Huma Qureshi has established herself as an actress of substance across many film industries. Here she is in conversation with Team Box Office India
All the films that you are doing are slightly unconventional films. What draws you to such characters?
I don’t set any sort of restrictions on myself. In that sense. I always try and think as an artiste, I should try and go out there and do different characters. As an actor, I think I would be very exhausted if I were to do the same thing again and again.
I don’t want to be the pretty girl in the film all the time (Laughs). My strength is playing different characters, doing different accents and changing my look. I get drawn to unconventional characters because I guess they too come to me. I guess it’s a two-way process.
Is that what attracted you to Kaala, the unconventional character, and even the age factor that is there?
Absolutely. Dhanush called me and said he was producing this film and it was with Rajini sir. I was like, wow! I never thought Dhanush would call me to do a film with him. But he said, ‘This was something even bigger and better.’ His words, not mine. I went to Chennai, I met the director and he narrated this beautiful story to me. And I absolutely fell in love with it. Before I took the flight back home that night, I had said yes to the film because I knew that this was a very strong character. If I had come back to Bombay and spoken to people about it, they would have put things in my head, saying that it’s a very old character and I was playing a character 20-30 years older than myself. Why was I doing that?
I think, with actresses, it’s always about that. People around you always try and make you feel that your shelf life is only that much. Somebody is there to take your place, you are only about your youth and beauty. That’s the one idea everyone keeps pushing. As an actor, I am not going to get scared and not do a great film and a great part only because of some superficial issues. Yes, I was a little apprehensive, I wanted the film to work, I wanted my work to be appreciated and I wanted people to know that I had taken a risk and I am glad it paid off.
With your role and the other roles we have seen lately, do you think there is a dent in this stereotypical thinking now?
I think so. I think these are very exciting times, when you have films like Raazi and Veere Di Wedding. You have really great parts written for women. Even in a Rajini film women are not just there to be rescued. You are not a damsel in distress any more; you are standing up for yourself and you are taking a stand.
I play a single mother in the film, who is 50 years old, but she stands up to the bad guy and she gives it back to him. She is not hiding behind the hero and waiting for him to rescue her, and I think it’s a sign of good times. I am glad we have writers like (Pa)Ranjith sir, who are writing strong roles for women. They are not like achha ek sundar ladki chahiye film mein so let’s keep her. I have nothing against that. I am happy to do those films also but, as an actor, you also want a little more and I am glad that in masala mainstream films, that space is being created. It’s not necessary to do a female-centric film to do that. In a big hero-driven film, you also have women doing such things.
How was it collaborating with Pa Ranjith?
Brilliant, in just one word. He has a very different voice as a filmmaker. He makes commercial films, he makes big films, but at the same time I think his voice is very unique. He is very connected to his roots. He is a Dalit filmmaker, who is very politically aware, and I think his films are a reflection of that. But he also gives you very entertaining films that anybody will understand and simple stories that people can relate to.
At the same time, his films are also so much about characters from real life. I am getting so many phone calls and it’s genuinely humbling and overwhelming, especially from the South. People are saying we’ve not seen a Tamil heroine like this before. I am blessed to make my Tamil debut with this film. So I called up Ranjith and thanked him for this opportunity. I couldn’t have asked for a better debut and, together, I think we have made a really beautiful film that is moving people and it’s doing well. So, it’s kind of nice as an artiste that you feel like your film has been appreciated both by the masses and by the classes.
Were you scared that the strong woman character that you play in the film might be overshadowed by Rajnikanth?
With a big star, that fear is always there. There are certain things that are not in your control. Whatever is meant to happen will happen. I have a very Zen philosophy in these matters. I think overthinking and worrying too much do not get you anywhere. You have to do the best within your ability. Then, there are so many factors. My career is testimony to the fact that I never planned my debut and I never thought that I should get a certain kind of launch and that somebody should style me a certain way so that I look like a heroine with my hair flying.
My journey has been slightly different and I am grateful for that journey. Whatever I am today, and whatever my fan base is today, is because of the films I have done. My films have never been big masala films. Now, I am getting the big masala commercial films which I am very grateful. But I will always be the actor who started off with small, indie films. I am very grateful for that. When people look at me, they identify me with substance. I am not even saying that it’s true (Laughs). But if they think of me that way, then let them.
How do you deal with the highs and lows that the industry throws at you?
There is no manual that tells you how to deal with a good day. When my phone rings and I get nice messages, when I read good reviews on Twitter, and when my fans reach out to me, those are great days when you feel your work is being appreciated. Actors are very dependent on other people. They feed off other people’s energy and love. I do that. I need lots of love and appreciation, which is why I think actors are a little narcissistic (Laughs). Everybody loves to say that, but it is true.
At the same time, the lows are also low because sometimes you feel scared and alone. You feel like it is a lonely profession and you do not know what you are doing, if you are going to work or not going to work, if your choices are right or not. An actor’s journey is also about the choices they make. It is more than anything else. Ability is one thing, talent is one thing. It is also about the right opportunity, the right time and the right release. There are so many factors.
So, it is not just one thing that goes into making somebody successful or not successful. I have never chased success. I have only chased excellence in my performance and work. That is the only thing in my control. The rest is not in my control.
You had said that when you got Kaala, you didn’t talk about it to a lot of people because there are detractors who would have tried to talk you out of it. How do you deal with that?
I don’t talk to them (Laughs). I tell them after I take the call. The more number of brains are involved, more points of view emerge. Everyone’s point of view is correct, nobody is wrong. There is a theory called the ‘Black Swan Theory’. We think that first there is a cause and then there is an effect. But, basically, first there is an effect and then people figure out the cause behind it.
When somebody becomes successful, we try and decode the reason for that success. But it doesn’t happen that way. You wake up in the morning, work hard and only then, will you get success. It is like you sow the seeds first, water it and then one fine day, the plant grows. It grows only when it is time for it to grow. We like to believe that we have control, but we don’t. You have to keep doing your work. What is meant to happen will happen.
What is your process for approaching a role?
I read the script (Laughs). I don’t have a process. I am not a method actor at all. I hate people who say that they are method actors. I find that very boring. I am a very instinctive actor. I hate rehearsals. I am a director’s actor, in that sense. I need to know what film the director is making, what I am doing in the film and then I follow instructions. In that sense, my prep is very basic. I only read the script because everything is written there and if I don’t understand something, I ask the director about it and about my look.
My look was decided by Anu Vardhan, my costume person, and Ajay (Vishwasrao), my make-up person. All of them collaborated together. I don’t think I can take credit for any of that. Ajay has done my make-up. Anu got the nose ring and the outfits. The director knew exactly what he wanted to present. Certain people say that they take their characters back home and they can’t escape from their characters, but I am not like that. I do so many dramatic roles. If I take all of them back home, my parents wouldn’t be able to recognise me!
I think going to the set is like a job. You get into the character and then you get out of it. Your work lies between ‘action’ and ‘cut’. Then I am Huma, the real person. I come back home. I have a life, I have my parents and I have my relationships with people. Your work should not affect you. So, I don’t have any method. I only listen to the director.
Were you nervous about working with Rajinikanth?
The first time I met sir, we were shooting for some pictures. We were deciding on the looks of the characters. All of us were doing the look test. I met him for the first time on that day. He said, ‘Hello’. I told him how happy I was to be a part of the film. Rajini sir is true-blue humble and he said that they were very happy to have me on the film. I said to him, ‘Arrey sir, yeh sab mat boliye. Aap toh aise sweetnesss mein bol doge, main toh teen din tak sochti rahungi ki Rajini sir ne aisa bola’ (Laughs). I went home and joked with Saqib (Saleem) a couple of times, and said, ‘Listen, I am talking to God. So, talk to me with respect.’ He said I had gone mad.
On the first day, I was very nervous. We had a lengthy scene on the third day of my shoot. On the first two days, we shot some songs, which was easy stuff. The dialogues were in Tamil. We had some very intense scenes. I was memorising my lines so that I could learn them by heart. The last thing you want to do is forget your lines, especially, when you are acting with an actor of that calibre. I didn’t want to mess up. I am from the North. My mother is Kashmiri, my father is from Delhi. I have grown up in Delhi. Now, I am in Bombay. So, I have no connection to the South, particularly the Tamil language and culture. I did not want to look like an alien in that film.
I know that a lot of North Indian girls do a lot of South films, but I genuinely had no connection to that industry. In a film with such good characters, I did not want to look out of place. I was very aware of these things. I did not want my lip sync to be off. I worked really hard on that. I wanted people who watch the film even in Chennai and across Tamil Nadu to accept me as one of them. For me, that is very important.
You are venturing into the regional space. You have done a Marathi film also. How different are the regional film industries from the Hindi film industry?
A film is a film. I am not all that intelligent to analyse industries. I have done an English language film, I have done a Marathi film and I have done a Malayalam film. For me, the choice is very simple. I will go where good scripts are or where good films are. I don’t limit myself by restricting myself.
As an actor who wants to work in Hindi films and who wants to have a pan-India reach, you need to have fans in every part of the country. In the regional film industry, there is some really amazing cinema being made. The stories are so good and the technicians down South are amazing. A Rajini film is watched by fans everywhere. I was shooting for something in Cannes and the entire camera department team was from Chennai. Suddenly, I was surrounded by them and they said to me, ‘You did a film with our Rajini sir.’ I did not know how to respond to that. I feel that may be, if I was an actor from the Hindi film industry, I would not have received that kind of love. They were so excited to meet me. I was doing a film with their superstar. I am trying to work with the best people in my life. They could be from any part of the world.
But don’t you think that, as an actor in Bollywood today, some understanding of the business is necessary?
Waise toh actors have low IQ na (Laughs). No, it’s nothing like that. In all seriousness, my only understanding of the business is that nobody should lose money on my films. I feel terrible when a film of mine is not able to recover money. That’s the only thing. I don’t have to be the face of the film but it’s still my film. I still have a long way to go before I can have a film that’s mounted on me. I need to increase my fan base for that, reach out to more people and, yes, I definitely need to grow my understanding of commercial cinema. But I always want to be a part of a film in which nobody loses money. And since I am a businessman’s daughter, that genuinely hurts me.
Coming back to your career, from Mohsina in Gangs Of Wasseypur to Zareena in Kaala…
(Cuts In) From Mohsina to Zareena? (Laughs). It’s been exciting, it’s been a lot of learning, it’s been a lot of good days and some bad days, it’s been a lot of love and appreciation, it’s been some rejections as well, which nobody prepares you for, it’s been a lot of invasion of privacy, it’s been a lot of rubbish talk. But, at the same time, when you look back, what you get back from it… like I didn’t know what else I can do in my life. If I was not an actor, I would be struggling to be an actor. I don’t know anything else or maybe I would run my dad’s kebab shop.
Other than that, I don’t know if I am qualified to do anything else. My History honours’ degree is also matlab pata nahi kahan rakhi hogi, I have no idea. But I think I am still on a learning curve. And I always want to be in this learning phase of my life. I don’t want to ever be that haan sab aata hai mujhe because I believe that, creatively, that’s dumb.
What other genres do you want to explore creatively?
Not horror (Laughs). Koi bhi genre le aao, horror mat lana.
Even your brother Saqib Saleem said that horror films should not be made in India now.
Don’t remind me of Dobaara yaar. But I agree with Saqib because both of us had a very unfortunate experience with that film. In our country, what unfortunately happens is that when you say you want to do a horror film, people automatically want to make it a horror-sex film. And both of us were very clear that as brother and sister, we would not be a part of a film like that, ever.
Then, suddenly, in the middle of the film when you want to change things, it is kind of disrespectful and it is not what you signed up for. I still say that I personally enjoy watching horror films. When I see films like Get Out or A Quiet Place, I am inspired because I believe that horror is a genre that is quite loved.
Now, with films like these coming out, it is also a very respectable genre. Major Hollywood studios keep making world-class films which have the horror element but they talk so much more about race, geopolitics, global warming, anything. They have many layers. But I feel that we have not evolved to that level. Our horror is limited to bhoot-pret and sleaze, which is now known as ‘horrex’. I didn’t even know that a term like that existed before this. And for me, I felt that both Saqib and me doing a film together, it was an opportunity lost. I feel worse about that. As I said before, it was a learning experience and theek hai, you win some, you lose some.
So, you will be careful the next time you choose to do a film together?
I think we should do a film that is closer to our relationship, which is more goofy and fun. A lighter film because that is also who we are in real life. Someone has to write something like that for both of us. For me, I want to give comedy a try. It is my favourite genre. I also feel that it is the hardest genre. It is very difficult to make people laugh. I love watching comedies and if ever given a chance, I would always be like chalo comedy film dekhte hain. I think it is my forte as an actor. I have done a lot of it on stage but somehow not so much in films. But aayega. (Laughs)