Hussain Dalal has a lot going on. The actor-turned writer works 20 hours a day and is currently juggling two massive Indian films. He spends his days at the shoot of the fantasy spectacle Brahmastra and nights on the edit of the upcoming action epic Saaho. He’s penned the dialogue for both.
But this is a good problem to have, one he’s fought hard to have. At 21, Dalal’s life changed when filmmaker Ayan Mukerji asked him to write the dialogue for Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, despite him having no prior experience writing a film. He’s since written dialogue for over 15 released films, including 2 States, Dishoom, Baaghi 2 and Kalank. He says he’s written 40 films in total, all at various stages of production.
Now Dalal is waiting for his big acting break which he believes is around the corner. You’ve seen him in MTV’s Bring On The Night, a number of AIB sketches, a charming Nescafe ad, and films like A Gentlemen and Margarita With A Straw. Most recently he played Kangana Ranaut’s boyfriend in Judgementall Hai Kya.
Over a two-hour conversation at his Bandra flat, the deeply self-reflective Dalal offers a lot of wisdom. He doesn’t answer questions as much as take them as an opportunity to share his distinct life philosophies. When he talks, he is constantly weaving his own narrative, almost as if he’s telling his own story and describing himself from the outside looking in. He often struggles to latch onto his train of thought as his brain appears to have already reached the next station.
On the walls of his flat are multiple blackboards packed with writing in various colours. A different colour for each project he’s working on, he tells me. He’s currently writing four web shows and four films. Inside, there’s an active writer’s room where his team of young writers are working on the latest project. It feels like a writing factory designed to churn out scripts.
When discussing his future plans, he exudes clarity and commotion all at once. At times you feel he’s casually going with the flow, at other you get the sense he’s strategically working towards something larger.
You’ve always said that acting is your first love and writing is something you fell into. Why don’t we see more of you as an actor?
It’s because the quality of work that I do in my writing career, my acting career hasn’t been able to match up to. Usually, I’d get ‘hero ka dost’ or ‘random funny guy’ and I do believe that my craft is slightly better than that guy. Me not being around in the acting world is purely by choice. I’ll do shit writing work but that doesn’t have my face so people don’t judge you. Bad writing they forget more easily than bad acting. So I’d much rather take up two bad films to write, but if I’m acting it has to be exciting.
Also, the suppressed actor in me helps me write decent dialogue. If I’m writing a scene that’s meant to make someone feel something, I will not send it out to a producer unless I have not cried while writing it. I will not write a joke that doesn’t make me laugh.
It’s also because I underplay it. I have no PR agency, I have no management because I choose it that way. And I hope to God I’m right about it. Because I’ve taken a really big punt in my life where I’m not going the noise way. But I’m not playing the game, because fortunately, the game has begun to play me. After Judgementall Hai Kya, I have the courage to do more parts. I have the courage to think they’re not thinking of a comedian, they’re thinking of an actor.
How do you think the industry perceives you?
I don’t know. I think the larger truth is they’ll always see me as a writer first because my writing work is way bigger than my acting work. So many times you sign a film as an actor, you’re in the running, then somebody’s son replaces you. It’s happened to me 7 times. But it doesn’t bother me. I’m passed all the angst of nepotism and how unfair it is. People ask me what I think of nepotism and I say ‘I want to apologise to nepotism because I destroyed it’. I did it, I proved that you have to work hard.
Nobody who comes from a film family gets as highly paid as I do to write a film. I’m not saying that because I’m arrogant. It’s because I used to be bonded labour at 15. I used to load trucks for a meal. I know the value of money.
At 21 I took up writing jobs to survive. It’s my survival instinct that made me write Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. People ask me how I got so successful and I say my success is a by-product of my poverty. But it’s also Ayan. He’s the kind of guy who took a punt on a random kid. He’s again taken a punt with Brahmastra. He’s making me write India’s biggest film. What do I know about fantasy epics? I don’t know why he believes in me.
You’ve written the dialogue for a range of films from Yeh Jawaaani Hai Deewani to Dishoom to Baaghi 2 to Kalank. Where are you most comfortable?
Comfort is not my scene, only excitement is. It’s about how much a project excites me rather than how much I fit into that world. I have a theory that comfort prevents excellence.
For me, Brahmastra is my child. It’s what we’ve given three years to. Dishoom might seem like a frivolous film but it’s the reason they called me for Saaho. Fanney Khan was also a film that came truly from the bottom of my heart. Between Brahmastra, Kalank and Saaho, I’ve also written Mere Pyaare Prime Minister. There’s another film that’s very close to my heart called 99 Songs.
I have to ask you about Kalank. Is it tough when one of your films is rejected like that?
If you ask me, my best work is Kalank. When I came out of the theatre, I just knew it wasn’t going to work. People found it boring and in cinema, boring is worse than bad. And it breaks my heart because Kalank is everything, Kalank is what I wanted to say to this country. It has lines for me which say everything. When Varun Dhawan catches the collar of a man he says ‘logon ke kaam pe dhyaan dena seekh, uske baap ke nam pe nahin’. The second thing is a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl can be in love in India.
So it was so many things that we were trying to say, but we failed. A lack of attachment helps me in my life but this one really fucking stabbed me in the heart. I remember not leaving home for seven days which for me is a big deal.
And then I remembered something. I overheard Shah Rukh Khan tell another actor something I’ll never forget. He said ‘if you want to have a fantastic career remember one thing – you will do 100 films. 22 will be your children, what you truly believe in. 78 will be those you did for money or because they were going to be hits. Now if you’re going to be a superstar, 60 of them will be blockbusters. From that 60, 56 you won’t remember, 3 will be the ones you did for the wrong reasons and maybe, just maybe one of your 22 will make it to the list of your successes.’
I tried to hire three privileged people from Bandra. Between weddings, music festivals, self-discovery and drugs, they eventually said ‘Dad said he’ll launch me’. I only work with versions of myself. Hunger is everything.
As someone who really didn’t have it easy early on, do you think your relationship with success is different to others?
I’m actually just trying to keep my head together and get my personal life right. The one thing I’ve learnt from great artists, which I’ve tried to imbibe in my own life, is that they are the same person on the evening of their biggest hit and their biggest flop. How do you not let it affect you? Beyond a point, you just can’t give a fuck. It’s a film, it’s not saving the poverty problem, the water problem, the hunger problem, the racism problem.
That’s how I keep myself sane, it’s my lack of self-importance. You have to keep living an interesting life to be able to make good cinema. The moment I take a Soho House membership and start living in that world, my cinema will get affected. I’m not corrupting my honesty for anything. But the larger truth for you is that I’m a fluke. I’m a fluke every day of my life. It’s just lasted this long.
You’ve talked a lot about your early struggle. Many such artists initially do as much work as they can to feel secure and later become choosey. Would you agree with that?
Yeah. I don’t come from comfort. The first thing I wanted to do is feed myself. I’m not playing this game of only wanting to do ‘great films’. Self-importance makes you suffer, makes your work suffer, makes you judge people without working with them, and makes you a limited artist.
Today I’m writing three films for Dharma Productions, acting in an Excel Entertainment film, writing a film for BR Chopra Films, writing a film for Sanjay Leela Bhansali Films, writing a series for Maddock films. So, I’m trying not to discriminate in the kinds of films I do which a lot of young writers do. It’s limiting for any artist to have judgement before experience. And I’m not an artist. I’m a glorified, highly paid labourer.
Do you feel you’re at a juncture where it’s less about what you need to write and more about what you want to write?
For the first time in my life I’m able to say yes to what I like. And that’s one thing I’ve tried to crack. I do really trash films that nobody is going to watch for very good money. Or I do mature films. That middle ground film that people will watch and review and hold against you, I can now avoid those. I’ve cracked that deal. I will write a film that you will not know or hear about and no one will review. I’ll make money and I’m out. So, I’m trying to find those. I’m only about money or heart. But for the first time, the heart is also giving money.
In your Ted Talk you spoke a lot about how you’re a product of the kindness of others. Do you feel a responsibility to do the same for other artists?
Absolutely. My writer’s room is only kids like me, it has no privileged children. It helps me deliver scripts faster because they need it as badly as I needed it at 20. We deliver 30 pages a night.
I tried to hire three privileged people from Bandra. Between weddings, music festivals, self-discovery and drugs, they eventually said ‘Dad said he’ll launch me’. I only work with versions of myself. Hunger is everything. The problem is young artists spend so much time giving importance to cinema, and that cinema is average. It’s truly the people who give importance to life and people that truly make powerful cinema.
I watch movies for fun, not because I think I’m going to learn anything about scriptwriting because scripts come from life. Too many films we make feel like they’re written by people who watch too many movies. And when you’re watching you can tell if the writer has felt it or not.
If there’s something you could tell your 20-year-old self before everything fell into place what would it be?
I’d say it’s going to get better. You’ll eat again. Hang in there. But actually, if somebody had told me that I would’ve become comfortable and not done any of these things, so screw that! Cancel. What I’d tell my 20-year-old self is figure it out. Fuck the poetry.