Whether as Satish Godbole in English Vinglish (2012) or as the father in What Will People Say (2017), Adil Hussain has a penchant for characters who undergo transformative experiences, which he then plays with unwavering conviction. In a conversation with Film Companion, the actor discussed the ZEE5 series Mukhbir – The Story of a Spy, in which he plays real-life IPS officer Ramkishore Negi, his fondness for detective fiction and his admiration for the directors he has worked with.
What drew you to the story of Mukhbir?
The first thing that got me to read the script was the genre itself. I have grown up reading spy thrillers and detective stories. Also, the fact that it has been built on true events. It’s the world of disguise that they navigate between truth and falsities for a greater cause. I read the narrative and felt like it was pretty well written. I like the directors, Shivam Nair and Jayprad Desai. So I thought, let's do it!
Mukhbir refrains from portraying gore. Do you think that’s important?
The difference between life and art is that a tree is a tree and the artistic version of a tree is a bonsai. A series or a film is an artistic representation of life. It is not life, it is not real. For me, art is to inspire people and elevate their awareness, consciousness and aspirations. We do not want to see blood and gore in life. So why do we have to see it (on screen)? Why evoke that aspect of humanity which nobody wants to see? You leave it to the imagination of the viewer.
What was it like sharing the screen with Sunil Shanbag?
He is such an endearing person. I had never met him before, but I had heard about him. We talked mostly about theatre, acting, the state of theatre in India, what he was doing, and how I’m not being able to do theatre. We had long chats, it was almost like two old friends catching up despite not knowing each other.
Why haven’t you been doing theatre lately?
I can’t do two things at the same time. I’d like to do a piece of theatre in one go, not in between film shoots. And I could not give that up because I needed to look after my finances. I found the kind of theatre I want to do and realised that I need two to three years to prepare for the performance. I want to do a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, and I want to do it by myself. I need the time.
Have you been teaching? What do you enjoy about it?
I haven't been teaching regularly. I don’t know whether I love teaching more than acting…I enjoy it equally. I think the word ‘teaching’ probably doesn’t fit well in this profession. It is almost facilitating young actors, it is a joy to help them learn. It is almost like sharing your experiences not verbally but by helping them do things in the space. You realise that each and every actor has a unique approach. I end up learning way more than I can teach. It’s almost like I’m being paid to learn. It’s a secret when we find something very delicate and subtle that no other human being can understand. Only by doing can we find that. That is a reward for me, and that probably kept me going. One discovers so much about life that it humbles you, and I think we all need lessons in humility.
As an actor, what do you struggle with?
The list would be very long. I feel that my concentration level needs to be way, way higher. I need to work on my transitions from one emotion to another. I need to find out how I can be more quiet, and more honest with my transparency so that I can let the world see my inner being.
How do you deal with it?
Just by not regretting it. I’ve learnt how not to regret what I’m struggling with, or what I don't have. Just take one step at a time. If I’m failing, let me try harder in the next shot. That’s the only thing I can do because I don't want to die of guilt.
What was it like working with Mira Nair during The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
Mira Nair is in love with actors and the art of acting. The way she treats actors, with so much love…her warmth towards the actors translates in her work. When she directs, she would sometimes tell you what to do, which is also interesting because most directors don't know how to act. And they should also not tell you how to do it because they are not experts at acting - that’s why you hire actors. But sometimes, it comes from the purity of heart, when the director has no other language to communicate the direction they would like you to take than by showing you…that is different since it doesn’t come from ego. Most directors don’t show, and anyway, I’m spared now because I’ve become a senior actor. But it was a sheer joy to work with Mira, a heartwarming experience. I would love to work with her.
What about Ang Lee during Life of Pi?
He’s a personification of humility. I don't know about his personal life, but as for the life that he leads on set, he’s a very quiet person. He speaks in whispers, in the lowest possible note that is only meant for you. If he has to direct you, he will come to your ear and talk to you. And because of his quietude, everybody is quiet on set. I can't tell you how much I enjoy a quiet set. His way of filmmaking should be taught in film schools. Life of Pi had no international star. The film was made for 110 million dollars and it earned one billion dollars. How to make a film like that…I think we need to learn a lot from him. Life of Pi is one of the best films in the history of cinema in the world.
You acted in Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut English Vinglish with Sridevi. What was that like?
Gauri is a darling. She’s an exuberant, affectionate friend who is always there, one step forward to guide you. She’s so much fun to work with. She is a dear friend and will be there if I call. Not all directors become your friends. I was watching English Vinglish the other day and Sridevi’s transparent state of being caught me, I was overwhelmed. Her eyes were truly the windows to her soul. It’s very rare for someone to have the guts and humility to let you see through, especially in front of the camera. A good actor is one who lets you see that and who is genuinely feeling that emotion at that particular time. It's not false, it’s not pretence, it’s absolute honesty and she was one.
During the 1999 Edinburgh Film Festival, you were cast as Othello, and your now wife, Kristen Jain, was playing Desdemona. Instead of ‘killing’ her as per the script, you ended up tightly hugging her. Can we talk about that?
I didn't feel like ‘killing’ her, because I was following the emotional logic of the character. I felt that Adil who is playing Othello would not kill Desdemona who is played by Kristen. This Othello would not kill that Desdemona. The reasons could be anything. It could be her purity, the kind of person she is and how I felt about her as Adil, as Othello. It’s all mixed into one. When the instrument and the player are the same, it is very difficult. You’re not playing the guitar which is separate from the body. The body, mind and heart are the same as the player, and the body is my instrument. We must take into account that the character is being played through the instrument. There, I must respect what I felt. I shared this particular feeling with my director and he said, “Don’t kill her then, find a way to end the play.” Well…found!
Are you close to your son?
I’m trying my best! I am slowly becoming close, I’m spending more time at home. It’s good that I live in Delhi because I’m not emotionally blackmailed into going to this party or that premiere. I have a good excuse. And when I’m in Delhi, I’m home.