In what could be one of the most memorable introductory scenes for an actor on the big screen, Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi (2004) shows Zakir Hussain playing a gangster. He’s wearing only briefs, sitting on a bed, counting bundles of cash, with a calculator in his hand. Rarely has a Bollywood underworld gangster been shown to be doing such mundane work. The way Hussain finishes the scene makes it unforgettable. He asks Saif Ali Khan’s character, a prominent underworld liaison, when the work will be done. “Pandra-bees din (15 or 20 days),” replies Khan. “Pandra ya bees (15 or 20)?” presses Hussain. Khan concedes that it’s likely to be 20. Then Hussain fires his zinger: “Theek hai, main 20 din tak tujhe phone nahi karunga. Bees din ke baad bhi nahi karunga (I won’t call you before 20 days, but don’t expect a phone call even after that).” The quickfire wit and menace are characteristic of Raghavan’s writing, and Hussain’s performance adds to it an economy that makes the threat more unnerving.
Acing the dark comedy in Raghavan’s films, the baddies in Ram Gopal Varma’s films; playing a campy “corrupt politician” in a Milap Zaveri feature, Hussain has tick-marked nearly every ‘character actor’ part that Hindi entertainment has to offer in a career that’s more than two decades long, and still going strong. Most recently, in Farzi, Hussain is a hoot as the disarmingly transparent-in-his-self-interest politician Pawan Gahlot in Raj & DK’s show. Sharing most of his scenes with Vijay Sethupathi, another actor known for his deadpan delivery, their exchanges sound almost musical (some credit must go to Hussain Dalal’s dialogues). What could have been yet another self-serving politician has now become a highlight of the show, thanks to Hussain.
In a filmography that only sporadically reflects how gifted an actor Hussain is, one would imagine he is still waiting for that one performance that will launch him from being a recognised face to a famous name. However, Hussain sounds satisfied with how his career has panned out as he reflected on his journey as an actor, with Film Companion.
I have to start with one of your earliest scenes in Ek Hasina Thi (2004), where you’re introduced wearing only briefs. What was the conversation with Sriram Raghavan?
I remember it vividly. It was a two-scene role – in the second scene, Urmila (Matondkar) kills me. I think Saif (Ali Khan) was busy with something else, so I remember they shot the second scene first. We imagined my character has just come back from a game of tennis or something, and he’s only wearing a T-shirt and briefs, while counting money. We shot this first. And then while shooting the first scene Sriram said that it was looking “too plain”. Which is when Sriram came up with the suggestion that I do the scene only in my briefs. He asked me if I was comfortable. I said yes, but in the second part of my scene, I was clothed. Which is when I suggested what if I’m not dressed in the start of the scene, but while talking to Saif, I go into the loo and wear a T-shirt and come out. It was a running shot, so what I didn’t realise was that a majority of my lines would take place off-camera. Because the camera is set on Saif, and I can only be heard from the loo. When I came back in the frame, I only had one line remaining. There’s a tight close-up at the end of that scene. And after seeing that close-up, Ramu called me and offered me a film. He said “I was sure you would kill him. I could see the threat in your eyes.”
What’s your first memory of a movie?
I was born and brought up in this town called Jani Khurd, 17 kilometres from Meerut on the way to Baghpat. The town didn’t have a theatre, the nearest one was in Meerut. And there used to be this annual mela, when people would sleep through the day and step out in the evenings. Along with my eldest brother and a couple of others I remember watching a Rajesh Khanna film called Prem Kahaani (1975). That was followed by Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Imaan Dharam (1977). Before this, I had no concept of what movie theatres were, what was inside them. We were sitting in the lower section, and I kept hearing that “Balcony is better”. I was so naive then, I thought the actors who were performing for us on screen, were giving a better performance for folks seated in the balcony. That’s my first memory of cinema!
Do you remember the moment you were bitten by the acting bug?
I don’t remember the exact moment, but it was a gradual process. One by one, we all moved from our town to Delhi, where my father was already working. I think I must have been 14 because I was in my ninth grade when I moved. We’re four brothers and two sisters. I’m the youngest amongst the brothers, and the two sisters are younger than me. There was obviously the difficulty in transitioning from a Hindi-medium school to an English-medium syllabus. I wasn’t very good at academics – I was never really interested. I would get excited by extracurriculars like drawing. Our family business was carpentry, and that was something all my siblings were taught. No family willingly sends their child to become an actor anyway! I remember my father bought a TV, and there was just Doordarshan – which would have the weekly Chitrahaar. Another area of interest was watching plays. I grew up fascinated by them.
Were you a fan of cinema while growing up?
At that point, we didn’t even know what ‘fandom’ was. Films and the people in them would seem like extraterrestrial creatures. We would all plan our days around the two hours of programming. We were all under the impression that films can only be made in Bombay, and it’s not a place we can go – because we don’t know anyone over there. We didn’t know anyone could try out.
The plays on Doordarshan felt like a ‘saner’ ambition to have. When I was in my 11th grade, I had this friend who would do theatre in Mandi House. One day he comes up to me and asks, “Theatre karega?” I asked him what “theatre” was. He repeated himself, “Naatak karega?” Which is when I was reminded of all the plays on Doordarshan, so I agreed. We went to Mandi House, and I started rehearsing with him and that’s how I landed my first play.
What did you study in college?
I did my B.A in Political Science (Honours) only for the sake of a degree – I was told this would be the easiest course to do along with theatre. I went to this college near Dhaula Kuan called Ram Lal Anand College – it was a place where all the kamzor (weak) students would gather.
Is that when you got inspired to join the National School of Drama (NSD)?
Yes, I was doing many plays by then. And since, Mandi House is a hub where you have NSD, Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, it’s an all encompassing environment. You’re watching a lot of plays, and slowly you’re discovering your own level as an actor. I joined NSD in 1990 and I graduated in 1993.
Who were your contemporaries from that time?
Adil Hussain was my batchmate, Ashutosh Rana was a year junior to me. So many of them are still working today.
What year did you come to Mumbai?
It was a magical time. There weren’t enough homes (in Bombay) at that point, and who would really dare to come down with no assured work in their hands? How were we going to survive during months when we didn’t get any work? It was a big risk. In my opinion, this Delhi-Bombay flux happened primarily because of two films.
In 1982, when I’d begun theatre, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was being shot in Mandi House. I remember the shoots took place over a whole month. At that time, the cream of NSD actors like Pankaj Kapur, Naseer sahab (Naseeruddin Shah), practically all of them worked on Gandhi, in however small a role. The pay was great, because apparently they had minimum wage. So, if an actor was making Rs 100 per day, a foreign production like Gandhi would pay Rs 1000 per day. This allowed a bunch of these 30-40 actors to earn money, and make their move to Bombay – because they’d accumulated enough money to last a few months.
I think that happened again because of Bandit Queen (1994). A majority of everyone who acted in Shekhar Kapur’s film, we’re all contemporaries. A bunch of these actors earned enough on that film, which would allow them to survive for around 7-8 months in Bombay. They all moved, and they’ve all struggled a lot to reach where they have.
What were the first few years in Bombay like?
I moved to Bombay in 1997, after doing theatre for almost fifteen years. I was fortunate that I’d been recommended to a few people by the time I came to the city. I’d done a TV serial in Delhi on Doordarshan, so many had already seen that. I was working in Shri Ram Centre’s repertory when Ashutosh (Rana) had moved the year before. A TV serial being helmed by Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi called Ek Aur Mahabharat – where a majority of the cast were NSD pass-outs. It had only been a week since my move to Bombay, and my phone rang. It was Dr. Chandraprakash ji offering me a role. I was quite taken aback, and I asked them how he got my number? He said they were considering Ashutosh for the role, but he couldn't do it so he recommended me saying “I have this senior from NSD, he’s a brilliant actor!” By the second or third episode that serial shut down. That was the first break. … Right after Buniyaad (1986), Ramesh Sippy was making this serial called Gaantha. It was epic in scale. We (Uttara Baokar and Hussain) auditioned for that serial and got selected. We worked for a whole year on it. Uske baad, gaadi chal padi (After that things took off)! We were all being offered work. Someone we knew began working with Ramu, which is when he called me for that role for Ek Hasina Thi. That role got me Sarkar, and here we are today.
You also did a small part in Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero right?
This is even before Ek Hasina Thi. My NSD senior Ravi Khemu – father of Kunal Kemmu – was associated with Shyam Benegal. I asked Ravi Khemu to introduce me to Shyam Benegal, and he gave me a phone number and told me to call him at a particular time. Shyam Benegal ji called me to his office, and around that time they were casting for Netaji. Ravi recommended me for a role, but Shyam ji declined saying, in his opinion, I didn’t fit the character. The film was shot in several schedules, and they were doing it one at a time. There was a role of this alcoholic foot soldier, someone Netaji constantly berates. Shyam ji thought I was a good fit for it.
In Sarkar, I love that last scene when Abhishek Bachchan is about to kill you and you’re just staring at him. It’s pure humiliation, rage on your face.
One of the reasons Ramu said he wanted me to play Rashid was because I was unknown – just like the character, coming from Dubai to kill Sarkar. He knows his own life is also in danger, but he comes either way. He’s tried everything, and he’s been unsuccessful, and somehow this upstart younger son has managed to out-fox him at his own game. So apart from humiliation and rage that you’re talking about, there’s a degree of recognition in that final stare. It’s a “you got me!” stare.
Tell me about your dynamic Sriram Raghavan.
I enjoy working with directors who are demanding. The vision of a character usually comes from them. Like in Johnny Gaddar, Sriram Raghavan had already begun the casting process when I requested him to consider me for a role. He gave me the part of Shardul, and asked me to prepare and audition the next day. I landed the part and I started building the character from the ground up. When someone from a small town comes to Mumbai, and becomes rich overnight, they don’t value it enough. There are people, if you tell them “I like your shirt!”, they would respond by telling you what brand it is and how much it costs. It’s a mind-set. So, I was basing Shardul on someone who buys a shirt that costs Rs 5000, but it looks terrible on him. It never seems like he owns his clothes. He’s spent all the money at his disposal to look “elite”, but what he doesn’t understand is that “elite” is a mind-set. He thinks he can buy it with money. Sriram said that the character of Shardul went in a completely different direction than he intended, but he was loving the new direction so he didn’t do anything to stop me. Even in AndhaDhun (2018) – first of all, there was no role for me. Then he cast me as the Doctor, and even that went in a completely different direction than what he had written. But it was probably better than what was on the page, that’s why he didn’t correct me. This belief between the director and the actor needs to be there. I think that’s what I share with Sriram Raghavan.
In Farzi, was anything during your exchanges with Vijay Sethupathi improvised?
It was more or less written. We might have made minor additions and subtractions while playing it. I think our attitudes were improvised, which is why it felt so free-flowing. I didn’t know Farzi’s world was so huge, I was told Vijay Sethupathi works under me, and I have to berate him scene after scene. I’m rarely given the whole story. Even in Sarkar, I was only told about my portions.
Were you aware of Vijay Sethupathi’s work before you began working?
I didn’t know Vijay Sethupathi very well. But he came up to me and introduced himself. On the first day of shooting, he was standing outside my vanity van. I was surprised because I’d heard he was this massive star. So, he said to me, “Sir, I’ve worked with you earlier!” In 2006, I did a Tamil film called Lee. In that film, Vijay was one of the hero’s four friends. He introduced himself as the one who shot at me in the film. After that we met 15 years later, in Farzi!
You’ve been working as an actor for more than 25 years. Anything on the wish-list?
An actor’s wish-list is never ending. You always strive to do something new each time you take up a project. A villain like Gabbar maybe, something like Sparsh. You look at Sanjeev Kumar’s work – and you think about the endless possibilities of acting as an art-form. Anyone can dream for any kind of role, but it’s true that you might not be good in a role you’ve dreamed about. You’ll get whatever you’re destined for.
There are many films in your filmography that don’t make use of your talents. How do you keep your faith?
If Ramu calls me even today, I’ll go and do a role for him. With Sriram, he calls each time he’s finished a script and he’s zeroed in on actors. In Badlapur, I was supposed to do a different role, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it. So he asked me to do a one-scene role – kuch directors ka lucky charm wala hota hai. Once again in AndhaDhun, he told me to do a small role which I turned down. And only then did he offer me the Doctor’s role. Even in his latest film, Merry Christmas with Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi, he said he doesn’t have a role for me. But then he watched Farzi, and then he texted me saying “I’m trying to get a scene with you.” The likes of Sriram and Ramu – they don’t call you for a role where they’re looking at others. When they call you, they really only want you.