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Adil Hussain: Films like Force 2 and Commando 2 subsidise my involvement in indie cinema

Adil Hussain, a renowned face in the world of theatre, art house cinema and Bollywood, has created quite a niche fan base for himself with his content-driven films like English Vinglish, Life of Pi and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  He is now gearing up for the release of Mukti Bhawan, which received a standing ovation at the Venice International Film Festival and won him a special mention at the 64th National Film Awards 2017. It was also invited to reputed film festivals like the Busan International Film Festival, Dubai Film Festival, Swedish Film Festival, Berlinale Festival and Vesoul Film Festival.  Mukti Bhawan is the story of a reluctant son, played by Adil, who must take his father to Varanasi where the latter wants to die and attain salvation.  Firstpost met up for an exclusive interview with the acclaimed actor.

Adil Hussain. Image from News 18

Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us something more about your role. Initially, you were not recognised in the look you sport in the film.

(Laughs) That is the idea. Shubhi (director Shubhashish Bhutiani) wanted me to look absolutely different, so we added the stomach with an extra pad. We experimented with several moustaches and finally chose a thin one. Then, with the body posture, language and style of walking, slowly it happened. I am playing a small town guy who sits in an office the whole day. He is middle-aged, has a bit of paunch and doesn’t care a damn about how he looks. The film is about a father and son in a dreadful situation, where the father emotionally blackmails the son to go with him to Varanasi, where people go to die. Both have differences and grudges against each other, but as they spend time together in Varanasi, they introspect about their relationship and a bond grows. My character is full of conflicts. He doesn’t want to accompany his dad, but is dutiful towards him and also has a soft corner for him.

What was your reaction when you were offered the film? It must have sounded quite bizarre.

Absolutely. I didn’t know there was an institution like Mukti Bhavan; I thought people would individually go check in to some hotel by themselves. I have heard the phrase,”Kashi mein jaake marenge.” But I didn’t know about the existence of an established institution where one spends 15 days… A friend, who has also directed me, forwarded the text from the film’s producer telling me that this is the story, this is the director’s profile, that the director’s first film was in the Best Short Film category at Venice, that he is 24 and that he is making a film about death. I said, “Wow!” This was an amazing combination. Without reading the script, I said yes. And when I read the script, it was way more than I had expected. One doesn’t get to do such unusual stories. After stories written by great writers like Shakespeare, Kafka and Tolstoy, which I’m used to permorning in theatre, quite often the scripts I get are not what I’d like to be a part of.

When I met Shubhi, I asked him, “How old are you?” He said 24, and mentioned that he wrote the script when he was 23. “How old are you actually?” I asked him this several times even during the course of the shoot, because when I was 23-24, I was only thinking about girls, not about death (laughs). It is humbling to see someone talking about the philosophy of death at 24.  Shubhi has probably come to an understanding about relationships. Actually, his film is more about life than death. Death is there, it is inevitable, but the film tells us that we better get a grip on our lives.

The film is also quite light-hearted, despite dealing with a sombre issue.

I saw the fun, the wit, the humour and lightness of the film, which did not reduce the depth and gravity of the situation. All of us are senior actors, and the way Shubhi dealt with us was a lesson for me in humility. That quality is also reflected in the film. I consider myself very lucky to be cast in these kind of films, which I think are the future of Indian cinema in a sense. These films are away from the unnecessary gloss and glitter. I have nothing against that kind of cinema, just that there should be space for films that deal with in-depth issues which are sensitive, important and relevant. It need not give out a message; it can be pure entertainment as well.

But as an actor I would always want to act in films that challenge me, take me out of my comfort zone and take my sleep away. Otherwise, you don’t grow as an actor. If you always do what you know then you remain stagnant. These films challenge me to make something believable. I have never faced this kind of situation in my life, so to make it look convincing was challenging.  The film is also quite entertaining. I laughed the whole time when I watched it; I laugh loud. I have watched it eight to nine times across the globe.

What was your experience while shooting the film?

There is a scene where I walk through the pyres. It was the first time I went so close and saw several bodies being washed and stuff.  It sort of made me realise something that I knew intellectually but had not experienced yet, that I may have to be here tomorrow, so I should not take myself so seriously. I am a very insignificant entity in the face of universe, so I should behave accordingly. I had that feeling before, but now it was reaffirmed, reconfirmed and fortified that I will merged into the dirt of planet earth… so I should just relax and behave myself (Laughs).

Of late, you have been active in commercial cinema, and have been part of films like Force 2, Commando 2. Why don’t you take up more projects in Bollywood? Isn’t it tempting?

Commercial mainstream films are not tempting at all. What would be tempting for me is getting more money, doing less films and doing more theatre. So I act in two Bollywood films a year which will fund two years of theatre and family life. For that reason the box office matters, but otherwise, I am so happy where I am. Bollywood never inspired me before and it will not inspire me anymore. I did Robot 2, Force 2, Commando 2… these films subsidise my involvement in independent films and I am grateful to them. Otherwise, I keep refusing many films. They keep casting me in a cop’s role, but now I don’t want to play a cop for the next five years.

You are extremely choosy, so how do you decide to take up a Bollywood project?

My role should be inevitable to the script; it should make sense.  If the director is good enough and the script is convincing enough and the money is good, I pick the film. If I don’t get the creative satisfaction and money, then why should I do films in Bollywood? I would rather cook for my family, for my son and wife, or I could teach at the National School of Drama (NSD). I also have teaching offers from various universities. I am hoping that my market price goes up so that I don’t have to do many films (laughs). Otherwise I am very happy with small things in life.

Are you wary of getting typecast in the Hindi film industry?

Yes, that’s the whole issue. After graduating from NSD, I didn’t feel like coming to Mumbai because I knew the industry here will slot me into a set image on the basis of my skin colour and things like that. That typecasting in Bollywood, it kills the actor. Actors here play a certain image that has been created. It sells, you are successful and then you don’t want to change it because you are scared. Fame, money and box office figures are tempting. So if an actor is happy doing it, it is fine, but I am not. I realised this is not the place I want to go to. But I started getting offers even as I didn’t come looking for them. I did Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, I did few more and luckily there are independent films happening. I satisfy my thirst for acting in different roles by doing independent cinema.

Which are your upcoming projects?

A paranormal thriller film called Dobara which will be releasing soon. Lisa Ray and I play husband and wife in the film. It’s a remake of a Hollywood paranormal thriller called Oculus. I play an important role in Love Sonia, which is a very intense movie. There is also Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha and Freida Pinto in it. Danny Denzongpa is making Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala in Hindi, where I play Mini’s father. I recently finished shooting for a Bengali movie Maati in Kolkata. I am also doing a Norwegian film called What Will People Say for director Iram Haq whose first feature film was an official entry in the Academy Awards from Norway. I play an Iranian intelligence officer in a Malayalam film which has been made with young international actors from the US. It is set in Iran and shot in Oman and Kerala. Not to forget, Robot 2 is coming this Diwali!

What about your first love – theatre?

I have many releases coming up, but I have taken a break from films till the end of this year to concentrate on theatre. Since 2010, I have worked non-stop. I have done 50 films including short ones, and I am a bit tired in spite of acting in good films because the demand of film acting is almost 10 per cent of what is demanded on stage. So I am going back to stage till about the end of this year. I want to revitalise myself, because I am getting tired and bored, to some extent. Even for a film like Mukti Bhawan, the demand from an actor is very little in comparison to theatre. I have done very serious and rigorous avant-garde and experimental theatre for which I travelled across the globe. I am preparing a piece for a solo performance which is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, called Karam Nishtha. I have dreamed of doing this since 1994.  It is my dream to play Krishna and to start with that, I will slide into the theatre world. I will start training with Kutiyattam guru Venugopalan Nair from 14 May on the connection between breath and emotion. That is a very ancient technique. But before that, I will represent Mukti Bhawan in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Force 2 is a refreshing action film from John Abraham, despite its faux-patriotism

Right away let’s establish one thing, and this will likely hold true for a few years at least: Popular Indian cinema is going to milk patriotism and pride in the nation as much as it can, given the direction in which national discourse has swung. (Check your WhatsApp forwards for a quick confirmation.)

No genre of popular cinema is going to tap into this more than action entertainers, because nationalism is a natural ally of grandiose masculinity and brute physical power, attributes that we’re trying to ascribe to a nation we, strangely enough, call our ‘Motherland’.

Expectedly, given that it gets to play with a big action star as a cop, Force 2 does it with élan.

At one point John Abraham’s ACP Yashvardhan declares that the days are gone when India couldn’t carry out covert operations on foreign soil. ‘Ab hum ghus ke maarte hain’, he exclaims. Translation: ‘Now, we barge in and kill our enemies!’ (Does anyone else feel that ‘surgical strike’ has the potential to be a smashing new drinking game? Surely we deserve a pun on ‘shot’.)

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Once you accept that we’re going to see this quite often now — at least until India (as a collective consciousness) has more important things to worry about than projecting a strong masculine image to the world — and once you accept that cinema is going to assimilate popular culture in order to maximise footfalls and profit, you might just find Force 2 to be a refreshingly decent actioner, unlike the ludicrously overcooked action films Hindi cinema in particular frequently subjects us to. (I’m looking at you, Dilwale and Shivaay.)

For starters, Force 2 is set in a world where everyone doesn’t speak Hindi (imagine). The film is based primarily in Budapest, and mercifully, Hungarians and other foreign nationals in the film get to keep their language and not converse in awkward Hindi with the Indian lead pair. The foreign language lines are subtitled in Hindi, which is encouraging. It’s a sign of not taking the audience for granted, while also ensuring that the audience does not remain a passive viewer throughout. (In general, this would be a good time to brush up on our Hindi reading abilities, please note.)

This trait, of not taking the audience for granted, runs through the film.

The plot itself is standard international espionage fare for a seasoned viewer of Hollywood’s self-aggrandising CIA movies. (Stories of the CIA blatantly using Hollywood, for something that goes beyond even propaganda, make for a fun read if you love conspiracy theories.) However, beyond that, the film actually does a good job of not dumbing everything down.

In fact, Force 2 can well be compared with any commercial film with an espionage backdrop from anywhere in the world, and it would hold its own because at the heart of it, the film’s intent is clear. There exist different types of patriotism, and even service to one’s nation cannot be seen through a monochrome  prism. It blurs the lines between what we call ‘massy’ and ‘classy’, keeps the setting contemporary, and serves up a fairly engaging plot all the way till the end.

Credit for this must go to director Abhinay Deo, who has always displayed a sensibility that is far more evolved than most other filmmakers. Incidentally, he happens to be one of India’s finest advertising filmmakers. He has made plenty ads over the years that showcase his ability to use the visual medium effectively without having to spell everything out. Watch one particular scene early in the film, where an Indian RAW agent is assassinated while riding a motorbike. It is a brutal scene that eschews gore in favour of pure imagery to make its point.

The hiccups in Force 2’s screenplay mostly come from trying to straddle that line between what’s right and what sells, and this is something even the most hardened cynic must grant to at least the producer of the film.

So, you have an Indian police officer appointing himself for a mission abroad involving the death of RAW agents. You have a perfectly made-up woman, from RAW no less, who partners with him on this mission. And you have a charming, baby-faced villain who oozes snarky charm. A few convenient liberties here and there are bumps in a film that otherwise keeps you interested for the most.

A special mention for John Abraham here.

The man does best in roles where he doesn’t have to emote, so he sticks to them. Back in 2013, when the Congress was in power, he co-produced and starred in Madras Café, which took a more than sympathetic view of (if not one that was downright in favour of) Rajiv Gandhi. This year alone, he has had Dishoom and Force 2, both of which firmly take a position aligned with the current government’s rhetoric.

Here’s a man who plays his cards right, and it explains why he’s still able to continuously churn out films as producer and solo lead, even if some of them don’t emerge winners at the box office.

Credit for Force 2 must go to the man who is at the receiving end of enough jokes about his acting talent, or lack thereof. Yes, we’re still a long way off from giving the world a global action film that we can be proud of, but Force 2 seems like a surgical baby-strike in the right direction.

Force 2 movie review: Slick mix of action, John Abraham, suspense and an appealing villain

It is hard to find a film that does not promise an iota more of anything than what it intends to deliver, and then efficiently delivers on its promise. Force 2 is an intense action flick that serves up slick stunts and technical finesse to support its straight-laced storytelling style.

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Director Abhinay Deo’s latest film is a sequel to Nishikant Kamat’s Force (2011), which starred John Abraham and Genelia D’souza. That film in turn was a remake of the 2003 Tamil blockbuster Kaakha Kaakha directed by Gautham Menon, starring Suriya Sivakumar and Jyothika.

Force did not have Kaakha Kaakha’s emotional heft, but it did have gripping, not-before-seen action plus a villain worth living and dying for. Its Achilles heel was the casting of the heroine. Four years since Force, the franchise repeats the mix, giving us gripping action once again, a solid villain and a contentious heroine.

Abraham is back in Force 2 as a well-intentioned Mumbai policeman who does not play by the book because the book, in his opinion, can tie a good cop down. In the years since Yashvardhan lost his wife (played by D’souza) in the first film, he has remained as strong-willed, impertinent and determined to vanquish evil as he was back then. When a bunch of agents of the Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) are exterminated in well-planned back-to-back killings, Yash enters the picture to find out why and to prevent further deaths.

The case lands him in beautiful Budapest. His partner and supposed boss in this mission is RAW officer KK, Kamaljit Kaur, played by Sonakshi Sinha. KK is to the always-defiant Yash what chalk is to cheese, so of course they clash repeatedly.

Together, they find themselves up against an antagonist who somehow manages to stay ahead of them every step of the way. Shiv Sharma (Tahir Raj Bhasin) is driven by an unexplained grouse against RAW and India. It is evident from the moment we meet him that Yash and KK will solve the case when they crack the reason for his animosity.

The purposefulness of this film’s writing is both its strength and its weakness. Parveez Shaikh and Jasmeet K. Reen are here to entertain us with suspense and unrelenting skirmishes – involving wit, guns and fisticuffs – and they do that well. If only they had paid more attention to the characterisation of Yash and KK, Force 2 would have been more than just that.

Yash relies almost entirely on our pre-existing investment in him from the previous film, on Abraham’s dimpled charm and the actor’s unapologetic willingness to be objectified without denting his dignity in the way Hindi cinema tends to do with women. However, we do not see enough of the character’s journey here, nothing much to add to the Yash we already know from Force.

The film’s potentially most interesting element is the most problematic. Leading ladies in Hindi cinema are rarely in positions of authority over leading men, and they are certainly rarely at the centre of hard-core action cinema. KK, then, is a fascinating proposition. Having envisioned her though, the writers give her short shrift.

Sections of Bollywood these days are taking a long, hard look at the way women have been straitjacketed in films since the 1970s. While some are ushering in genuine change, too many are struggling to pull themselves out of the morass of their own misogyny. Sinha earlier this year starred in Akira, which made a woman the central figure in an all-out action-reliant drama but then spent so little time on fleshing her out as a human being, that the most engaging character in the film turned out to be her arch enemy – who was a man … of course. Deo & Co are better in the sense that their KK is not a one-line concept note. We do get to see her for the person that she is. Still, she is a RAW agent who screws up on an important assignment in a way you know the male lead of this kind of Hindi film would not, and when it comes to the crunch, she still needs a man to be decisive on her behalf and have the last word.

The saving grace of the Yash-KK equation is that despite the hint of a romance between them, the film does not go too far in that direction. This is a good thing, since Sinha looks like a child in comparison with Abraham. The actress does a fair job of what she is given to do, but I wish she had been given more to do and the screenplay had been less patronising towards KK.

The best written character in Force 2 is Shiv Sharma, a criminal who is both cold-blooded and nuanced, a man we can fear yet empathise with without the film getting too maudlin in its portrayal of him. Tahir Raj Bhasin is wonderfully controlled in his execution of Shiv, making him as intriguing as Vidyut Jamwal’s Vishnu was in Force yet completely different.