Before there was Mukkabaaz, Zoya Hussain starred in a very special independent film. Directed by Dar Gai, Teen Aur Aadha, which is screening at the London Indian Film Festival, narrates the story of one house, which exists in three different eras. In Zoya’s time line, twenty years later from the first story, the house is now a brothel. Teen Aur Aadha takes a look at a time in Zoya’s character’s sex worker life.
Stacey caught up with the wonderful Zoya to talk about her theater beginning, the fun of playing this role, what it is like to shoot in one long take and what is next for the actress.
Was acting something you always wanted to do?
Acting, yes it was! I grew up in Delhi. Everybody in my family is quite creative, so I knew that being in that kind of space and being in that kind of creative world is what I wanted to do. In Delhi, there is a lot of theater that happens and I joined this theater company when I was about 17. I also use to play the flute, both Jazz and Blues. As you know the film industry in India is completely based out of Bombay. At that time in Delhi, especially if you are right out of college and you are trying to figure out what to do, moving to Bombay seemed like a natural progression. For me, it was like; do I shift to Bombay and look at films? But that is not something I really thought about because it is really a little absurd (laughs). Or should I go off to the UK and should I go to drama school? What do I do? I had cousin living here at Bombay at that time so I decided to come to Bombay and kind of see how it goes.
Tell us about landing role in Teen Aur Aadha
Teen Aur Aadha happened because I got a call from a friend of mine and she said hey, I know this girl and she is looking to cast her film. She wants people specifically from a theater background. Everybody in the film is from a theater background. Most of the people are from Delhi, in fact. I had been out of Bombay for about 9 months because of an illness. My flight landed in the afternoon, I met Daria in the evening and the next day we started on the film.
Now you have worked both in theater and films…
Contrary to popular belief acting for film and acting on the stage are just so different. Everyone is like but in theory, you are still acting. When you are acting for stage, the way you enunciate everything – your diction just has to be immaculate. I come from a classical theater background, so I did a lot of older plays, I did a lot of tragedies, I did a lot of dark comedy. I hadn’t done a lot of contemporary theater. The great thing about theater is that you really do have the pleasure of taking the journey of the character while you are doing the show. You can follow their graph, you have enough time to build up for an emotion, build up for a big scene or a big line or a big moment that’s coming, you know? It is a nice smooth transition in and out. It is so gratifying and so fulfilling. However, you also do the same thing over 10 shows, so at like the 4th show you are like Oh My God I can’t do this anymore, I have got to figure out a trick for this.
For film, it is different. Fortunately the films I have shot so far, we shot them pretty sequentially, except for a little bit here and there. You can’t do the same thing as theater as take the journey and build up. You know what shot it is, but you don’t know from which point it is going to pick up. You don’t have the same amount of time to get to it. We are given time before a take, but the graph of the character just doesn’t happen in the same way. You need to think it out way before the scene. But, my style is generally a little subtle and you can be subtle, sometimes you can do just little things and sometimes you don’t need to do anything at all, which is the great thing about film.
How would you describe your character Sarla in Teen Aur Aadha?
What we think of Sarla in the beginning of the film and what we think of Sarla at the end of the film are two different things. Her mother probably worked at this brothel, she has grown up there, and it is a very normal for her. Sometimes when you rationalize your situation in life too much and then when you, yourself, are in that situation – it is very different. Because, before you could always imagine what something would be like, but when it really comes to that moment and comes to that point, like it is for Sarla on this particular night, it really is the unfolding of that for the character.
In India, and not just in India, it happens everywhere, but in a lot of third world countries, in developing countries and underdeveloped countries, a lot of films we watch, have this very romanticized idea of what a brothel is like or what a red light area is like. We have seen it play out like this in a lot of Hindi films. I did go around to a lot of places and it is very grim. There is no tragic romance in any of it! It is really the women who have just run away from home, they have been trapped, and there is no out for them. There is no romanticized idea of one day I can collect enough money and I can get out of here. That doesn’t happen. A lot of the owners of the brothels and a lot of the pimps and even a lot of the cops they are all like hand to glove. It is very, very sad. It’s truly heartbreaking to the point that it actually is very numbing.
With Sarla, it is like okay, I know that there is no out for me so what would it be like for someone like that who does it every single day. It is just routine. It was very interesting to kind of explore all these different things. And a lot of these things are very cliché but clichés are clichés for a reason and especially if they are used to explore something like that. But this looks to do it a little differently and not just for the sake of being different. It is in one particular situation for one particular person, so what would it be like? We went on to explore that in a slightly different way.
Was it difficult to play her and find her character?
I didn’t actually find it difficult because when I read the part I loved the part. I loved the film. When you look at a character and especially when it is something you really like, you don’t really have to try it – it just kind of fits! It just kind of works. Sometimes when you look at a character, especially one that you really want to play, you don’t judge that character because then how can you play that character. You don’t think does this character have shades of grey? Is this a bad guy or a good guy? You just really believe in what the character believes in. If you can relate to them great, sometimes you can’t. For me, with this character, it was all there. I didn’t find it that difficult. Whatever research I had to do was more in terms of body language. How would one speak or punctuate – even when we speak in Hindi it is very different in itself because there are so many dialects. So, it was just working all of that out.
Now interestingly I believe because it is 3 different stories in one house, this was shot in 3 different long shots, so what was it like working in one long take?
Performance wise it was great! It was like doing a play instead of a film. It was great fun. Obviously, we rehearsed it as much as we could before we went into it. It had to be a night shoot because most of it was sync sound. I think the only tricky things were the most technical things: like the focus of the camera, the camera work itself, making sure to not come in the way of our boom operator, things like that. See the camera moves along the whole room and gets shots from every angle so those were the tricky things.
I think this is why Daria wanted people from a theater background because then you could sustain it through the entire take. We planned to have it play for say 30 minutes or 40 minutes. Sometimes you go a little over or sometimes you are a little under, because different moments come out each time. It was nice. I really loved that it was one take.
The good thing about one take is that sometimes really weird things happen and because you can’t cut, if some physical action doesn’t work out the way it is supposed to work out, you are going to have to go with it. (Laughs) That was also great fun. We had a lot of this happen. As I said, we did a lot of rehearsing and we did a lot of tech runs, but we didn’t have a lot of rehearsals with the full art set up. So sometimes all these small things would happen: like something would fall out of my hand or something would happened with Jim, and we would have to keep playing off that.
What was it like playing scenes with Jim Sarbh?
Jim is a great actor. He is a good guy. He is playing someone who is very different from whom he is. We have a friendship aside from just work stuff. It was fun to play off each other, because I had to do a lot of the provoking – he had to do a lot of the deflection. Usually we do the opposite thing, so it was fun to explore this aspect. It was great fun with Jim.
How was it to work with the director Dar Gai?
I absolutely adore Daria. She is so creative and intelligent and just full of vibrancy herself that it is very exciting to work with somebody like that. She is not confused by what she wants. She knows exactly what she wants; yet she is very much about collaborating and making sure that it is a mix. She has a vision and is like ‘I want this, so this is why I am casting you. It should be a mix of what both of us bring to the table’. We all have certain thoughts and pre-conceived notions and when you go into something you think, if I play it this way I really think it is the best option. Then you kind of discuss, discuss, and discuss and it becomes okay, not this, this is really nice instead. She really does have a great ability of bringing what she wants out of people, not only the actors, but also the crew.
What to you is the most important thing as an actor when you are playing a role?
I think just to be open to being vulnerable. You have to be open and ready to be vulnerable. A lot of actors think I am going to be so method and I am going to get in the zone and do this and that, but sometime you just have to be. That doesn’t mean that you will be bland or you won’t be interesting to watch. You have to be okay with being uncomfortable. You have to be okay with not being okay. You have to be okay with not being good or failing. You have to let your inhibitions go. Sometimes when you, yourself, get a little anxious or scared or excited or happy, truly from the inside, the camera catches it and it just makes your eyes really alive. So even if the rest of you is doing absolutely nothing – your eyes are alive. I think that is the most important thing and most beautiful thing to see on any person – ever.
It is very exciting that the film is being showcased London Indian Film Festival, what are your thoughts on bringing the film to the festival?
I am very, very excited because I think that we really will get an audience that will understand this film and will like this film. Also like it is a big deal, so that is really good (Laughs)
This is not a very conventional kind of film to have been made in India. You have a Ukrainian director but she has been in India a long time and she is very well versed with the culture and the intricacies of India’s socio-economic-political kind of set up. She has written this in a very universal kind of way. A lot of films that are multi-lingual in India don’t end up doing well because our masses want to watch a Hindi masala movie. I feel like out of the country, this film will have a far more accepting audience.
However, I think like the past 3-4 years in India, a lot of good films have been releasing, which has then caused this trickle down effect, which has changed the content that is now being created in the country. That is a really good thing that has happened.
Have you seen the whole film, what are your thoughts?
I have seen the whole film. I haven’t seen the final version, I saw a version, but I did really like it. There are many theories about the house and the people in it. I think there are many ways you can look at it. Is it the same person? Is it the same boy? Are they different people and it is the story of the house? Or of the boy or of just the time period? It is nice that it is all kind of ambiguous.
What do you love about acting and being an actress?
This is all I ever wanted to do. I feel really lucky and happy to be able to do it, because honestly I would be really bad at anything else. I was like a super shy, introverted kid. Normally, because of our education system, if you are mathematically inclined and if you want to do any conventional and professional kind of work there is step 1 – step 2 – step 3. Our education system caters to kids who are mentally wired like that. If you are creatively inclined or you are a little different, you kind have to fall in line with everybody else. It makes you feel like okay do I fit in here? I am not like everybody else, what is wrong with me? What do I do? A lot of the time if you are just creatively wired you are just creatively wired. You think a certain way; your approach is a certain way, but a lot of the schools are not conducive to that. So for me, theater just kind became a great outlet to find myself and also to lose myself, which is what I really love about acting in theater and now film as well.
What is next for you?
I have a bunch of things I am shooting right now. My first proper commercial Bollywood movie (Mukkabaaz) came out in January this year. That has caused a huge shift in the roles I am getting because before I was doing a lot of theater and Indie work. It is still commercial movies, but with really great content and really great female parts that I am really excited to be doing. I didn’t want to do the typical arm candy kind of stuff. You know initially, for a lot of actresses in India, it was like this is a great part for a girl! It is a great female part. But now it is just like this is a great part! Anybody would love to play it. I am really excited and I am really happy that because of Mukkabaaz and the work I have done in the past and movies like Teen Aur Aadha, they have all kind of come together, to cause that change for me.
Teen Aur Aadha screens on June 24th at BFI Southbank (8:00pm), June 25th at Genesis Cinema (8:50pm), and then June 26th at Birmingham’s MAC (8:00pm).