Even in her very first film, Huma Qureshi was hard to ignore. Her debut cinematic outing, Gangs of Wasseypur went on to acquire a cult status and along with that, Qureshi’s strong screen presence and innate charm propelled her into the big league. She proved her critics right by continuing to deliver mature and sensitive performances in movies such as Ek Thi Daayan, Dedh Ishqiya, and Badlapur.
Not one to aspire to fit into a mould, she was one of the first leading ladies from Bollywood to make her foray into the OTT space by headlining the dystopian series Leila. The regional space has also been rewarding in terms of variety, with Qureshi being a part of Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil films. Hollywood happened with a role in Jack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, but it is her elegant presence in the qawwali song “Shikayat” in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi that has caught everyone’s attention. In a candid chat, Qureshi talks about working with the talented filmmaker, not conforming to convention, and her evolution as an actor.
1. This is the first time you have worked with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Tell us about your working experience with him?
I have always wanted to work with Sanjay sir. The way he looks at the world, his characters—and especially the way he looks at women—is really special. I have grown up watching his movies and have been a huge fan, so I have always aspired to be a part of that world. I remember when at the end of 2019, I got a call about being a part of a song for Gangubai and I immediately said yes. I remember going to meet Sanjay sir. He was on the set of the film and even from afar, I could feel his aura. He has so much reverence and love for his craft and his characters. I shot for 5-6 days for the song and I feel I have grown as a performer. I would love to do a full-fledged film with him because I feel he really unlocks your true potential as an actor.
2. Are you happy with the way the song has turned out?
As I said, Sanjay sir has a unique perspective and way of looking at the world. All the actresses who have worked with him have never looked better. I told him that after shooting this song, I will become so vain because now I’m a Sanjay Leela Bhansali actor (laughs).
3. Your Tamil film Valimai is also doing quite well in theatres. Are you happy that a film of yours is drawing in the audiences at a time when theatres really need all the support?
Absolutely! The last two years have been quite depressing. Theatres had been shut and the industry had been badly hit. The fact that today both Valimai and Gangubai Kathiawadi are doing so brilliantly is almost like we have put the pandemic behind us. It’s my good fortune that I am a part of these films. Also, the fact that I was able to work on such distinct characters in such a short time is very fulfilling for me.
4. You worked with Tamil superstar Ajith Kumar in Valimai. How was it working with such a legend?
Ajith sir is special. He is quite a private person so he does not really come and promote his films. Despite that, people wait for his films and it’s like a festival out there. I remember going for the first day first show at 4 am in Chennai and people were on the road celebrating and bursting firecrackers. I got so much love for the film. There were cheers and claps at every dialogue and each entry. It’s the sheer power of cinema that can move people in such a way. I could get used to that! (laughs)
5. In the past few years, you have explored movies in different languages and done a couple of shows in the OTT space. Do you think all that has made you evolve as an actor?
Hundred per cent! We are living in such an interesting time because I am no longer tied to a genre, region, or medium. It was the OTT space, and a show like Maharani, that really helped filmmakers reimagine me in a certain way. Similarly, I’m very happy that theatres are open and I am a part of the big movie experiences. I want both these experiences and if I am getting the opportunities, why not? I love the fact that I can go and work in the West and be a part of the Zack Snyder universe, and at the same time, do a Tamil film or an OTT show. Each time I come onscreen, I want to reimagine myself as someone different. That’s what inspires me—to be able to reach out to a new audience with each project I do.
6. Do you find it exciting to build your character graph in OTT shows such as Leila, Maharani, and more recently, Mithya as compared to movies that have a shorter run-time?
Absolutely! It’s like I have tasted blood with these shows and I want to do more. That’s the feeling because instead of just two or three hours of the movie experience, you have six to 10 hours of a very immersive web show experience. It’s a lot of hard work too because it’s like three films rolled into one. When I did Leila, I was very excited to work with Deepa Mehta. Before that, I had never led anything in that sense. She really gave me the confidence that I could do this. Those were the early days of OTT in India, and I remember a lot of people advising me and asking if this is a step-down from movies. But I had been watching a lot of international shows and I felt a lot of good talent was moving that way. Longform formats can be quite interesting and gratifying. I was the first girl to be leading a series and I feel so proud that now there are so many women leading shows.
7. On the film front, you have Monica, O My Darling with Rajkummar Rao, and Double XL with Sonakshi Sinha. Tell us a bit about these movies.
The first one is a mad film! We had so much fun while making it and people are just going to enjoy watching it. Double XL is very close to my heart and I speak for Sonakshi as well. Not just us—I think every girl in this world must have been fat-shamed at some point. When we announced the film, literally everyone reached out to us and shared their experiences of being fat-shamed, whether it was for losing weight before getting married or not getting a job because they are big. As a woman and as an actor, I feel it’s my responsibility to be a better role model because I didn’t have that when I was growing up. I spent a long part of my teenage years growing up with that insecurity and that feeling that I’m not good enough. I am blessed, but a lot of people take up some very unhealthy choices or their self-confidence takes a hit. Talking about it is the least I can do. Also, it’s not preachy. It’s a fun film. I think a lot of social change happens through popular culture. Our effort is to make an entertaining film and if you take something back from it, it’s sone pe suhaga.
8. You made your debut 10 years ago with Gangs of Wasseypur. When you were shooting for the film, did you ever imagine it would acquire such a cult status?
I was so new and raw. I had no idea what I was doing or the scope of this film. I would just go on the set, thinking that I am going to have fun and give it my best—that was pretty much about it. I saw the film for the first time at Cannes and I saw people from all over the world respond to a film that was so culture-specific. I saw what the power of a good film can be. I feel it has really influenced my thinking and my choices in a huge way. I have always been rewarded by those risks. I know I am no cookie-cutter and I don’t want to be because it’s boring. Why be vanilla when you can be sugar and spice?!