Many fans believe that she can be put in the same league as the versatile and enigmatic actress Smita Patil, while others argue that it’s too early to compare this Delhi-born actress from a non-film background to the late actress. Whatever the view may be, one fact still stands true: that Huma Qureshi, who sparkles on screen with her extremely naturalistic charm, earthiness and effortless acting, possesses the ability to take on that mantle.
Qureshi, who moved to Mumbai in 2008 to do one film but which never saw the light of the day, is today known for playing varied roles in films like “Gangs of Wasseypur,” “Dedh Ishqiya,” and “Badlapur,” which have piqued the interest of the class and mass audiences alike. Her last film with Akshay Kumar, “Jolly LLB,” was a blockbuster hit.
The latest film in which the actress is showing her prowess is Gurinder Chadha’s historical drama with a love story, “Viceroy’s House.” The film, which centers on the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, released worldwide Sept. 1.
Set in 1947, with the British colonial rule coming to an end in India, Queen Victoria’s great-grandson Lord Mountbatten (Bonneville) moves with his wife (Gillian Anderson) and daughter for six months into the Viceroy’s House in Delhi. As the last viceroy, it’s his task to oversee the country’s transition to independence. Soon, violence erupts between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, which also affects the staff working at the viceroy’s palace.
Though the film brings to life the agony of Partition, Qureshi underlined the continued relevance of this story.
“When I came across the script, I immediately connected with it, as an Indian growing up in India, everyone grew up hearing stories about the Partition,” Qureshi told India-West. “This film’s approach is not angry or aggressive. It’s more emphatic. It talks about the period. And in its own way, it shows the relevance of a subject matter like this in today’s time where everyone’s out to kill each other. There is so much hatred, politicians are trying to divide us constantly. Recently, there was Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis. It kind of reminds you what’s going on in the world and what this kind of politics can do.”
“Viceroy’s House” also stars Indian American actor Manish Dayal, and late Indian actor Om Puri.
Qureshi and Dayal play a young couple at the house who fall in love amid the rising sectarian tensions. Dayal plays Jeet Kumar, a Hindu servant, while Qureshi essays the role of Aalia, a Muslim woman, who works as Lord Mountbatten’s interpreter.
“Aaliya is very committed to the idea of unifying India. She’s a strong, educated girl, who works, and is every bit modern in her thinking. She is not a typical girl that you would find in 1947,” Qureshi said.
In preparation for the role, Qureshi, who studied history at Delhi University, turned to Jaya Thadani, an interpreter for Lord Mountbatten during the British rule.
“She was the grandniece of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who was one of the cabinet ministers in the first government of India. She had so many interesting stories about what it was like growing up in India in 1947,” said Qureshi. “She gave a wonderful insight into that world…Living so closely to power and to all the people who were going to make decisions about what was going to happen to the future of India.”
Noting similarities between her character, Aaliya, and herself, Qureshi told India-West: “I like the fact that she is strong, she has an opinion, she in her own way decides what is going on in the world is right or wrong. She believes that people should not be made to choose to leave their motherland, their country.”
The powerhouse performer, who made her note-worthy debut in 2012 with Anurag Kashyap’s crime drama, “Gangs of Wasseypur,” and has since been hailed as a mold-breaker, emphatically maintained that she is proud of her career choices, adding that she gives a nod to a project only if the script is right.
“I’m a strong girl,” she laughed. “And it translates on to my roles that I end up doing. I am acting selfish here. You want to play characters that people remember and not the ones that no one cares about after a few years.”
“Viceroy’s House,” which released in India as “Partition 1947,” is Chadha’s and Qureshi’s first project together. The “Bride and Prejudice” director also happens to be the first female director that Qureshi has ever worked with.
“She’s really a force of nature,” Qureshi told India-West. “I’ve never worked with a person who is so strong and so passionate. She knows what she wants, and is very specific.”
Considering the subject matter, Qureshi specified that the film would have been a difficult project for any filmmaker.
“As a female director, as a person of color, it’s all the more difficult when you are trying to put together a massive project with some known faces and some unknown faces... women don’t get that kind of budgets to make movies. It’s quite a male world in that sense.”
“People say that she can only make a slice of life or a comedy but here she is, making this big-ass film, which is being loved and appreciated around the world. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey,” she added.
Qureshi called Dayal, best known for “The Hundred Foot Journey,” a very “special, dedicated and methodical actor.”
“He has this amazing vulnerability in all the characters he plays. I was teasing him that so many girls in India want to meet him, to get to know him,” she said.
Whether it is playing the raunchy sex worker in “Badlapur” or the promiscuous companion of a con woman, played by Madhuri Dixit Nene in Dedh Ishkiya,” Qureshi seamlessly transforms into her characters she plays on screen.
“I’m a leech,” she confessed. “When I get into something, I’m totally into it which is why I don’t say yes to 10,000 things in a year. I try to do one film and give it my all and absorb myself in it. That’s the way I like to pick my roles, live my life. That’s how I am.”
She went on to add that since filmmaking is such a collaborative process, everyone’s involvement is a must especially of the actors.
“As an actor, you have to play out the role, you have to sort to make it seem real and not just dialogues,” she elaborated to India-West. “Sometimes, how to say your lines and what that interpretation means to you, what it does to you, there’s something spiritual about the whole process. That’s why casting is so important. “
Her favorite scene so far is the one in “Viceroy’s House” with late Om Puri.
“When we were doing that scene, I am emotional, sitting in the back seat of a car and we did two takes. I was doing my dialogues, and I was doing okay but we still didn’t get it, like the magical take hadn’t happened. Gurinder said, ‘Ok, great. I got it. Moving on.’ But Om ji said, ‘Let’s stop and do one more. For me. We looked at each other and the actor mode was on. And the third take, which is in the film, I break down after doing the dialogue. Whenever I see it, it makes me so emotional. It feels like it was his gift to me in a way, as an actor, as a colleague, as a senior.”
Though acting is her first love, Qureshi clarified that her world doesn’t revolve around Bollywood.
“I’ve just started my journey as an actor, an artist. I don’t think I’ve done enough. There are so many roles I want to do, I want to produce films at some point. I want to travel the world, learn how to cook at least seven different kind of cuisines, I want to skydive. Not everything has to be related to acting. As an individual, there’s so much to explore in life.”