Adil Hussain: ‘I am not bankable, so Bombay needs to find a slot for me’

The 53-year-old actor talks about his upcoming films, working with Rajinikanth, theatre’s relevance, and playing Krishna and Arjuna simultaneously.

At the ripe age of 46, longtime theatre actor Adil Hussain stormed into Indian film consciousness with his antagonistic turn in Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010). That year, the Assamese actor starred in Italo Spinelli’s Italian production Gangor, which brought him into international focus. Since then, Hussain has acted in several Hindi films, including English Vinglish, Lootera, Force 2, indies (Parched, Mukti Bhawan), and films across Indian languages, such as Har Har Byomkesh (Bengali), Raag: The Rhythm of Love (Assamese), Naval Enna Jewel (Malayalam), Sunrise (Marathi) and Yatchan (Tamil).

Hussain’s international credits include Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) and Mira Nair’s geopolitical thriller The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). He will be seen in a number of national and international productions this year and the next, including, the Rajinikanth starrer 2.0, Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia, Danish Renzu’s The Illegal and Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, which will be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In an interview with, Hussain spoke about his upcoming films, his attachment to theatre, his acting process and getting typecast in Bollywood.

Beside ‘Force 2’ or ‘Dobaara: See Your Evil’, you are also in a number of independent films. Is there a pattern in the way you choose scripts?
I have to find a balance in order to subsidise my engagement in artistic films where the money is little and simultaneously, I also have to look after my family. So, if there is a pattern, that is the pattern.

There aren’t many middle-of-the-road films, such as ‘Lootera’ or ‘Ishiqiya’. Are such scripts not being written?
Lootera or Ishqiya are not the norm. They are some of the better films that are being churned out from Bombay. They and English Vinglish are the kind of the films that the industry should make. Filmmakers should make such films which talk about meaningful things but in a way that is attuned to the current tastes of audiences.

Why do you keep getting cast as sharply dressed police officers or intelligence men?
I have no clue. I was asking that question myself recently. I think it is because I am not a bankable actor in terms of commerce, so they need to find a slot for me. I would say that there is a big lack of imagination in the Bombay casting industry, which fails to understand that if an actor is trained, he can do other roles too. I was once approached to play a villain in one of the Khan films and the casting director asked, “But how can you play a villain? Your eyes are so kind.” I said, “Hey remember, I can act?”

These days, the slot has changed to father of the hero or heroine but I have no interest in those kind of roles.

Mukti Bhawan (2016).

What is the major difference between Indian film productions and the European and American film sets you have been on?
Mostly, I have seen that European productions are very well-organised. They are much more efficient in planning and rolling out a plan. There is less chaos and everyone from all the sections of the production strive for excellence. The filmmaking culture is less defined by egos or who is trying to outsmart the other.

In India, generally speaking, there is a lack of tact and foolproof planning, for example, if plan A does not work on the set, they don’t have a plan B in place. There is always improvisation which often works for the film. The downside of working in European productions is that they focus so much on planning that there is no room for improvisation.

What was working in a film as big and bombastic as Shankar’s ‘2.0’, starring Rajinikanth, like?
I was very happy but also surprised as to why Shankar would cast me. I asked him and he said that he admired my work. He basically wanted different actors from different genres of acting in his film. Rajinikanth comes from a different school of acting, for example.

I had a great time on 2.0’s sets. It was fun. Rajinikanth is the humblest actor I have ever met. What struck me the most is the way he presents himself in daily life despite being a superstar. I just hope he does not join politics.

What Will People Say (2017).

You play a transvestite doctor in Eric Gravel’s French road movie ‘Crash Test Aglae’. What was that like?
I played a transvestite for the first time in a play in 2002 in England. I was unsure of how authentic I would be and was scared that I would make it a caricature. But I got an agent after that performance, so I guess I did well. That experience was very overwhelming for me and I wanted to nourish it.

When I got this offer to play Shankar in Crash Test Aglae, I was more than happy. I found newer, subtler ways to practise what I had been taught by my teacher – to connect with the feminine side in order to be a total actor.

I have no idea why I was cast in the role. Gravel came to meet me in London and offered me the role without any audition. I asked him “Why me?” and he said that he liked me in Life of Pi so he thought I must be good. I told him that he must be very imaginative.

With your busy schedule, do you still get to work in theatre or teach at the National School of Drama?
Not as regularly as I would like to, because of my busy schedule. Recently, I managed to work with the NSD kids for five-six days, three-four hours each day. I don’t get to devote time to theatre. Theatre also pays very little, and I am not alone anymore. I have a family who I have to provide for.

But I have taken a break from shooting for films. I will be now focusing mostly on preparing for something that has kept me interested for 20-25 years since I graduated from the NSD in 1993.

Is it a play that you are working on?
For many reasons, I was fascinated by the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in the Gita. What intrigued me the most was the part where Krishna leads Arjuna to ask the right question and reexamine his real intentions behind coming to the war. The question: What is the meaning of the word “intent” influenced me a lot as an actor, as a person. Why we do what we do? Where do we operate from?

For example, fighting for dharma is not why Arjuna has come to war. Krishna makes his realise that there may be other lesser reasons, such as avenging Draupadi’s humiliation. This is most relevant in today’s world as our unconscious actions which we don’t reexamine have brought us to the point of losing all human civility across the globe. The rise of ISIS or Trump, and not just Trump, and even smaller instances such as in a family where the father or the eldest brother says that his decision is for the good for the family but he is actually feeding his fears and enforcing his misogynistic ego.

The piece that I am preparing for is being made in collaboration with mentor-friend Dilip Shankar. I am playing both Arjuna and Krishna. It will hopefully be ready by January or March next year. Before that, I need to retrain my imagination, body, my voice, especially the tenor and the timbre of my body, which I haven’t been able to work on because of films which do not allow one to engage fully and intently as one would do while acting in a play.

Barry John and Adil Hussain in Othello: A Play in Black and White. Image credit: Roysten Abel.
Barry John and Adil Hussain in Othello: A Play in Black and White. Image credit: Roysten Abel.

With films, television and now online content all around us, how can theatre stay relevant?
Theatre, both mainstream and avant garde, will always remain relevant as long as there is a certain section of people in society who want a tangible, physical experience through which they can connect to a person directly. There will always be a certain section of people who want a deeper understanding of life, who ask questions, for whom theatre can be a medium to investigate their lives on stage as it was thousands of years ago when the earliest forms of theatre emerged.

In those days, the practitioners of theatre were ones who were mediators between the known and the unknown. An example is Theyyam, a theatre form in Kerala that is 3,500 years old. Here, the performer dons an elaborate, decorative costume and goes into a trance while embodying an ancient deity and this performer answers the questions that the audience members have about their lives.

Do you have any discernible acting method that you follow?
At the NSD and London, I was taught a version of method acting. A version, because no one can teach method acting unless he or she is Lee Strasberg or Konstantin Stanislavski. Method acting, in turn, was Lee Strasberg’s modification of Stanislavski’s acting process keeping the American film market in mind.

Later, I got influenced by Jerzy Grotwoski. Grotowski argued that an actor needed to be his own instrument, to be prepared in such a way that he can translate his higher impulses of his creative reservoir into a tangible, physical language. Then I got to know that Grotowski’s ideas were taken from traditional practices of Kathakali and Sri Aurobindo’s teachings.

In the present day, I allow my mind and process to be consumed by, I would say, the goddess of creativity, because I am an Indian. I let things happen instead of making them happen. I am influenced by Stanislavski but I don’t follow any method. I also look into Sri Aurobindo and Ramakrishna’s teachings to reconcile my life as an actor and my everyday life.

Sunrise (2015).

Has your intention or motivation to act changed over the years?
I wanted to be a film actor from a very young age. Till I joined NSD at the age of 27, I was sure that I wanted to go to Bombay where I could be a star like Dharmendra, Bachchan or Rajesh Khanna. At NSD, I met a lot of amazing teachers who made me realise the true abilities of an actor’s potential. I learned the difference between realistic acting and hyperreal, expressionistic kind of acting, the way an actual tree and a bonsai is different. Or a photograph and a Dali painting.

So after NSD, I did not go to Bombay but I went to London to learn more. I came back and began working with my teacher Khalid Tyabji in order to become the instrument that Grotowski spoke of. So, yes, my motivations kept changing.

Would you say that film actors not trained in theatre are lesser actors?
It depends on what kind of an actor a person wants to be. If I start thinking that some actors are lesser actors, it is all downhill for me from there.

An actor who is not trained might be good at things that I am not good at. For example, one can be very good at the kind of acting needed in Bollywood films. I can never act like Govinda or any other commercial film actor for instance. I cannot act like a Kathakali or a Koodiyattam or a Nautanki actor, even.

Would you want to return to television after your stint in and as ‘Jasoos Vijay’?
Definitely not something like Jasoos Vijay. Not that it is something that I regretted. It was for a very good cause and I earned a lot of money. But the quality of writing could have been better. If I return to television, I would love to, maybe, act in some literature-based shows. I would love to play Tagore. It has to be extremely brilliant writing like the kind you see in the States and certain parts of Europe.

Jasoos Vijay (2002-2003).
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.