Over the last one decade, Huma Qureshi, who had made a stunning debut as Mohsina in the 2012 Anurag Kashyap masterpiece, Gangs of Wasseypur, has consistently proven her range through her layered and nuanced performances. The recent outings of this chameleon actor include the sultry and conniving secretary Monica Machado in Monica, O My Darling, the village bumpkin-turned-state CM Rani Bharti in Maharani, and of course, the warm and simple homemaker-turned-culinary queen, Tarla Dalal, in the eponymous biopic Tarla.
“As an actor, I always follow the script and try to stick to the director’s vision. I don’t physically resemble her but I wanted to ensure that I captured her spirit and the sheer joy of cooking that she could instill in people. While prosthetics helped in looking the part, it was far more important for me to understand who and what she stood for and channel that in my performance. I have seen her shows while growing up. I didn’t want to mimic her. I tried to capture the essence of Tarla Dalal,” says the actor as we sit down for this interview.
Elaborating how she got into the skin of the character, she says, “I find her to be a feminist in her own right — someone who encouraged other women to dream big and never give up irrespective of the stage of life that they were in. I found that quality to be admirable. Her ability to make cooking look easy is something that I found endearing. It took me some time to understand how a woman in the ’70s would have tried to overturn patriarchal norms in her own way. I wanted that to come across in the way I played her. Once I was able to work that out, I was able to get into the skin of the character.”
What also seems to have helped her understand the core of Tarla Dalal — the late Padma Shri awardee and India’s first legit home chef, who hosted her own cooking shows and authored hundreds of best-selling books — is Huma’s knowledge of the industry but more so, her love for food, especially home-cooked meals. “Food was a very essential part of my growing up. If my friends were over then I would call for food from the restaurant and they loved it. It went without saying that food would come from Saleem’s. However, I have a special place in my heart for my mom’s cooking. Nothing can come close to that. It’s comfort, it’s love and it’s reassurance, all rolled into one. My mother’s cooking always lifted my spirits and that’s the one thing I miss the most because I live in Mumbai now and my mom’s in Delhi,” says the daughter of one of Delhi’s most celebrated restaurateurs, Saleem Qureshi.
However, she is quick to point out that growing up, she was not a cooking show fan. “I am familiar with her shows but I don’t enjoy cooking. I found her to be easy-going and her positive and encouraging nature appealed to me. I wasn’t into cooking shows particularly; I used to watch a lot of movies and wasn’t hooked to TV,” she says.
But she was hardly the filmy kid either. In fact, her acting journey started with theatre. “I wasn’t a filmy kid but I loved watching Hindi films. Be it commercial fare or art house films. I enjoyed them both equally. I used to go watch films with my friends in college but the acting bug bit me when I started doing theatre. I loved the heroines in chiffon saris as well as the actors who were celebrated for their acting ability. I wanted to be versatile. That has always been the goal.”
She started doing theatre while doing her graduation at Gargi College. “I have done proscenium theatre as well as nukkad nataks. Doing plays liberated me as a performer. I enjoyed the applause that I got first hand from the audience when I used to act in plays. That was an exhilarating experience. I liked being different people on stage. Theatre taught me about team work. It also taught me how to hone my skills. It was my learning ground. That’s where I realised that I wanted to be a professional actor. Theatre made me realise that I wanted to be an actor in front of the camera as well. I was bitten by the acting bug because of theatre. As actor in cinema, I knew I could reach a larger audience and as a performer I wanted to reach out to vast section of people. Cinema has helped me achieve that dream,” explains Huma who shifted to Mumbai when she started getting film offers while doing theatre in Delhi.
She made her Bollywood debut with Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW) and for a rank outsider, it was a dream start. “I got my first break without any struggle,” she admits. “It was a dream debut because I played the lead and the film was showcased at Cannes. It won appreciation in India and today it’s considered to be a cult film. I was too young to envisage what the next 10 years would look like. Post my first film, I was just yearning to get good roles and be part of films that appealed to me,” she recalls.
But for Huma, the ‘outsider’s struggle’ began post the critical success of GoW. “It took me a while to figure out how to create a place for myself. I was new to the industry and it took me a while to understand how the industry operated. I was looking for meaningful roles even then and didn’t want to just be an accessory in the hero’s journey,” she says.
“Today, I can say that I am happy with the kind of work that I have done in the past decade. I could showcase my versatility as an actor. I have done Hindi films, Tamil films, Malayalam films, International projects and also had the opportunity to work in OTT shows.”
Indeed, and she has made each opportunity count. Her Bollywood filmography includes movies like Ek Thi Daayan, Dedh Ishqiya, Badlapur, Jolly LLB 2, and BellBottom. “It was not easy; you have to figure out your own path. I would say anybody who wants to be a part of this industry should stick to their guns and not get swayed by the glamour or the surround sound. It’s a lot of hard work and one should be able to persevere and not give up easily,” she says.
But some of her best works have been on the OTT platforms. Her last two movies, Monica, O My Darling and Tarla, were OTT releases and both were loved by the critics as well as the regular audiences. Moreover, the powerhouse performances in Deepa Mehta’s dystopian web series Leila, Sippy’s psychological thriller, Mithya, and Subhash Kapoor’s political drama, Maharani, have not only helped her firmly re-establish her acting credentials but also given her the opportunity to explore more challenging characters.
“I am extremely happy with the kind of work I have done on OTT platforms. These shows and films have helped me showcase my versatility. Every role has been special and I am happy the makers came to me with those roles and saw me being able to play them. The OTT space is a great ground for actors to do work which is mainstream as well as off-beat. I think women-led movies have always been part of the mainstream. But more so now because of OTT platforms.”
With the women on screen moving beyond stereotypes such as ‘Object of Desire’, ‘Damsel-in-Distress’, ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, etc., and becoming stronger, more layered, and taking control of their stories, actors like Huma are getting ample opportunities to experiment. “The kinds of films and shows which are being made today have strong roles for women. They are playing the protagonists and able to portray characters with innumerable shades. It’s a fabulous time to be an actor,” says the actor whose upcoming projects include, Pooja Meri Jaan, Single Salma and the third season of Maharani.
However, there is always scope for improvement. “Pay parity is still a concern. The budgets that films with female protagonists get are still not in the same league as the ones fronted by men. It’s still difficult to find producers who are willing to back films led by female actors. Things have changed and are changing. But then again, cinema and Bollywood are reflections of society. The society is still patriarchal even though women have left no stone unturned in excelling in everything that they do. While some things have changed for the better, women still have to challenge existing patriarchal norms to get a seat at the table,” points out the actor who has spent a decade in the industry and had a front-row seat to its many changes.
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