Utpal Borpujari

January 31, 2011

Adil Hussain: Destiny’s Child

By Utpal Borpujari

In the early 1980s, a young college student in Guwahati would take the stage between acts of biting political satire performed a group of stand-up comedians who called themselves the Bhaya Mama Group. The college student mimicked popular Bollywood actors as he and his group members prepared for the next act. Back then, no one could have imagined that decades later the same young man from Goalpara (a small town in Assam) would end up acting in an Ang Lee film. But as destiny would have it, Adil Hussain who for long resolutely shunned the big screen in favour of his preferred mode of acting on stage in front of a live audience – suddenly finds himself in the cusp of the kind of fame that only cinema can bring.

They say cinema is a dream factory but never had Hussain imagined that he would one day share a frame with legendary French actor Gerard Depardieu. In Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Hussain’s very first shot is with the acclaimed Frenchman. “I am shaking inside, ” Hussain told TOI-Crest a day before he left for Taiwan, where Lee is shooting a major portion of the film. “The first shot I have to give is with Depardieu. In the scene, I am required to have to have an argument with him. And that too in French, a language I don’t know, ” he added. The film stars Delhi boy Suraj Sharma in the title role of Pi Patel, Irrfan Khan as the grown up Pi, and Hussain and Tabu as Pi’s parents.

If he could have decided his own destiny, Hussain would have been happy carrying on with his first love – teaching students at the National School of Drama and, occasionally, taking to the stage himself. In fact, till about two years ago, his only big screen appearances were bit roles in a few Assamese films and the lead in Bengali film Iti Srikanto, opposite debutante Soha Ali Khan. Things took a turn after the actor accepted an offer to do a cameo in Abhishek Choubey’s Ishqiya last year. While the publicity machinery and the media focused on Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi – rightly so – Hussain managed to attract attention of both viewers and filmmakers in the few frames he appeared in. (Before Ishqiya, he did a blink-and-you-miss role in Choubey’s mentor Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey. ) Almost simultaneously, he appeared in debutante Sona Jain’s English film For Real, but it was Ishqiya that led a string of filmmakers to his doorstep in south Delhi’s GK-1. These ranged from Italian director Italo Spinelli (in whose Gangor Hussain wowed Western critics), to Sriram Raghavan (in whose Agent Vinod he is playing the antagonist opposite Saif Ali Khan).

Hussain, who has virtually been shunning the film world all these years, suddenly found himself busy selecting a few – and rejecting many – offers to appear in the movies. And as excited as he is to be in Ang Lee’s next, the theatre actor at heart is also quite concerned about what will happen to his stage career. “That’s the part which is bothering me a little bit. It’s bothering me because for the last ten years, I have been thinking of preparing a solo performance with the subject being the craft of acting itself. The idea’s been brewing inside me but now that I’ve taken on films, I might just focus on them for the next few years, ” he said.

Hussain first met Lee at the bidding of the film’s casting director, Dilip Shankar. Detailing how the Taiwanese-American director held him by the shoulders to look deep into his eyes, the actor is all awe for the maker. “He gives you complete space as an actor, without once letting you feel what a great filmmaker he is, ” Hussain recalls. “In fact, when I was on my way to meet him, I distinctly remember thinking that even if I didn’t get the part, I’d have at least met Ang Lee. And at least he considered me. ” As it turned out, it was a very beautiful – and fruitful – meeting. “Lee has an amazing energy around him that instantly puts you at ease. He received me with a smile at the door of his room in a Mumbai hotel and waited for me to ask the first question. I asked why he was making this particular movie. Ang Lee answered meticulously, ending with ‘after all, I’m a storyteller’. For me, that was a defining moment, ” said Hussain.

While Hussain does not have any scenes with Irrfan Khan, his senior from NSD, who will play his son in the film, he is very keen to share screen space with Tabu. “I have seen her in Cheeni Kum and The Namesake, and I think she is a very fine actor. It is always very inspiring to act with a good actor, ” he said. Hussain has signed quite a few interesting projects recently, including Lessons in Forgetting, based on an Anita Nair novel;Partho Sen-Gupta’s Arunoday, a comedy directed by newcomer Gurdeep Kumar, and a Telugu potboiler starring Chiranjeevi’s son Ram Charan Teja. Of course, there’s also a guest role in an Assamese political thriller called Samiran Baruah Ahi Ase (Samiran Baruah is Coming).

So when is he moving to Mumbai? Hussain says he plans to stay in New Delhi for the sake of his friendship with Dilip Shankar, who he puts in the same league as his theatre gurus Anamika Haksar, Naseeruddin Shah, Robin Das and Khalid Tyabji. “If at all I move, it will be to a town smaller than Mumbai, as I would like my son (who will be a year old in March) to have an upbringing that I believe in. A smaller town has more intimacy among the people. Work wise, I don’t think it will be a problem at all. I once auditioned for Hollywood film Fair Game while sitting in my hometown Goalpara. I completely believe that all roles meant for me will find me.”

(Published in The Times of India Crest edition; http://www.timescrest.com, 30-01-2011)


January 14, 2011

Aragón’s ‘Paper Birds’ draws at heartstrings

By Utpal Borpujari

As a performer who has been able to capture the pulse of the audience on both television and cinema, Emilio Aragón (full name Tomás Aragón Emilio Alvarez) sure knows how to connect with the emotions of his audiences. His debut feature film, Paper Birds (original Spanish title: Pajaros De Papel) provides ample proof of it.

Featured in the First Films World Competition of the 34thMontreal World Film Festival, where it shared the audience award with The Day I Was Not Born (original German title: Das Lied in Mir, which won the FIPRESCI prize), by another debutant director Florian Cossan, Paper Birds unabashedly pulls at the viewers’ emotional heartstrings.

The way it does so while portraying the relationship between a kid and his father-like figure who has lost his son and wife during the Spanish Civil War, makes one immediately compare it with Roberto Benigni’s much-awarded international hit Life is Beautiful, which had told its emotional father-son relationship story in the backdrop of the Second World War.

Aragón’s protagonists are a bunch of itinerant group of musicians, who seek to drawn their personal sorrows and also earn their living in the post-Civil War Francoist era of dictatorship through stage performances. Each of the main characters sketched by the director is full of irony, and a self-deprecating humour is what drives the story forward. Indeed, the director has used humour to highlight the personal pain of the protagonists in quite an impressive manner, and it would not be out of place if one is to suggest that in this aspect at least he has drawn his inspiration from countryman Pedro Almodovar (actors Imanol Arias, Lluis Homar and Carmen Machi have all done Almodovar’s films too).

Written by Aragón and Fernando Castets, the film starts off at a relaxed pace, unfolding the life of Jorge del Pino (Imanol Arias), an underground activist and part-time stage comedian in a Civil War-hit Madrid,  and his child and wife. As the story seemingly settles into a charming family saga, it gets a sudden turn as Pino’s two loved ones die in a bomb attack. The story then jumps to a year later, when Pino returns to Madrid and gets together with his friend, ventriloquist Enrique Corgo (Homer), to rejoin his old troupe of travelling musicians.

As the Francoist officials, who are aware of Pino’s past activities as well as harbours suspicion about some of his fellow actors’ political inclinations, keep a sharp eye on them;  Pino and Corgo are forced to face a major dilemma – in the form of an orphaned kid Miguel (Roger Princep), who in a sheer fight for survival, ‘adopt’ them virtually as his parents and make them join their team of performers after displaying his talent at comedy.

Aragón weaves out a drama that both enthralls and keeps the viewer in tenterhooks as the story alternates between its light-hearted tragic-comic core and the political bits. Machi, as ageing singer Rocio Moliner who is looking for a mean – rather any means – to retire into a peaceful life, makes for a perfect folio to the Pino-Corgo-Miguel trio.

What makes Paper Birds particularly memorable is its unabashed tribute to the power of performing arts as a healer of broken souls, even as it brings out of the pathos of the characters who keep their audiences enthralled through their acts. The director’s father, Emilio Aragón Bermudez, who too is a highly-popular actor-singer in Spain, makes a guest appearance at the end of the film, as the now-old Miguel in present-times, giving a melancholic feel to the finale.

With some ear-pleasing music (by Aragón himself) that goes perfectly with the mood of the film compellingly shot by David Omedes, Paper Birds makes for a memorable viewing, especially if you are a fan of emotional dramas that family audiences enjoy.

It is in this that he gets differentiated from Almodovar (who is referenced above) – he never veers into the dangerous territory of the physical and mental quirks of his characters, an example being the hinted homosexuality of Corgo’s character in one scene that never gets any mention later on. The political aspect of the subject, a particularly tense moment in Spanish history, too perhaps gets underplayed as compared to the relationship drama for the same reason.

But because of its emotional core and touching performances by the cast, Paper Birds has the potential to connect with mass audiences across the world, even those who are not really aware of the Francoist era politics of persecution, provided it gets a release as wide as Life is Beautiful.

(Published in http://www.dearcinema.com, 13-01-2011)


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