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 chameleon-like, 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.

Jai Arjun tweets @jaiarjun

Close