Just who is Waris Hussein?

Oct 15, 2013, 02:56 IST | Amit Roy

Few know that the iconic Dr Who TV series began its innings with Indian director Waris Hussein at the helm. MiD DAY jumped at the chance for a chat with Hussein, who is on the jury of the Mumbai International Film Festival which begins on Thursday

Before flying to Mumbai where he is to be jury member at the Film Festival from October 17 to 24, the veteran director Waris Hussein was able to do something very few are able to do. “See themselves portrayed in a feature film -- and in their own lifetime,” he laughs.

Director’s special: Waris Hussein, Pic/ Amit Roy

Last Wednesday in London Hussein was admitted to a screening strictly for cast and crew of An Adventure in Space and Time. The 90-minute BBC drama tells of events 50 years ago when the first episode introducing Dr Who was broadcast on November 23, 1963.

The science fiction series would prove both enduring and the BBC’s biggest money-spinner. There probably isn’t a country where the series has not been a hit. A 55-year-old grandfather, William Hartnell, was cast as the first Dr Who, a“Time Lord” who would come up against the dreaded Daleks. A blue telephone box, the Tardis, would serve as the Doctor’s time machine. All this represented eccentric British genius at its best.

Seeing double: Waris Hussein (right) with Sacha Dhawan who plays him as he was 50 years ago. Pic/Patrick Mulkern

The unknown Indian
But at the time, no one thought the project had much of a future, which is why a 24-year-old Indian, Waris Hussein, fresh out of Cambridge and taken on by the BBC’s drama department, found himself directing the first seven episodes of essentially the pilot series, starting with An Unearthly Child.

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Hussein remembers: “I was the very first Indian born director in drama (at the BBC). I was the youngest. Dr Who came to me because no one else wanted to do it. ... We were given no money, the worst possible conditions to work at Lime Grove studios, the equipment was antique, the authorities did not have any faith in it. And then it became a huge hit.”

THESPIAN TIE-IN: Hussein with Richard Burton in 1972

The current Dr Who, Matt Smith, who is the 11th, is to leave the show after the 2013 Christmas special and will be replaced by another actor, Peter Capaldi, as the 12th incarnation of the Time Lord.

Chamber piece: Dame Sybil Thorndike with Hussein during the filming of A Passage to India

Who’s that director?
An Adventure in Space and Time, in which the young Waris is played by Sacha Dhawan, a 29-year-old British Asian actor, will be shown on BBC television on November 23, 2013 -- the 50th anniversary of the transmission of episode one. The programming schedule was thrown into disarray in 1963, Hussein recalls, “because President Kennedy had been assassinated the previous day”.

Hussein says he “gave my thoughts” to Mark Gatiss, a British writer and actor who has written the screenplay of An Adventure in Space and Time. He was anxious that Gatiss should reflect the struggle he had faced in those early years as an Indian. “Those days I had to prove myself constantly as a creative person”.
Hussein also approved of the choice of Sacha as the actor who would play him. “He is a talented kid.”

SITTING PRETTY: Hussein with Bette Davis (r) and Glynis Johns (l)

The talented kid
The BBC also recognized a talented kid when it took on Hussein half a century ago. Out of the many movies that he has directed since then, the Mumbai Film Festival has chosen to screen a historical feature, Henry VIII and his Six Wives, from 1972, starring Keith Michell, Charlotte Rampling and Donald Pleasence.

“It actually had a royal premiere,” Hussein points out. “It was Princess Anne and the Duke of Edinburgh who came.” “Hopefully I will be doing a Q&A about it,” says Waris. He had made the film “at least two decades before Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, before he did his version of British history”.

LITERARY LINEAGE: Waris Hussein’s mother, the late novelist Attia Hosain

Reconnecting with India
Hussein accepts that he is relatively little-known in India, though he is probably the most prolific and successful Indian origin director who has worked outside India. He is reassessing what he should do next, having spent the years from 1980 to 2012 resident in America.

This is why he sees the visit to Mumbai as “reconnecting with India” -- “my Indian roots are very important to me”. He adds: “The one thing I do hold very dear to myself is that I am and was and still am the first Indian-born director doing what I do in this part of the world in the drama field. Dr Who was literally my starting point for the rest of my career.”

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Among his collection of photographs at his home in west London is one of Hussein straightening Richard Burton’s tie, while a cigarette is held languidly in the actor’s mouth. That was taken in 1972 when Hussein spent four months in Italy and in Germany directing Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Divorce His, Divorce Hers.

“It was the only television they did together,” he says. “It was the end of their marriage, ironically.”

Artistic ancestry
Hussein, who will soon turn 75, was born in Lucknow on December 9, 1938, into a well connected Muslim family and came to England in May 1947. Both he and his sister, Shama, four years his junior, were on their mother’s passport. Attia Hosain, an artistic person in her own right, decided not to return to India and definitely not opt for Pakistan when the country was partitioned.

Attia died in London in 1998, leaving behind two novels, Phoenix Fled and Sunlight on a Broken Column. Hussein intends rushing back from Mumbai to hold a commemoration of the centenary of his mother’s birth at the Chelsea Arts Club on October 28.

His sister, Shama (Habibullah), who went to Cheltenham Ladies College, has worked in film production -- for example, she was production manager on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1982. She is now settled in Mumbai.

The theatre beckons
Hussein, who feels he inherited his mother’s love of the arts, attended his father’s old public school, Clifton College in Bristol, and went up to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where his father had also studied. But unlike his father, who was a great cricketer, Hussein read English literature and threw himself into theatre during his undergraduate period from 1957-1961, “three of my best years”.

He lists some of his illustrious contemporaries: “Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, David Frost, Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, you name them, they were all there. And we had a great time. I was directing a lot of plays. I directed Derek Jacobi when we were at Cambridge.”

He was upset when favourable reviews of Dr Who in national newspapers always managed to leave out his name. But his career, directing not ethnic material but mainstream British drama and films, was astonishingly successful.

In 1965, he directed A Passage to India ahead of David Lean’s 1984 blockbuster version. Hussein was adapting a four-act stage play by Santha Rama Rau based on E M Forster’s novel. This took him to Cambridge to meet Forster.

The Forster encounter
The encounter between the two men is almost worth a play in itself. “E M Forster did not want any of his books made into films. He said to me, “I don’t want anybody touching my books because films are a disaster to the literary mind.’ The irony was he said, ‘You can use Santha’s stage version.’ So I said, ‘Mr Forster, it is a four-act piece. Television needs expansion. Would you not allow me something from your book?’ He said, ‘Well, what do you want from the book?’

I said the very seminal meeting between Mrs Moore and Dr Aziz at the mosque which cements their friendship. He said, ‘Well, you can use the mosque scene. It is in the book -- you lift it right off the page.’ ‘There is a train journey to the Marabar Caves -- I would love to be able to shoot some of that as an exterior rather than in a studio.’ So he said, ‘You can use that.’ My version is a chamber piece .... about certain people in conflict in a certain culture. David Lean’s was a vast orchestral piece. It was landscaped with elephants with howdahs and retainers and everything else -- in total contradiction to the fact that Dr Aziz has no money. In my version the man has just about gathered together half a dozen servants and a picnic.”

He goes on: “My cast -- and I have to say this with some pride -- was Sybil Thorndike as Mrs Moore and Virginia McKenna as Adela (Quested) and the best of all was Cyril Cusack as (Richard) Fielding. More brilliant casting you could not find. We shot the whole thing in two days in the studio. Cyril, being an Irishman, said to me, ‘I understand this conflict totally, Waris. Don’t forget I am an Irishman who was colonised by the British. And this is a story about Indians being colonised by the British’.”

In 1976 came The Glittering Prizes, a TV drama about the changing lives of a group of Cambridge students, starting in 1952 and following them through to middle age in the 1970s. In 1978, he directed the seven-part Thames Television serial, Edward and Mrs Simpson, for which he shared a BAFTA with producer Andrew Brown. For the Barry Manilow musical Copacabana, he won an Emmy in America.

As for the stage, “I was the first Asian director to direct at the National Theatre -- John Gielgud in a play called Half Life -- which transferred to the West End (in 1978).”

The immigrant factor
“At the same time as I was doing all these things a certain Mr Enoch Powell was ranting on about immigrants,” Hussein remembers. “When I was doing Edward and Mrs Simpson the media coverage on it was intense but there was no mention of who was directing it.” He rang a friend, Naseem Khan, who wrote for The Guardian, but she was unable to help. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if somebody did an article on the Asians contributing to this society? I am one of them. I am a creative person. I am an artist. Is there nobody to cover us? Of course, nothing happened.”

Ahead of the times
In 1997 came one of his few “ethnic” ventures when he directed Sixth Happiness, a film whose screenplay was written by Firdaus Kanga, the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Trying to Grow. Firdaus played himself in the film, which was shot in London with a few exteriors in Mumbai. “This film was ahead of its time,” remarks Hussein. “It is about the Parsi community. Once a prominent community in Bombay it is now diminished to remembering the past.” The central character in the film is disabled “and India is not equipped to deal with disability; his father is ashamed of him. Apart from that the main character is gay which is another verboten subject in India.”

No more mystery
On Sunday, April 7, Hussein was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about Dr Who and caused a stir by suggesting the series had become too sexualized.  His regret is that “there is an element now, and I know we’re living in a different era, of sexuality that has crept in. The intriguing thing about the original Dr Who was that there was a mystery and unavailability about him. Now we’ve just had a recent rebirth and another girl has joined, a companion, and she actually snogged him.”So what was it like attending the private screening of An Adventure in Space and Time and seeing himself being portrayed as he was 50 years ago by Sacha Dhawan? “It was surreal watching myself on screen,” confides Hussein. 

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