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‘If Milkha Singh Is Played By A North-Eastern Person, How Would People Feel?’: Adil Hussain

MensXP logo MensXP 01-08-2021 Apoorva Nijhara
Adil Hussain, Tillotama Shome, Adil Hussain posing for the camera © Provided by MensXP

Bollywood has been rather ruthless when it comes to recognizing talent and it has taken years for the Hindi cinema to finally give due credit to actors who genuinely deserve it. It will perhaps take many more years to make certain amends and start casting actors only based on their talent.

Actors like Adil Hussain who have been in the industry deserve way more credit for his talent as he is an actor who brings calmness to the masala Bollywood movies through his characters. He belongs from Assam and is proving all the haters who looked down upon north-easterners wrong by doing some great films.

A versatile actor, Hussain is clearly a gem of the cinema industry not only for his contribution to regional cinema but also for his work in international ventures. He has been a part of acclaimed indie films like Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses, Umrika and the list goes on.

I got a chance to talk to Adil Hussain about his journey and we also discussed how Bollywood didn’t help in protecting the plight of the northeasterners.

Here are the excerpts from my interview:

Adil sir, you are an actor who is not bound by any language barrier. You have done Hindi movies, Assamese movies, even Bengali movies, and much more. How do you see your journey?

I would say that I am one of the luckiest actors on this planet who has been offered so many roles and thankfully by the design of nature, I have a very pan-Indian face. When I travel to Tamil Nadu, people think I am a Tamilian, when I am in Assam, of course, I am an Assamese, when I am in Bengal, they think I am Bengali and when I am in Bihar, they think I belong to their land and I am a Bihari. When I am in Kerala, people start talking to me in Malayalam. I think it’s a gift from the universe. I also have a knack for picking up languages and I wish I had known more. I am not very good at the southern language because it belongs to a completely different branch of linguistics. I can speak four languages easily. I can probably do a decent job with a British, Scottish, and American accent. I am very lucky to pursue acting and to be recognized as an actor who’s dependable and directors think that they can give me such diverse roles. And that credibility has been taught to me by my teacher. I put my heart and soul into my characters and probably my hard work is paying off.

In one of your interviews, you said that people thought you are not a bankable actor and Bollywood had to fit you in and somewhere even I also feel that your talent hasn’t been truly recognized here and you are given very stereotypical roles. What do you have to say about it?

It’s a difficult one because Bollywood has a different style of storytelling that I haven’t been particularly interested in. I am cast in films like Good Newwz and Bell Bottom. English Vinglish is not a typical film as it wasn’t a Masala movie. I feel Bollywood produces more masala movies but that's slowly changing now. This is why you are now seeing actors like Jaideep Ahlawat, Pankaj Tripathi, or Rajkummar Rao. They all are now doing well in the industry. There is a middle ground as well. You have actors like Ayushmann Khurrana who are doing well. People who are the in-charge of this market need to be a little more imaginative about it. Thanks to the OTT platforms, actors like us who are not interested in this masala sort of narrative are getting a lot of roles which is great. Bollywood can surely do better (laughs).

While I was surfing Netflix, I got a chance to watch your movie What Will People Say in the Hidden Gems Category. After seeing your character in the movie, I was scared because if I had a father like you, I would have probably run away like your daughter in the movie. How do you see your character in the 2017 film?

It’s a Norwegian film. It’s a true story of the director. I can understand the father as he comes from an overprotective space. It’s normal to get beaten up by parents and even I have been beaten up. It’s not normal now but I used to be okay back then. When I look at it, I see a father who is almost cruel but had love for his daughter and you see the transition happening in him at the end. If that transition wouldn’t have been there, I wouldn’t have done the role because there should be a way to redemption. I think it’s an important movie of my career. It was also an Oscars submission from Norway in 2018. It’s a great role to play without any judgments.

You said in one of your interviews that you were earlier very insecure about how you looked and in the same interview, you had also said ‘Why can’t people with dark skin play lead roles?’ Bollywood has looked down upon a certain colour or race over the years. Cut to 2021, things have slightly improved. Of course, it will take many more years to overcome the fair skin bias. What do you have to say about it?

There have been many biases for that matter. Bollywood too has stemmed from a society that has many taboos. Every society has its own biases against people of a certain race, colour, or poor economical background. Women have faced many biases across the globe and definitely in India. I have always been asked about Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom and I reply to them that I am very fond of her and she is an accomplished actor but Bollywood lost an opportunity to cast a North Eastern face and introduce it to the audience. 

In fact, the kind of treatment north-eastern people are given is terrible as they were looked down upon as Chinese in Hindi films. I feel only a few filmmakers take this responsibility. To elaborate what I am trying to say here, I would like to give an example: just imagine, if Milkha Singh is played by a north-eastern person, how would people feel about it so why wasn’t a north-eastern actor cast for Mary Kom. I feel Bollywood can redeem itself by casting someone from the north-east. They must be aware of the political segregation and the neglected part of the country.

So, I did my graduation from Delhi University where people use racial slurs to address people from the North-East, and sadly, it hasn’t changed much. What do you have to say to such people?

It’s a social responsibility of people who are in powerful positions, not just political ones. I feel filmmakers have the power. As I said earlier, they need to inculcate it in their narratives. Politicians should also find ways to tell people that we are very much part of the country so that we are introduced to the mainstream part of the country. I feel the education system that we have is also not wisdom-oriented. People use education as a money-minting business. We need to tell children that we need to learn how to include people and not exclude them.

Here's hoping Hussain keeps doing a blend of commercial cinema and the movies that matter for a long time. What do you have to say about Bollywood's biases? Let us know in the comments below.

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