Waris Hussein (1938-),  film, television and stage director was recently in Delhi. He went to England when only nine with his parents and sister and stayed on. He built a successful, artistically fulfilling career for himself in England and the United States of America, and is looking forward to continue till the last breath. While at Cambridge University, he became active in the theatre and took a production to London which got rave reviews. He was selected for a trainee director’s job. Earlier he had also studied at the Slade School of Art. What he learnt there has stood him in good stead throughout his distinguished career. His films are invariably elegantly designed and shot.

His work on television is as disciplined and focused as it is in the cinema or theatre. Eclectic his work may be, but there is a unity of vision that holds it all together. He is committed to understanding the human predicament or how human beings behave with themselves and others in variable social conditions.

The Lucknow-born Hussein has a knack for directing actors, even famous ones, to bring out the best in them. Sir Laurence Olivier, the great thespian, gives possibly his most convincing performance as a frail, filthy rich old man in Hussein’s TV film, Daphne Laureola. Dame Sybil Thorndike is marvellous in a television adaptation of A Passage to India. Similarly Sandy Dennis in A Touch of Love, Angela Lansbury in The Shell Seekers and Edward Fox in Edward and Mrs. Simpson, have all given memorable performances.

Hussein is highly regarded by the Film and TV cognoscenti for his quiet professionalism and consummate artistry.

Let’s begin at the beginning. You mentioned in the auditorium before one of the screenings that before your family had gone across before 1947 and your father was a cotton commissioner.

He was the India supply commissioner in British India. So he was actually in charge of the entire operation involving cotton export and import between the two countries. He had a very responsible job. He was transferred there pre-independence. My sister and I were very small. We were taken out of our school in India and taken to post-war Britain really. From there, when independence happened we were there—in August. So there was hardly any time to catch breath, let alone anything else. My mother was very upset with the thought that might have to come back and be uprooted once again. We had been put into schools and my mother said “We can’t do this to these children, we have to educate these children where they are”. That was the beginning of my journey in England. That is how it happened.

So your family decided to stay on?

Well, my father’s job stopped with independence because it was no longer a British Indian situation, so he then had to come back to India so that he could resurrect his career in that framework. He was then given a job that would somehow coordinate trade between India and Pakistan (including erstwhile East Pakistan). It was a very difficult time as you can imagine. My mother didn’t want to leave us alone in boarding school and said one of the parents should be there with them. She decided to stay with us in England. We somehow managed to survive. 

She got a job at the BBC at the far eastern services which was in those days located in Bush House. They used to broadcast in Hindi and Urdu and she got a job in that area. That is how she made a living to cope with monetary control in those days. There was currency control from new India. My father applied and was allowed to send money to educate his children in England. But he was not allowed full subsistence for his wife. So my mother had to find a job.

The first shock as seeing angrez doing manual work. In those days they looked pretty down and out. I was shocked to see the people who had ruled an empire and their mother country was such a gloomy affair. The hotel in Kensington had one wall that had been bombed and they had put up a tarpaulin; when we climbed the stairs if you stepped on the wrong side you could literally fall down.

Your father’s name?

Ali Bahadur Habibullah. But Waris Hussein is my professional name because Habibullah is far too complicated for credits. And the Hussein situation is that my mother comes from the Kidwai family. She is a writer and I think quite well known (Attiaa Hosain)  for her book Sunlight on a Broken Column and I chose to take her maiden name. For some reason, which is beyond anybody’s comprehension, instead of spelling it the way she does, which is HOSAIN, I spelled it as HUSSEIN. The reason is in those days, I admired King Hussein of Jordan, which is a very obscure reason. Hardly was I to know that in the not so distant future a man called Saddam would turn up and change the history of the world (laughs).

So what was it like to go to England?

That is an interesting question because post-war Britain was no joke. It had suffered a lot of bombing. So on arriving in England—bearing in mind I had grown up in colonial India, to me all Angrez were well off and fairly prosperous—the first shock I got was seeing angrez doing manual work. In those days they looked undernourished and pretty down and out. I was shocked to see the people who had ruled an empire and their mother country was such a gloomy affair.

The hotel that we checked in to in Kensington had one wall that had been bombed and they had put up a tarpaulin; so when we climbed the stairs there was one side that had tarpaulin cover; if you stepped on the wrong side you could literally fall down.
Growing up was one of wonderment, having been brought up in fairly comfortable circumstances in India, we were now faced with rationing, and what I considered a very grey and sooty London. But that was the education; you come to accept these things. Going to school was another situation because in those days it was very Victorian. I went to school in Bristol, Cork Clifton College and Clifton was created for ICS boys (those who were send to India to administer). My father was in this school in the 1920s.

The whole mooring of the school was based on a Victorian concept of colonialism. I was the only Indian at that time (although my father had been there earlier so I was not the first Indian). I was desperately homesick. And my school years were not happy. My father being an honoured cricketer (he was a very good sportsman), his name being up on the board, they all expected me to follow in his footsteps.

And to be honest, it might be a Freudian thing, you want to fight against and do something for yourself. You don’t want to follow in the mirror image of someone else even though he is your father. And I had artistic instinct. I used to go to extra art classes, I won art prizes while I was at school, I was very into performing and theatre. We had a very active theatre tradition. The Bristol Old Vic was in the same city.

We used to go and visit them, watching them rehearse and go backstage. And I caught the bug. I thought this is my life. So from a very early age, even in India when I was a child, I use to perform for my family. The traditional thing of having a four-poster bed with curtains and you perform on the bed. When you pull the curtains back, you perform for your parents. So I had this whole thing going for me.

I learnt a lot, but because we had a very good because we had a very good librarian who use to rehearse and direct plays. I remember in my first production I appeared as the inquisitor in (George Bernard) Shaw’s, Saint Joan. I had to learn two pages of solid dialogue. So this sort of thing was a huge plus. And then from there I applied and through my exam and education I got a place in Cambridge. I went to Queen’s college Cambridge where my theatrical career began to blossom as a student.

What did you read at Cambridge?

I read English literature, which was the easiest way of getting a Tripos. You could be more lazy than if you were a scientist or physicist or something which meant you had to dedicate your life to such details. There were lots of active theatre groups in Cambridge at that time, very, very traditional but very famous. The Footlights, and we had the ABC, and the Cambridge University Mummers, and I joined all of these and finally started to direct some very important pieces as a student.

In fact I did the very first student production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Ours was a student production and it sold out in two minutes. I transferred to the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, which is a professional theatre. That having happened, I decided to go even further and got permission from the university to put students together. I got them from all over the societies and students from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, the final year students, I put them both together, which was a first and unique thing to happen.

And we did Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. I put that up in Cambridge as a student production which received very good national reviews in British newspapers. On the strength of that review I went to the London management and said, “Listen, do you want to do something with this”?

There happened to be an empty theatre and before we knew what had happened, we went to Oxford and from Oxford playhouse they put us into the Dutchess Theatre London for a limited season.

Ironically, the same reviewers who gave a glowing review to the students, when it came to the professional production which was the same, found every fault they could in the production. It was humiliating. However, I learnt a lesson. This business is not all success. It has its ups and downs and we all know this. But I learnt through that incident. Interestingly, the head of BBC drama asked if he could come and see. He came and saw and asked me to apply for what was then a traineeship. I went through multiple interviews and finally I got the job as a trainee.

What did you do at the BBC? 

I learnt everything. First of all I didn’t know the backend of the camera from the front. And in those days they had courses in multiple camera shooting which doesn’t happen anymore, I mean that is old fashioned. But we were taught how to shoot continuously without a break. So we had to plan everything in the rehearsal and in the shooting with very few opportunities to change what you are putting together in terms of presentation.
I served my internship learning the four-camera technique and then we were also taught how to film with one camera. It was all continuous and very good for teaching one how to coordinate, how to plan. So I learnt a huge amount about coordination and discipline.
The multiple camera technique was employed in A Passage to India which was made with very little money.

Yes. The sets were built in the studio. I managed to get some location shooting in India because I happen to come on vacation here. And they arranged with the BBC representative here to give me a 16mm camera, with a crew and some Black and White raw stock. And all I did was to take exterior shots of buildings and the opening scene, a street scene, which I shot in Lucknow. Then there were some scenes from the train where they were travelling for the picnic. And then I took some shots from the point of view of the person.

You had a superb set of actors

I was very, very privileged to have had some of the best actors that I could have, Sybil Thorndike being a legend in her own time. She was the original St Joan; in fact it was written for her.  You have to understand this was a woman who is trained in theatre. I didn’t want to curtail that performance, because it would hurt genuine sincerity in what she was doing. This was important for me and that is what I sustained through.

There was a dignity involved in that character because Mrs. Moore is not an easy person to understand. She is a very complex woman and her reasoning can be quite difficult to deal with.

You were closer to Foster’s spirit than David Lean.

I am very happy you say that. I have to tell you David Lean kept my version for nearly six months when he was preparing his. I had to physically go and take the film back because he had kept it in his office and there is one scene in it where he more or less copied mine.
This is where Aziz is standing behind the door of Fielding’s dressing room and says, “Guess how tall I am”. And Fielding says “Oh! You look 5 foot 8 inches” and this and that… And that scene is exactly shot that way in the film as well. However, he had a totally different concept of it.

He did a sort of vast, what I call an orchestral piece about India. Mine was a chamber orchestra. It dealt with human beings. It doesn’t matter that my caves were not epic. What matters is what happens to people when they find themselves… if I made that film, which by the way I asked when I finished shooting before David Lean ever came into the picture.
I wrote a letter to Foster saying, “please let me make this into a feature film.’’ At that time he didn’t want any of his books to be filmed, he hated film adaptations of literary works. Ismail Merchant and his partner James Ivory subsequently took up the idea and made two of Forster’s books into films after he died. I couldn’t get The Passage, so obviously… but if I ever had charge of shooting it into a film, I would have shot the scene Adela Quested and the caves in a totally different way.

Not with the elephants taking everybody up to the mountain in a princely way. First of all, Aziz has no money and the man is putting all his money in this picnic… I would have made a sense of the landscape overwhelming before she was ever overwhelmed by what she thought about human beings. By now she is traumatised by something that she didn’t understand. Anyway I never got to do that and you can see what I was limited by. I was limited by the locations.

The sequence where they are going up by the rocks has a little story behind it. That actually happened (thank God the sun shone the day we did it)… I found the crew that had last worked on the film called The Black Narcissus and not a foot of it was shot in India. They shot the whole thing on a set with glass backing. It was a beautiful, wonderful film.

About Powell and Pressburger

Ya, wonderful. That recreation of India was fantastic. They shot it all in England. And the mountain sequences with all the rocks and the glass.

I asked where they had shot some of the scenes. I was told it was a place called Toad Rock in Tunbridge Wells. I went to look at Toad Rock. And sure enough there is this outcrop of rocks but surrounded by suburban houses at the bottom. But if you shoot it in a particular way you see them walking along being guided by the… that was Toad Rock. And in my way it was some kind of an art connection to Powell and Pressburger, whom I absolutely admired for their filmography.

Melody was your second film?

I did a number of films in a cluster. After graduating from BBC, I left them to freelance. My first film was of a novel by Margaret Drabble, a book called Millstone, which became A Touch of Love with Ian McKellen and Sandy Dennis in the 60s. It’s about a middle-class woman brought up in a Fabian Socialist tradition by her parents finding herself pregnant and deciding to be a single mother against all odds. In those days it was considered quite shameful. It is a big comment about the National Health (Service). Ian McKellen played the young man. He was in Cambridge with me. He has now become very well known.
And then we had Eleanor Bron and Derek Jacobi, and so on. So that was my first film.

Then Melody was my second. And then I did Henry VIII and His Six Wives. And then I did a film with Gene Wilder called Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx. With Shirley MacLaine, I did The Possession of Joel Delaney, a psychological horror story. That was in Hollywood. So I have done a sort of cross section of things.

One of the handicaps of being eclectic is that people don’t know how to categorise you. I’m not an action-director. I can’t do things with people blowing up and killing each other. I deal with human beings. Everything I do I need to research it. Even when I did The Possession of Joel Delaney, which is about superstition, and espiritismo (they believe in the transfer of one soul into another), I did my research. I went to actual ceremonies and some of them were quite unnerving. People start to shake and all… It happens in India also when people get possessed.

For instance, when I did Henry VIII (by the way, I am a big Tudor history fan), I did much research. I didn’t want to copy the television series. So when I was asked to do the film on the success of the series, I said I can’t repeat it. So my story was what made this man who started off so brilliantly as a youth become this huge mountain of suspicion and discontent and who had the power of life and death of people and caused the country to change its religion.

The basic thing was he felt himself cursed because he could not have a male child. And the only time he had a male child, he had to choose between the mother and the child. He chose the child over the mother, who died. The only woman he felt anything about and wanted. So you are talking about a human being. That was my approach.

You have managed to combine the two things together—spectacle and intimacy. And that is not easy to do. The Americans are splendid at doing spectacles or intimacy. But they can’t marry the two.

That is true. Also, mine was at least two decades before Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth.
Melody has a beautiful improvisatory quality. 

And you accept that you structured the script around the songs.
That is correct.

You managed to keep the emotion on an even note. Only once in a while it would tilt towards sentimentality. And then it would come back. And it was so effervescent.

Well, you know, sentimentality is ever present unless you control it. And in this case you are dealing with children. It is a very tough call, especially that many children, if you notice. I had to find little kids who had little characteristics, like the little boy with the glasses who kept trying to do things when he was obviously inadequate. Then you had the boy who kept trying to blow up things. You had little vignettes.

A lot of people say that the adults were caricatured, but the whole point was that we were seeing at it from the point of view of the children. These adults are totally inadequate. The boy’s mother is totally thoughtless and silly, whereas Melody’s parents are quite down to earth, except the father, who is also caricatured. One had to balance it, as I also had to do the ending, which is over the top but also a resolution about finally children saying we can’t have this anymore. We can’t be treated like this anymore.

Was there Lindsay Anderson’s If in your mind doing the ending?

If there was an element of If, there was also an element of a very famous French film Zero Du Conduit.

You are also a designer.

Yes, I am very careful and very clear about my images. This is one thing I am good at, but I also need a cameraman who will follow my instincts. I can’t depend on myself for the results. But, I am very careful to describe what I want.

Was your career in America a logical outcome of MelodyHenry VIII was also a British production.

My going to America has nothing to do with my film work. It was to do with my television work. I had done a series called The Glittering Prizes for BBC about graduates from Cambridge. It followed a group of undergraduates and then into their lives afterwards and what happened to them. Some of them became successful, some didn’t.

It was written by Frederic Raphael, who wrote Two for the Road, and won an Oscar for Darling. I did that series and some producers in New York saw it and sent me a script. So I literally went from one thing to another. And that is how my career in America started. I ended up doing a lot of television series.

In those days television was not what it is today. They were doing films for television and I got some opportunities that I even today relish with some very well known actors. People like Bette Davis, Colleen Dewhurst, Angela Lansbury worked with me.

My career changed to television. I did come back to England to do theatre, because I originally started at Cambridge. It was then that I ultimately got to do Sixth Happiness as a feature for the BBC.

Colleen was responsible for asking for me coming back to America. The very first TV series I did, she was in it. And the result was I came back to England at that time ironically to do Staying On (Paul Scott’s novel), which didn’t happen with me because of various reasons. That was the prelude to Jewel in The Crown. But because I walked off Staying On, they were very unhappy and gave it to another director. So I never did Jewel. However, Colleen had asked me to come to Hollywood and direct her in a series for television.

What was it called?

The first thing I did with her was Death Penalty. This is a very interesting drama about a boy who was 16 and responsible for killing three Irish children in the playground. He was tried as an adult, which was absolutely unheard of. You don’t try a kid as an adult for a crime. He was condemned to death. She played the woman who fought right up to the Supreme Court. On the strength of that performance, she asked me to direct in a Pilot for a series, which didn’t get picked up.

It was called And Baby Makes Six. She was a mother in her late 40s, and finds herself pregnant with an adult family. And of course no one wants her have the child including her husband and grown- up children and daughter. But she decides to have the baby. That was the pilot and I went off to Hollywood and it triggered my future productions in America.

Colleen was my very close friend subsequently and an extraordinary actress. I saw her in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Ben Gazzara on stage. I was so enamoured of her performance that I asked her if I could direct her on stage. She said, “Well! Find me something. There are so few roles for women of my age”. And I found a play that I loved, which I saw years ago, actually when I was a student. And subsequently it was played in London, a piece called Queen and Rebels by Ugo Betti. I gave her that and it ended up playing in a limited engagement at the Plymouth theatre in New York. So that was my association with Colleen. She was very close.

And then Shirley Maclaine...

Shirley Maclaine I met… before I went to Hollywood to do TV series. I jumped that a bit because she saw Melody and this film I did with Gene Wilder called Quackser Fortune and she liked me. I was very up front with her and then the next thing I found was that I was off with this. Now The Possession of Joel Delaney has a history of its own. It was before The Exorcist. It had a similar theme. Funnily enough, she was offered a lead role in The Exorcist. Not even a lead, the book was based on her (about a film actress possessed by the devil).

The writer, William Blatty, used to sleep on Shirley’s floor as an impecunious writer. He gave her this script and said, “This is something for you.”

And she said, “My God! You’ve written about me and made my daughter into a devil. I absolutely can’t touch it.”

He said, “You might regret it because one day it will be huge.” And it was huge. So when it became huge, she thought, “Oh My God, I have made an error.” Ultimately Ellen Burstyn played it.

So she did The Possession of Joel Delaney as a counter point. It never got to that but certainly got me involved in all sorts of complications with this film. Shirley and I became good friends, though I have not seen her in recent years. But she invited me to her house in Beverly Hills, when she was not there, she told me come, there is the staff… so I enjoyed the luxurious life for a month… Oscar winning life.

You made that film on Jacqueline Kennedy, Onassis.

Yes, yes. The Richest Man in the World… That was a mini-series with Raul Julia as Onassis.

 You deal with human beings as you said. So your approach would have been the same even dealing with somebody like Onassis. What was it that you found?

Onassis was a very interesting man. Complicated, to say the least. I always want to know what makes people tick and Onassis had a huge problem in his life. He was always conscious about his father’s approval. And his father treated him very badly initially. The worst came when they were driven out of what was then called Smyrna. The Turks threw all the Greeks out and his father was imprisoned. To get his father out, he consorted with the Turks. His father was released and all the women were sent to Greece. He returned to Athens hoping his father would be happy with what had happened.

And his father said, “I wanted a man for a son”. On that note, he decided to prove to his father who he was. He went to Argentina, learnt how to dance, and became a taxi dancer for rich women. He made fake cigarettes. Became very rich and came back to Greece to show his father how rich he was. And that driving force lasted him all his life, ruthless, in terms of not trusting, and wanting to prove.

Also to possess...

...and to possess. The whole relation with Jackie Kennedy was one of possession.

What about Maria Callas?

The cruellest story in the whole world. This was the most talented woman of that time, a singer. And he treated her very badly. He simply wanted her because she was at the top of the world.

Yes, she was a diva and a fellow Greek, which added to his thing. But the fact was Jackie was even more of a prize. She was the President’s widow. And she at that time was very vulnerable because of what had happened to her husband and subsequently what happened to Robert. She was terrified of assassination.

You kept the human angle in focus.

Very much so. There were certain scenes, though, very large. But most of it is intimate.

Your Showreel (the film is actually Daphne Laureola) is Olivier playing an old actor, isn’t it?
No, Olivier is playing a very rich old man married to a much younger wife, who he now knows a younger man was paying attention to. The whole dialogue you saw in the extract is one of giving her permission when he is going. He is dying. He’s giving her permission to thrive. The metaphor is the flower, Daphne Laureola, and says, is that the flower you were taking care of?
He says you are the best thing I ever bought. And she asks, you bought me? Did you? And he says, no you are just precious; you are in a glass case. A piece of heppelwhite, a very precious piece of furniture. It is a mixture of irony and poetry.
At the very end, she says, “What are you talking”? And he says, “I am talking about death, my dear.” And I thought in that scene actually, Olivier, who is extraordinary in any case, gave one of the best performances of his career.

How did you get along?

Very well. You know a great actor (he was a director as well), if they are of his calibre, they have no ego problems. They put themselves in the hands of the person they trust. Now that is an important point. When you are that great, Bette Davis being included, you have to know your job well as a director.

If they sense that you are not good enough then they will play up and give you a hard time. But if they trust you, which I intend them to do very early on in the relationship, they will do as you ask them. There has to be a trust bond between the two.

What about Angela Lansbury?

She is a very good actress. But you know she became very popular in a TV series called Murder She Wrote. It was very easy for her to perform. But in Little Gloria, Happy at Last, she plays Gertrude Vanderbilt-Whitney, a very subtle and difficult woman. And then in The Shell Seekers, she is wonderful. She plays a mother in a dysfunctional family with enormous grace. And you believe in her as a mother.

Who influenced you in your filmmaking career? Do you have any favourite director?

Well there are many. So it is very difficult for me to be specific. But I can tell you this and I know it sounds a bit cliché, but Satyajit Ray, because he was in a position to direct with an enormous understanding of the human condition. He got performances from non-actors.
One of the most extraordinary was Pather Panchali, the old grandmother. I mean what he did with her, I thought my god, but not only that, the films he did later. He influenced me subconsciously. Among American directors, Elia Kazan, whose films I admire enormously. 

East of Eden is one of them.

It is a film I can watch again and again and learn from it. In terms of performance, A Streetcar Named Desire, from stage on to film there is a lyricism about it and theatricality but a reality. What he got from Marlon Brando is unbelievable. You can watch that performance again and again and admire. Then I have other people. I have French directors. I use to like Claude Chabrol once when I used to watch his early films. But it’s difficult to categorise.

How much did you mother influence you?

My mother influenced me hugely. I have to say, in every aspect of my life; her writings, her writings of books about a world that has vanished. I even wrote in Cambridge a short story influenced by her, set in India with hardly any knowledge of it.

But I had written one story, and how I had been influenced I have no idea. It’s called “Journey in tomorrow”. And it was published in Granta, it was a student magazine then. And you know publishers picked it up. And then put it in a book called Light blue Dark blue about Oxford and Cambridge writing. And it was about a man searching for his wife after the communal riots.

My story was about his journey, travelling through a landscape. I didn’t specify which landscape. It could be any landscape, either India or Pakistan. It is about the chaos of separation. And he finally comes to a camp where the displaced people are.

The man is very polite and nice, the man who is in charge, asks him to come inside and have a cup of tea. And this is after a very lengthy term, maybe after a year of absence. In comes a woman to serve the tea. And in one look, he looks at her and she looks at him in total silence, serves the tea and leaves. And you never know whether she was the woman he was looking for because now where they have got to in their lives is beyond recall or reach. So again a human situation... what is she doing there, what is she to the man and who is being the host. What is the guest about to do, what can he do about her, even if she is his ex-wife. Neither of them says anything. That was my story.

Your sister also got into films. She made some documentaries…

Yes, she did that. She made Ashiyana. It is very interesting what she did with it. She was in commercial advertising films… she worked for Durga Khote and as a female to do commercials in those days is quite something. She made a documentary with some short-ends left behind by Louis Malle. She set it in the village of our mother’s home and she called it Ashiyana. We have recently got a newly restored version of it.

The person who shot it… it was all made on short-ends… and because she had an editor’s mind she knew exactly when she could stop shooting. This is where you stop and use the next bit of roll of film. Govind Nihalani was the cameraman. So it was one of his first efforts and he has done a wonderful job.

 Didn’t she also do a documentary called Qaleen on carpets?

Yes. She did indeed.

One last question, what are your plans?

I wish I could give a clear answer. It is getting increasingly difficult to finance pictures. I’m not in the business of bang, bang you’re dead. I have adapted a Chekhovian tale much like The Cherry Orchard into a screenplay set in India post-Independence. It has got two layers: the past and the present. It is yet to be financed.

However, I am also working on a project, nothing to do with me as a producer, I am not a producer but a director… a very good script has turned up and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. And this minute as we speak, my producers in London are trying to finance it. If that happens, that is my next project. It is wonderfully written and has unusual pieces, not the usual Shakespeare.

It is about jealousy, a man destroying his family through jealousy, again human dilemma and the consequences of his actions, which appeals to me a lot. So that’s my next piece.
People who look at me on Google or whatever, expect me to be in a retirement home. I have to convince them that my creative juices are still going. The day will come when I will have to give up but not now.