From Assam roots to the silver screen: Adil Hussain's artistic journey

Michael Gomes/Dubai
Filed on February 25, 2021

Adil Hussain was quarantined at a hotel in Delhi before he could go home, as he’s been out of the Indian capital for a shooting schedule in Birmingham and has since returned to his adopted hometown.

“I’m just trying to fix this,” says the 57-year-old actor, as he adjusts his mobile phone for our online interview from his Delhi home.

“I don’t have my laptop with me, a reason why I’m talking to you on my mobile,” he says. “This is the same phone I’d used to record my audition for Star Trek.”

It’s only natural for the conversation to veer towards the iconic sci-fi series in which his performance as Lieutenant Aditya Sahil has received critical acclaim.

Fans have also showered him with love on social media. “I’m getting amazing responses from across the world, especially from fans who are known as Trekkies, Hussain says.

Hussain is equally excited and the scene, where he has his hands joined with a huge smile on his face, as he interacts with commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) of USS Discovery with a traditional Indian namaste has struck a big chord with the audience.

“I reckon I’m only the third or fourth Indian who has had the opportunity to work in the Star Trek series.”

For an actor who started his acting journey on the modest stages of a small town in his native Assam in Northeast India and ‘crossed galaxies’ to land a coveted role in Star Trek, Hussain is a modest man. He downplays his fame and is proud of his humble origins.

Reminiscing his early days of growing up in the far-flung town, which lies on the Assam-West Bengal border, Hussain says, “I’m blessed to be born in Goalpara, where I had my first exposure to Assamese culture. I also grew up listening to Bengali music, literature and songs. Goalpara is a culturally vibrant town, which influenced me a lot from a tender age.”

Hussain had initially made a mark on stage and is known for his intense portrayals in Independent and Bollywood films as well as movies in other regional languages, besides his native Assamese.

He has acted in notable Hollywood films like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He has been the recipient of several awards, including the National Award for the internationally acclaimed film Mukti Bhawan.

He bagged the Critics’ Choice Award for the Best Actor (short film) for Abhiroop Basu's Meal recently. He has made it into the list of Forbes India Best Performances of 2020, thanks to his stellar performance in Prakash Jha’s Pareeksha..

Unforgettable Star Trek experience

However, working on the third season of CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery was like discovering a whole new world for the actor, a world that featured the most inclusive cast he’s ever come across. The show features actors such as Michelle Yeoh, David Ajala, Doug Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green, among others.

“I’ve never ever experienced anything before in my career like Star Trek,” he says.

“Working in it was like a being in a world without boundaries where caste, race, nationality and gender did not matter,” he adds.

He cherishes the memories of his induction into the series, which was filmed in Toronto, Canada.

“On the first day of my shoot, I was led to the set where the cast and crew members had gathered into a circle. The director (Olatunde Osunsanmi) walked up to me and addressed the gathering, ‘This is Adil Hussain from India. We welcome you to the family of ‘Star Trek’ and everybody clapped and looked at me. Soon, I realised that I, too, had to say a few words, but I was not prepared. I uttered the only thing that came to mind at that time. I said, ‘I was born in a town where newspapers came only once in three days after they were published and now here I am today, in Star Trek, crossing the galaxies. I think it’s been a great journey’, and they all clapped,” said Hussain, adding that he has said he never felt so welcome on any set before.

Hussain went on to narrate another incident from the first day of the Star Trek set.

“The lead actor (Sonequa Martin-Green), with whom I have most of my scenes, comes up to me with her arms stretched wide open. She asked me: ‘Adil can I give you a hug?’ And she hugged me tight and told me, ‘I am looking forward to working with you’. That sort of broke all boundaries. Two human beings, two creative persons, meeting on equal terms, it was one of the best experiences in my film career,” the actor reminisces.

Hussain loved working in Star Trek because of the diversity of caste, race, nationalities and genders, and also their work ethics.

“It’s an idealistic future. I had only three or four days of shoot but they asked me to come 10 days ahead to prep with the costumes and the works. They are very particular about details. That’s what I love about working in the West. They’re very well planned and don’t leave anything for the last minute. They strive for perfection and I’m a person who believes in that kind of work ethic – precise and meticulous execution and yet open to experimentation,” he adds.

The Goalpara chronicles

It’s hard to believe that an artist who started his career doing stand-ups on small stages in his back-of-beyond hometown would transform into one of the most intense actors on the big screen in India. He worked in his first play when he was only nine years old. Recollecting his early stage memories, he says.

“During my childhood days, I was touched by the performances of two stand-up comedians who would regularly come to Goalpara to perform during Bihu (one of the three harvest festivals). I was inspired by the duo who would mimic popular Indian actors. I would absorb all their acts and after their show, I would come home and imitate them. I recall gathering friends from the neighbourhood and performing in front of them. That’s how acting on stage started for me,” he says.

Though he was involved in acting, he was not sure if he wanted to pursue it. “I was doing theatre all the time, from my school days right until I went to college, where I even participated in satirical street plays. Though I knew I wanted to be an actor, it wasn’t a conscious decision for me to take it up as a career,” he says.

Making of an actor

Once he decided to take up acting seriously, he yearned for formal lessons. Even though his family could barely manage to afford his education, he found a way to join the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi to hone his acting skills.

“I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in a college in Guwahati, where I was all along active in the theatre scene. Soon, I learnt about NSD. I heard about a person from the NSD who lived around 100 km from my place. I immediately set out to meet him in a bid to get information about the drama school. He gave me a brochure and after studying that, it became my dream to join the institute.

"However, when I broke the news to my parents, they were taken aback. My father wasn’t happy about it. He laughed, as he had never heard about a (exclusive) school for acting. Thankfully, I could afford to go to NSD, as I did not have to pay any fees to study there. It’s funded by the Indian government. I only needed money to travel to Delhi for the selection process.

“Fortunately, everything went off well and I got selected. I learnt acting from some of the most distinguished theatre personalities such as Khalid Tyabji, Dilip Shankar and Shaupon Boshu of Aurobindo Ashram, among others.”

Hussain was dedicated to his craft at NSD. He also gained a scholarship to study acting in the United Kingdom (UK). He says he was blessed to have had wonderful teachers in NSD.

“I had around five amazing teachers in NSD. I owe it all to them. They taught me life skills, technical acting skills, recommended me books on life, history, anthropology and gave me an understanding of how society works, from cave paintings to civilisation etc,” he said.

Reading is key to learning, but the most important thing for an actor is the instrument – the human body – says Hussain. An actor needs to be his own instrument, he adds.

Tips for newcomers

While several actors have bypassed theatre and made their debut on big screen or joined films via the television route, Hussain has a different take on it. He feels a background in theatre helps because it comes in handy in developing characters.

“I cannot speak for others. I feel theatre is a place where you can hone your acting skills, as it allows you to experiment with various characters and helps you fine-tune your craft.  We face the camera for movies. But on the stage, actors need to rehearse daily. The rigour helps to overcome flaws through myriads of performances,” he says.

“Theatre opens up a brave new world of masterpieces and classics such as William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and Leo Tolstoy. You get a chance to act in these wonderful, timeless stories that are expositions on great complexities of human life. In films, unfortunately, the scripts are often ordinary. Rarely does one come across classics. I’d suggest theatre to freshers,” he says.

Insider-Outsider views

While actors with connections in the film industry have always had it easy, outsiders often have to rough it out when they start out. Hussain was no exception to the industry rule.

“I’m considered a senior actor in India. Now, I’m well respected. However, Initially, I, too, had my fair share of struggle,” he says.

On Indian movies on the world stage

India is the largest producer of films annually in the world and has been sending films to the Oscars since 1957, but it’s yet to taste success in the Foreign Language Film category. Hussain says Indians should make movies that have a broader appeal to gain recognition on a global stage.

“Indian films should take a leaf out of South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which won an Oscar in multiple categories in 2020. Unfortunately, Indian movies are shown abroad but only for the diaspora, we don’t have a western audience. We do make fabulous movies, but I feel our scripts have to improve a lot. Our moviemakers should make content that has a broader appeal,” he adds.

The road to fame

In retrospect, Hussain was not enthused about Bollywood and was happy doing theatre. It was at the insistence of filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey, who came to Delhi to urge him to work for his Ishqiya, that he came to Mumbai. Today, he is looking forward to the theatrical release of his upcoming films like Akshay Kumar’s Bell Bottom and an Indo-British project titled, Footprints on Water, for which he was shooting in the UK just before the new strain of Covid-19 hit the country.

“I was last shooting in Birmingham for an intense movie about an immigrant father who goes on search of his missing daughter. The British-Indian film brings into focus the lives faced by South Asian immigrants in the UK and how miserable it could become when they don’t have proper documents, and how they get duped by unscrupulous people,” he informs.

However, he was not keen on doing films and makes a clear distinction between a Bollywood and Hollywood set.

“The primary difference is there are casting agents in the West,” he adds.

Batting for Assam

Assam is often in the spotlight for being ravaged by floods, deforestation and wildlife protection. Hussain is measured when talking about these issues.

“I don’t comment on many issues, especially if it is of a political nature because such issues can be sensitive and I understand my position, but it bothers me. So, whenever there are issues that I can talk about, I try to be vocal,” he says.

“I’m not an activist, a bureaucrat or a politician and the people listen to me because they know me as an actor. My job is to create empathy through my work.”


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