Class Act

Adil Hussain is no stranger to experimenting with roles. He’s acted in award-winning Hollywood films like Life Of Pi and the soon-to-release Danis Tanovic’s Tigers. He has also acted in successful Indian films like Ishqiya and English Vinglish. Fresh off his latest release, a critically appreciated Assamese film Shrinkhol, Hussain talks to Sagorika Dasgupta about the bleak predicament of this North Eastern film industry and his journey in films so far

You recently worked in an Assamese film, Shrinkhol. What was the response to the film?

It has been quite good, from the audience and critics’ point of view. But the film is only playing in two cinemas in Assam, one in Tinsukiya and the other in Guwahati.

So if you’re asking about the box-office response, I would have to say it’s not great. But this film is a welcome change for Assamese cinema.

There was a time when the films being made were so awful that the audience had stopped going to cinemas. With this film, things are definitely looking up. The good news is that the young audience is going to cinemas to watch the film.

Distributors in Assam told us that the film didn’t take a good opening but it picked up in its second week due to word-of-mouth publicity.

(Cuts in) How can you have a good opening if there are no marketing budgets? You can be assured of a good response only if you spend insane amounts of money on publicity just like Hindi films are doing these days. But in our case, the content of the film was strong, so word-of-mouth got around and people came to watch the movie. Assamese films don’t have the budgets to make technically superior movies so spending on marketing and publicity is out of the question.

Even if there are a few courageous producers who are willing to back production and publicity, the problem is that there are merely 22 cinemas in running condition in Assam. So, what returns on investment can we expect? Moreover, exhibitors in Assam don’t want to screen Assamese films because the big Hindi films eat into the regional cinema’s business. Alternatively, the film is so bad that people prefer to watch the Hindi film.

What was it about your film that brought people to watch it in droves?
We did publish some newspaper ads, and a TV channel in Assam thankfully tied up with us and promised to run our promos at no extra cost. That’s the only publicity we had. And, second, our film is based on a literary masterpiece, on the short story of one of Assam’s master storytellers, Late Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia. The film had the power of strong, Indian storytelling and I suppose the simplicity of the story drew the audience to cinemas.

Shrinkhol has nuances of a very deep and traditionally rich Assamese culture, and when I say that, I don’t mean like an art film. The story is as commercial as it can get without borrowing from the regular definition of a commercial film. The story of the film is bigger than the stars or the actors featuring in it.

Will the film release in markets other than Assam?
Someone has to pick up the film for that to happen. The film has been partly funded by the Assam Film Finance Corporation who, which has contributed 60 per cent of the funding. Two new producers have contributed the remaining 40 per cent. I doubt either would want to invest more money, to take the film to other markets.

You are Assamese and have also done a fair amount of theatre in Assam. What is your perspective on  the Assamese film industry?

During the early ’80s, the situation was much better. But the industry has had its share of bad phases. There was a time when films like Dr Bezbaruah (1968) brought about a change in Assamese cinema. But soon, things went downhill. We all know what happens when producers start directing films, right?

People with deep pockets but no knowledge of the craft began to direct films, merely to rub shoulders with the stars or to exploit actresses. Then there was a phase where Hindi films were being remade in Assamese. Now when the audience can watch Hindi films with far better production values, why would they want to watch these shoddy rip-offs?

Despite doing some big Hollywood films and a fair share of Hindi films, you still keep doing Assamese films every year. Is it your way of contributing to Assamese cinema?
It would be arrogant to call it my ‘contribution’. I think I can contribute much more. An Assamese film pays me for the entire project what I would typically earn from a Hindi film in one day. And I have a family to support; I have a son who is four and a half years old. If I get a good script, I would do the film regardless of language. But I make it a point to always read all the Assamese scripts I get. In fact, if a really good Assamese script comes my way, I always read it on priority without giving Hindi or English films that kind of preference. I do have a sense of belonging to Assam and I feel I should try and fuel a film’s journey from writing, acting, producing to making sure it gets the right release. But I have to do a balancing act, where I do all kinds of cinema in order to support Assamese cinema.

When I spoke to you last time, you had said that after Ishqiya, you began getting typecast and therefore began to experiment with newer roles. Has that problem persisted?

Not for my Hollywood projects but certainly for the Hindi films that I get offered. I have been offered to play Priyanka Chopra’s father twice, for two different films! I am an actor and I have no qualms about playing anyone’s father. But, as character artistes, the only two roles you get offered are that of a villain or a father. Some of the roles I have been offered were ludicrous!

But you have worked in films like Agent Vinod and The Xposé too…

(Cuts in) I did Agent Vinod because Sriram Raghavan is one of the most fabulous directors we have in the world today. It was my dream to work with him. I don’t think my character in Agent Vinod was bad. The film was a little long but I am proud of it.

Your next film Zed Plus seems to be a different cup of tea.

Yes! And that’s the kind of films I want to do. Not because I play the lead character but because it’s a story so simply told and so well told. Look at films like Aankhon Dekhi… these are the kind of films I want to be associated with.

Looking back, how would you sum up your journey in films?

Fantastic! I can sum up my whole journey in this one word. I think I have been the luckiest guy who has been offered all kinds of roles. I didn’t have to fight or struggle to get them. I have always had my hands full and I am lucky to be getting.

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