Iris C F Gomes
British Indian director, Waris Hussein was in attendance at Literati Book Shop in January, 2015, to speak about his experiences in the field of direction. Born in Lucknow, Hussein left for England when he was very young and later graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, from Queen’s College, Cambridge. He is the progeny of Attia Hosain, author of Sunlight on a Broken Column.
He will eternally be introduced as the director of the first Dr Who series, but there is more that marks his career to credit him as a director of note. He has directed television serial Edward and Mrs Simpson for which he won a Bafta Award and Barry Manilow’s musical, Copacabana, for which he won an Emmy Award. Apart from these he has had a number successful series such as the BBC television version of A Passage to India in 1965 and feature films: Melody (1971) and Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972). He has had the opportunity of directing stalwarts of cinema such as Bette Davis, Shirley McLaine and Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
Hussein does not take credit for the choice of most of the films and series directed by him. His choice lay in the matter of whether he identified with the script and felt he could execute credibly. For instance, he would avoid an action-film because that is not his forte. ‘I’m an actor’s person and if I get a story with some substance, a line of thought, a narrative progression which appeals to me then obviously I would like to deal with it,’ said Hussein. The process of directing was complicated during the early years of his career. They needed to shoot an entire episode of the Dr Who and A Passage to India series continuously and hence there would be four cameras filming at the same time. The challenge was to cover certain actors when they were speaking or when he thought he needed to see something visual. There was also the issue of the cameras coming into each other’s viewing range. There were sound problems too as the boom operators worked within the confines of the set. The process of planning the entire sequence was not just aesthetically demanding but was almost a mathematical challenge. However, it taught him to be economical in his filming which can be witnessed in his later films. ‘I wish I could say everything I wanted to do has happened. It has not. It is a mighty mountain to climb to get a film financed. It depends on the time and the place, who’s interested…’ says Hussein.
Waris Hussein defends the indomitable Bette Davis, ‘I absolutely think she was a unique human being, a brilliant actress and a star. Now in contrast when I talk about Elizabeth Taylor, I say she was a star.’ He described the late actress as someone who was intolerant of pretentious people and those who refused to accept and rectify their mistakes. He considers himself highly privileged to have been able to work with her. When forced to work with less than skilled actors he reminds himself he at least had a chance with the ‘greats’.
‘Film making is an art, but it is also a business,’ says Hussein, explaining why it is not always possible for a filmmaker to be idealistic and pedagogic. He suggested that unless one was exceptionally unique there was no point in making films that no one was going to see. ‘I have had enormous disappointments in my life when I have made a film I thought was good work and it has never got to see the light of the day,’ says Hussein. He recalls Sixth Happiness, the film based on Firdaus Kanga’s semi-autobiographical book, Trying to Grow, where for the first time various issues such as the protagonist’s homosexuality, Parsee ethnicity, and disability were raised and addressed. However, nobody wanted to watch the film despite all the social questions explored and the emotional politics it portrayed. He says of the critically acclaimed film, ‘That film deserved more than it got!’
He convinced Firdaus Kanga to play the main role himself, since he could not find an actor to play the part of a cripple with brittle bone, who would progress from the age of eight to eighteen remaining the same height (four feet). Hussein was warned of failure using an inexperienced actor but he went ahead nonetheless. He says, ‘We were way ahead of our times,’ noting that it is now that able actors such as Daniel Day Lewis and Eddie Redmayne and have garnered recognition and awards for playing disabled persons in My Left Foot and The Theory of Everything, respectively. They could easily walk off the sets while Firdaus had to be carried off and yet he was able to carry the film on his own.
Public response to a film is greater when a director is well known in that particular society. Hussein had the handicap of being better known in a society other than the one he was born into. Coming to the Bombay Film Festival two years ago as a jury member, his awareness of this fact became firmly entrenched. ‘Most people here do not know me,’ he says.
Melody, which happens to be another one of Hussein’s favourites, was conceived of by David Puttnam on the wave of fame that the two main actors, Mark Lester and Jack Wild, had achieved with the film Oliver!. The film was also meant to be a vehicle to revive the Bee Gees’ flagging records sales as the script was written to suit the songs they had composed. And this was what Hussein was expected to present in visual cinematic terms. ‘I’ve never worked with that many children before, by the way’ laughs Hussein, citing a number of at least 300 in some scenes. ‘It was to do with the joy of children’s lives. These are twelve –year-olds. Alas! That was then- not anymore,’ he says, commenting on the absence of the same innocence in the children of today.
Hussein’s career began with Dr Who, when he was only in his early twenties. A film has been made on the making of the very first Dr Who series, called An Adventure in Time and Space and starring Sacha Dhawan, who plays Waris Hussein. Watching himself being played by another actor has been a strange experience for him. Today Dr Who has a hugely successful franchise but during Waris Hussein’s time, since he was under contract, the most he could make out of it was signing photographs at conventions for twenty bucks. ‘…and actually have made a little pile sometimes,’ he says, inviting laughter.
It was at the BBC’s trainee course in television that Hussein picked up his directorial skills. He tells an interesting story about his attempt to make direction his profession by first joining this course. He had already directed a number of dramas at Cambridge but this did not open doors for him. He had his mother’s support in this career choice. His father was a different matter altogether. A typical Indian father, he expected Hussein to go back to India and settle down in a steady job. His father, however, relented and gave Hussein a year’s time to do as he chose. BBC wanted to relegate Hussein to Bush House where shows were broadcast to India and Pakistan. Adamantly standing his ground regarding the traineeship, he finally was accepted into the course after someone else dropped out.
After having had an eventful career as a director, now Waris Hussein works with youngsters training to be actors, helping them appreciate and develop their aptitude.