While enacting the role of an individual with a prominent speech disorder, there's a thin line between evoking empathy among viewers and mocking people who are actually speech impaired. To understand how difficult it was to play the role of a stand-up comedian with a stutter and not cross that line, we spoke to 25-year-old actor Hussain Dalal, who plays Rishi in the recent Nescafé commercial that was first released online on September 5.
Dalal's rich experience in theatre helped while filming the Nescafé ad. "I come from stage. My background is theatre. I have many close friends who are stand-up comedians," he says. He has been acting since the age of 17. The fact that Dalal is also a writer (he has written dialogues for feature films Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Two States) helped.
"It was a fairly tight script when it came to me. It needed no changing, but actors improvise to fit into a line better. So yes, I did improvise slightly," he says. Ads he has been part of include those for Vodafone (Diwali campaign), Airtel (a couple of ads), Philips (living colours), Hindustan Times, McDonald's, Cadbury and even one for sanitary napkins.
Films that he has acted in include Greater Elephant (lead role), an MTV mini-series called 'Bring on the night', an MTV telefilm called Real FM' and UTV's Pizza 3D (he plays a small part). Looking back at the Nescafe ad, what's his take on his own performance? "I'm never satisfied," he admits, "I can never watch myself. I'm happy that people like the ad. Vinil and Nescafé have succeeded in making people genuinely feel something while they watch this ad film."
Speaking of Vinil Mathew, the director of the film, what was the 'director's brief' for Dalal like? "Vinil is a very 'sorted' director. He knows exactly what he wants. And he helps actors find exactly what they want in their performance. He told me how to play the character. He was very clear that this campaign was about a heart-warming story, and not just about selling a product," shares Dalal.
Mathew, in turn, says, "Yes, it was something I had to be really careful about," when asked about his experience creating an ad based on a serious speech deficit. "There could have been a backlash. There could be people who didn't find it funny. I was cognizant of this and sensitive to the fact that it had to be done with dignity," admits Mathew, adding that it was a bit like picking your way through a minefield. "We were creating something that could upset people. So we were careful," he says.
As a result, "all the ideas were filtered and discussed and only those parts that we thought were in line with the spirit of the film in full capacity were selected." About the pre-shoot research, he says, his team and he went through a lot of videos of stand-up comedians and of people who stammer. And, interestingly enough, of stand-up comics who stammer. They exist, we learn!
"There's no clear theory on when people stammer. Some said that people don't stammer when pronouncing vowels but then we came across those who did. Some people stammer when saying certain letters only," he explains, saying that's when his team decided to pick out certain letters in the script that Dalal was told to struggle while saying.
"Often, in Bollywood, when they show someone stammer, they make them stress on one syllable/letter a lot like Ssss..sss... But actually, a lot of stammering is 'silent stammering' - you see the mouth quivering but don't actually hear the sound of the letter the person is stuck on," Mathew shares.
Did it help that Dalal was not a known face? "Yes absolutely," admits Mathew, "In fact, you won't believe it but when the film was first discussed, a celebrity was going to do it. The client, and agency and I debated it for almost a month, eventually realising that a celeb would kill it. It helps that 98 per cent of the people don't recognise Hussain. This adds to the feel and believability of the film."
The team met several male and female actors, standup comics, as well as non-actors who stammered, at the audition stage. In fact, Matthew tells us, most of the actors who auditioned for the role were stressing too much on getting the stammering right and killing the jokes in the bargain, especially on lines like 'Joke chhodd, jaldi bol', that required a special 'swing'. "Getting the comic timing was tougher than getting the stammering right," Mathew admits.
"The stammering part was the technical bit but it was more important to get the jokes to be funny," he says. The idea was not to get people to laugh and fall off their seats, it was to make them smile and feel for the protagonist. What helped Dalal land the role, then? "He has a charmingly wicked, naughty smile. He can get away with saying anything in his jokes because of the endearing smile at the end," he says.
For the record, Mathew, who has been directing for 12 years now, has also directed Airtel's recent TVC featuring Rakul Preet Singh and the brand's controversial Boss ad. In all, he has directed over 250 ads and, recently, a Hindi feature film, 'Hasee Toh Phasee'. Mathew, who used to assist filmmakers Prasoon Pandey and Mahesh Mathai during his early days, went to film school in India (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, 1997) and Munich (HFF, 2000).