British Film Institute’s Honour is a Reminder of Forgotten Director Waris Husain

Despite having directed some of the biggest actors of film and television, the 79-year-old filmmaker remains relatively unknown in India.

Waris Hussein. Courtesy: Shama Habibullah

From February 6 on, the British Film Institute in London will be showcasing the works of Waris Hussein with a month-long retrospective to honour UK television’s first Indian drama director. Even though I’m sure many will recognise his work, I still wonder how many people are familiar with his name today.

I must admit that I only found out who he was during the late 1990s when I chaired a talk with author Attia Hosain not long before she died in 1998 at the Nehru Centre, London. I was excited to meet this remarkable woman whose Sunlight on a Broken Column, a quasi-autobiography of life in feudal Lucknow, I had enjoyed so very much and to find out more about her remarkable career and life in Britain.

But I had no idea she was Waris Hussein’s mother. I had only recently seen his film Sixth Happiness, written by Firdaus Kanga, a friend whose fictionalised autobiography, Trying to Grow was such a delightful book about Bombay, Parsis, being gay and disabled. In those days before Google, it was only later that I found out that Hussein was the director of the first few ever Dr Who episodes (1963), the television series which was part of all my Saturday evenings in the 1960s: we’d have Scottish high teas with granny and watch Dr Who before being taken home by out mother.

It’s hard to realise just how revolutionary it must have been 50 years ago in the BBC to have an Asian man and a woman – the legendary BBC producer Verity Lambert – albeit both from highly-privileged backgrounds, making a sci-fi television series.

Hussein, born Waris Ahmed Habibullah in Lucknow in 1938, was brought up in Bombay in British India, before moving to the UK when his father was appointed as a diplomat to London in 1947 and remaining there at Clifton College and the University of Cambridge. Habibullah Sr returned to the newly-created Pakistan, while his wife Attia Hosain stayed behind with their children, Waris and Shama Habibullah, the well-known documentary filmmaker. Attia worked at the BBC where she became famous for her Hindi/Urdu Shakespeare translations.

The Hosain and the Habibullah families – his parents were cousins – were talukdars (landlords) from what was later Uttar Pradesh. Although many in the family supported the Muslim League, some stayed in India post-1947, while others migrated to Pakistan. Hosain’s relatives in Pakistan include the writers Muneeza Shamsie, Attia Hosain’s niece, and her daughter, the highly-regarded novelist Kamila Shamsie.

At Cambridge, Hussein went on to become a theatre director. While we cannot access his theatre work as a director of many plays, notably for the Marlowe Society at the University of Cambridge, the BFI retrospective of Waris Hussein’s work (February 2018) will remind us of programmes he made for BBC TV in the days before home video recording. I was too young to see his A Passage to India (1965), but I remember his Shoulder to Shoulder, a series on the suffragettes (1974), which was an obsession in my schooldays, and we pored over the special issue of the Radio Times that featured it. His Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978) won a BAFTA award.

Hussein’s other films include A Touch of Love (1969) and Melody (1971). I particularly recall his Henry VII and his Six Wives (1972), starring Keith Michell, Charlotte Rampling and Donal Pleasance, which had its premiere before Henry VIII’s relatives, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne.

Hussein won an Emmy for Copacabana (1985) a TV musical for Barry Manilow. He also made serials for Central TV, including one of the first television dramas to deal with AIDS. Intimate Contact (1987), starring Claire Bloom and Daniel Massey, in which the husband contracts and dies from AIDS. Waris Hussein has spoken about his own partner, Ian, dying of AIDS at the time.

The director has worked with many leading actors and stars of British and American cinema – Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Tom Conti, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndike, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Barry Manilow, Anthony Hopkins, Ava Gardner, Claire Bloom, Ian McKellen, Janet Suzman.

Hussein has also featured as a character in Mark Gatiss’s BBC drama on the making of the early Dr Who series.

Why Hussein’s name is not well-known outside the media in Britain today and hardly at all in India is a wonder. Perhaps he did not want to be seen to represent any particular community, gay or Asian; the large scale migration from India and Pakistan at this time was mostly of unskilled labour. Although Waris has acknowledged that he faced barriers of discrimination, he also speaks with a pronounced upper middle class accent that made him stand out. It is quite amazing that in 1960s Britain – well before the ’60s swung – this 24-year old man, of Indian origin, directed Dr Who, the series which shaped the imagination of several generations of Britain’s children and teens.

It is timely that the British Film Institute is featuring a retrospective of his work. It is high time he was celebrated in India too.

Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.

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