Mint ST - - THE SCOOP -

Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion once, the ac­tor Adil Hus­sain told me he tried to stay away from his com­fort zone when pick­ing roles. Speak­ing about what was then his best-known Hindi-film part—the con­de­scend­ing hus­band in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish—hus­sain said he tried to find some­thing to re­late with even in deeply un­sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters. “It is im­por­tant to rec­og­nize your­self in un­com­fort­able things.”

Per­haps be­cause Hus­sain him­self was so ge­nial and ac­ces­si­ble, I of­ten think about those words when watch­ing him on­screen, par­tic­u­larly when he is cast as an un­lik­able, dom­i­neer­ing char­ac­ter. Most re­cently, this was in Iram Haq’s Hva Vil Folk Si (English ti­tle What Will Peo­ple Say), the Nor­we­gian sub­mis­sion at the Os­cars in the best for­eign lan­guage film cat­e­gory.

Here, Hus­sain plays a Pak­istani man named Mirza who has been liv­ing in Nor­way for decades, and is so aghast when he finds his daugh­ter Nisha

(Maria Mozh­dah) alone with a young man in her room that he beats them up, and packs her off to the home­land he him­self had left long ago.

In terms of plot and nar­ra­tive arc, all this is very ba­sic; the “young per­son shack­led by op­pres­sive cul­ture” theme is well-worn for those of us in the sub­con­ti­nent. But there is a quiet sin­cer­ity in the film’s per­for­mances and in the lit­tle ob­ser­va­tions about how hu­man be­hav­iour changes in dif­fer­ent con­texts. For in­stance, Mirza and his wife Na­jma (Ekavali Khanna) are cal­lous par­ents, but an early scene gives us a hint of their strug­gles over the years, while also show­ing us Mirza’s ef­forts to be trans­gres­sive or “cool” in his own small way: at a gath­er­ing, he gets up to dance to a favourite song, and asks Na­jma to join him; she re­luc­tantly does so, but later pri­vately com­plains about how in­ap­pro­pri­ate it is for some­one from her cul­ture to dance in front of “gair mard” (strange men). It’s a small mo­ment, but one that cre­ates a tiny bit of em­pa­thy for the film’s an­tag­o­nists.

Given that Hus­sain is not a glam­orous star ac­tor or per­son­al­ity ac­tor—he ranks among per­form­ers who have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing ver­sa­tile and chameleon­like, dis­ap­pear­ing into the fo­liage of their roles—it’s notable how of­ten he has played a pa­tri­ar­chal fa­ther, con­trol­ling or ob­sess­ing over a daugh­ter’s life. But within that char­ac­ter type, there are sub­tle dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties, shades and de­grees of hu­man­ity.

In the 2012 film Lessons In For­get­ting, based on Anita Nair’s novel, Hus­sain plays Jak, try­ing to un­der­stand the events that left his teenage daugh­ter in a co­matose state af­ter an as­sault, and in the process re­al­iz­ing that she might not have fit his nar­row def­i­ni­tion of a “good girl”. This char­ac­ter is a milder, more melan­choly fa­ther than Mirza, but per­haps that is be­cause Jak is never re­quired to di­rectly con­front his daugh­ter. And there are mo­ments in the two films that echo each other. A scene in What Will Peo­ple Say has Mirza shout­ing, over and over, “Tumne usske saath sex kiya (You had sex with him)”, as if he can’t get the image out of his head. This re­minded me of a won­der­ful sand-an­i­ma­tion se­quence in Lessons In For­get­ting, where a vis­ual of an orgy segues into one of a throb­bing brain—a de­pic­tion of a fa­ther’s fevered imag­in­ings about a daugh­ter who has, with­out his knowl­edge and per­mis­sion, be­come a sex­ual be­ing.

An­other fa­ther from a very dif­fer­ent mi­lieu is the vul­ner­a­ble farmer in Love So­nia, who takes out his frus­tra­tions on the two daugh­ters who can’t much help him with phys­i­cal labour—and then, be­ing neck-deep in debt, sells one of them into the sex trade. This is a ghastly act, but by the end of the film, when So­nia’s ex­pe­ri­ences have made her worldly-wise and canny, it is pos­si­ble to see this man (whom we glimpse in just one later scene) as a vic­tim in his own way, an un­der­priv­i­leged and voice­less denizen of an in­su­lar, feu­dal world.

At the other ex­treme in Hus­sain’s cor­pus of such char­ac­ter types is the de­spi­ca­ble po­lice chief in the heavy-handed Un­free­dom. I was puz­zled by this film’s tone: it loudly ex­presses out­rage about so­cial in­jus­tice and dis­crim­i­na­tion, but there is some­thing gra­tu­itous about its use of nu­dity, in­clud­ing a cringe-in­duc­ing but also voyeuris­tic scene in a po­lice sta­tion where two les­bian lovers are raped at the be­hest of the fa­ther of one of the girls. This is the role where one most won­ders how it was pos­si­ble for Hus­sain to gen­er­ate any em­pa­thy for his role—un­free­dom is pop­u­lated by char­ac­ters who serve as sym­bols rather than as fleshed out, multi-lay­ered peo­ple.

But of course, an ac­tor must be ready to play such al­le­gor­i­cal parts too.

As Hus­sain told me, he doesn’t find it use­ful to think of char­ac­ters as good or bad. “I don’t even use the word ‘char­ac­ter’ or char­i­tra, be­cause I feel that is a di­min­ish­ing. I pre­fer the San­skrit paa­tra, which rec­og­nizes the many di­men­sions of peo­ple.” An ac­tor, he said, must be­come like wa­ter—trans­par­ent, fluid— to fit the paa­tra (ves­sel). And per­haps, in the process, con­front the dis­turb­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties in his own per­son­al­ity.

Above The Line is a col­umn on Hindi cin­ema and how it presents the world.

@ja­iar­jun Livemint.com/abovethe­line

Adil Hus­sain with Maria Mozh­dah (who plays his daugh­ter) in ‘What Will Peo­ple Say’.

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