(October 28, 2021) A tall and lanky boy loved mimicking Bollywood’s leading men of the 70s and 80s as he took over the centre stage as a stand-up comic in Assam‘s Goalpara district. His act was a success, and this love for acting took him to the National School of Drama in his late 20s. But little did this boy from Assam know that he would one day be rubbing shoulders with those very legends. Meet Adil Hussain, the man who broke into Bollywood with the 2012 film English Vinglish, and has been enchanting the audience since then.
The National Award-winning actor began his journey as a stand-up comic and moved up the ladder with theater and later dove deep into films. If his characters in Bollywood made him a household name in India, he also took over the West with films like Life of Pi, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and the American show Star Trek: Discovery.
The 58-year-old has made a long journey from the fields of Assam to the red carpets of international film festivals.
Assam to Delhi to London
His story began in the district of Goalpara in Assam in 1963 where he was born to a teacher father and a homemaker mother. Being the youngest of the seven children, Hussain called himself the clown of the family who loved imitating people. His love for acting began at a tender age after he saw standup comedians perform during Bihu year after year; he would run back home and invite his friends to watch him do the same.
Raised in an era when television hadn’t yet become a household feature, Hussain would spend most of his time taking up the centre stage either as a mimic or an actor. His years in school were filled with stage performances, and he loved every bit of it. Time stood still for this then young Hussain when he performed in a play for the first time in 1971. This was followed by a full-length play and at 13 he decided to take a plunge into theater and this love affair continued even when he enrolled in B Borooah College in Guwahati to study philosophy.
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After finishing his college, he tried his hand at theater, television, radio plays, street plays and tele films. But dissatisfied with his work, he realised that he needed to learn the craft and decided to enroll in Delhi’s National School of Drama in 1990. However, his father wasn’t too pleased with his decision as he wanted him to become a professor. But Hussain already had his heart set on acting. The days at the drama school turned out to be a game changer for Hussain who calls it a place where he was ‘reborn’. “Before that I wasn’t an actor but just a performer. Meeting stalwarts like Arjun Raina, Robin Das, Khalid Tyabji, Nibha Joshi, Naseeruddin Shah, Barry John and Anamika Haksar opened up my imagination,” he told Business Standard.
It was in the capital that Hussain began his stage career while receiving training from theatre stalwarts like Khalid Tyabji and Dilip Shankar. The years at NSD led him to the UK where he studied theater at the Drama Studio London on a Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship. “My questions were very different from what the UK was offering me. They were training me to pertain to the market whereas I was looking for deeply philosophical nuances,” he told The Pioneer. So after the completion of his course, he returned home where he continued to train himself in theater for the next few years. His big moment came when he received acclaim in Othello: A Play in Black and White, which was awarded the Edinburgh Fringe First award. While he was doing great on stage, he was still sceptical about joining Bollywood as he feared being stereotyped.
A star is born
After years of hesitation, Hussain dipped his toes into the world of movies with a Bengali film Iti Srikanta. Soon he made his Bollywood debut with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, and in no time, he made appearances in a handful of Bollywood films. But 2012 was a turning point in Hussain’s life as he stepped into international cinema with Mira Nair‘s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Ang Lee‘s Oscar-winning film Life of Pi. While many popular Indian faces have made it big in Hollywood, Hussain belongs to the league of those handful of actors from India who made it big internationally before winning hearts in their homeland. It was his sheer talent that caught the attention of Nair and Lee, and this was the beginning of a beautiful journey for this Global Indian.
If the world was talking about this powerhouse of talent, back home, he was being lauded for his performance opposite Sridevi in English Vinglish. These films opened a barrage of opportunities for Hussain, who till then was tip-toeing in the world of cinema. If he worked in a Bollywood film like Lootera, he also joined hands with Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic for Tigers and later got himself a role in a French comedy Crash Test Aglae and a Norwegian film What Will People Say, which was Norway’s entry to the Oscars in 2018.
The National Award-winning actor has given cinema some of his best performances in the last one decade. Moving away from the periphery of supporting roles, Hussain has established himself as a solid actor worthy of a main role. It’s his audacity to pick roles that matter and that’s what has made him click with the audience in India and abroad. “My aim is to be a little daring and different in every film of mine and that is why I limit myself. If there is some script which allows me to play roles really close to the lives I see around me like the complexity of life, the details, the depths, the superficiality, artificiality, the masks of life etc., I definitely say yes to play that role. So, when it makes sense to me I choose to play that character,” he told Public Telegraph.
This is the reason that Hussain agreed to play a scientist in the third season of the much-talked about show Star Trek: Discovery, and won over the global audience with his stellar performance. “I’ve never ever experienced anything before in my career like Star Trek. Working in it was like a being in a world without boundaries where caste, race, nationality and gender did not matter,” he told Khaleej Times. The same year, Hussain added another feather to his cap when he was honoured with the Outstanding Achievement award at the prestigious Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival 2020 for his contribution to global cinema.
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The 58-year-old actor, who began his journey from the makeshift stage of Assam’s Goalpara has now reached global heights, thanks to his hard work, determination and talent. Hussain is an inspiration for anyone who wishes to make it big in the world of cinema, and is proof that one can change their destiny any time.