this very famous Assamese saint, Sankaradev. He’s a 15th century saint who played a part in spreading and pioneering the Bhakti movement in Assam, and who used theatre, literature, poetry and songs as mediums to do so. I would love to play that role.
How do you balance roles in commercial Bollywood films against the indie ones that perhaps don’t get as much traction as the others, but stay true to your path as an actor?
It just so happens that a lot of scripts come to me from independent producers and directors. Some of them are fairly good, some of them are brilliant, and I choose one or two keeping in mind my dwindling bank balance so that I can afford to act in one or two of them at least a year. This keeps me sane and content, and ensures that I can go to sleep well, and at the same time keep paying the bills. I also wish that my market price would go up a little bit so that I don't have to do too many films, and can spend some time at home with my family and friends [laughs].
How do you see the growth of theatre and independent films progressing in India?
I would say it's the beginning of a good era, unless the whole of India goes into some sort of chaos for whatever reason, I don't want to make a comment on the politics of it. But this is a very, very good beginning because so many things are connected in filmmaking. The platforms that are being used to show these films to the masses are changing rapidly and radically in terms of mobile devices and all that, so there are spaces for good, meaningful, well-made films to be made in a micro-budget. However, one also has to keep in mind that because it would be easier and cheaper to make films, there'll be a lot of bad ones that would come out as well because everybody would like to make a film and everybody wants to become famous—that's the trend and mode of society. But I guess, slowly those who really love filmmaking, those from other disciplines that are being used in the filmmaking process, and those who really love to do what they do, will remain and the rest of them will all fall off. So, according to me, it's just the beginning of a good time for independent films.
So you really think passion will take someone forward?
Yes, but I can't forget the way that film is treated—it's a very strange combination of art and art being treated as a product. Film is a discipline of art, a medium of art. But then at the same time, to make a film you require a lot of money, unlike theatre, and so someone has to pay that money and it has to be paid back to the producers and financiers; so, it has to be treated very delicately and gently. It's a tricky path to tread on. Somewhere along the line, quite a lot of films (most actually) lose that balance. The commerce part takes over more than the artistic part. Independent films try to balance that; they try to make art the dominant factor in terms of presenting the film and even its development. So, somehow that balance needs to be maintained, but quite often commerce remains the most important part, apart from a few films, and this will continue, I think. Market is a big force; you cannot neglect it at all. It will always dominate, but, in between, one has to find a way to create another market within the market because there are people who would like to watch these movies that I'm interested to act in, and there are people interested to make them. In India it's being created slowly.
Speaking of all these platforms and markets, Netflix and Amazon Prime have both been coming up as a podium for a lot of original Indian content. Any favourites?
In terms of Indian content, I just saw Sacred Games and I think it was very well done, very well acted and forcefully written, but also based on a very well-written novel. Both the directors, Anurag and Vikramaditya, are very competent directors. This is the only series I've seen, and I really liked it.
Mukti Bhawan is on Netflix and is getting even more attention. How was it filming something that touched humanity so deeply, yet was such a simple story?
It was an insightful and moving experience, especially because of the organically written script. There was no difficulty to act in it; I just had to be myself, because it talks about the reality that is family.
How tough was it playing your character in Unfreedom?
Though we have seen extreme violence being used in order to make children listen to their parents in India, the kind shown in Unfreedom was brutal, it was too brutal for me. To imagine myself using police force to go ahead and do what they did to my daughter—it's almost unbelievable. So, it's very difficult, but I respect the director's freedom to tell his story. I think the attitude of the film was to jolt the audience out of their lethargy and apathy, and take note of these kind of situations. I understand that, but I feel, this attitude doesn't work; you know to punch people in the face. Or sometimes maybe it works, but most of the time, I feel it doesn't. It takes time, a lot of empathy is required.
You’ll be serving as a mentor for the Pondicherry International Film Festival. What can people expect from it, and how has the process of selecting the films to be showcased been?
I'm one of the mentors who is basically there to make sure that the best films from various genres are presented. This year focuses on French film, Tamil independent movies and also other Indian independent films. We’re aiming to make sure that we cover all the different types of genres of film, those that are made with a lot of care and that respect the artistic depiction of reality—it could be with the stylisation as well. We want the audience to be able to journey into people's lives to see more nuances and layers and subtleties so that they are in a way being introduced to their own lives. They should be able to reflect upon their own lives without being troubled; so, it is not that someone has to come back with a burden to think about—because that's a general argument with all these commercial filmmakers, they say they don't want people to think about it too much. No, you don't have to think about it, you'll feel it. It's a feeling that we want to create, where you look at yourself and become aware about yourself, become aware about your behaviour, become aware about your interactions, how you treat people, how you treat women, how you treat society, how you treat yourself... these are the fundamental factors that we are looking at while selecting the films.