Aug 12, 2013

The lesser known side to Huma Qureshi

I have this image of myself 40-50 years down the line when I’m recalling my initial years of being a reporter in a daily. This image is completely assuming the fact that I make it as a journalist and go beyond writing about art shows that I don’t understand and bharatnatyam performances in shady auditoriums. But the one thing I will look back at with pride is the interviews I’ve done. About a year into working, I realized that I was better at getting famous people to divulge little pieces of information that the audiences they cater to normally don’t hear about. Huma Qureshi was one of those people. Here’s the full text of the interview with her before ‘D-Day’:

What’s Zoya Rehman like? How was your experience taking on this character?

Zoya is an explosive expert and an undercover immigration lawyer. On the surface, she’s a girl of very words and may come across as a little steely. But she’s quite human and fragile like anybody else. There are these choices that she has to make which are difficult. But she has to make them because if she doesn’t, it jeopardizes the whole mission. And in a way, she’s sort of the only girl in this all-guy team. Of course, it’s a very guy-heavy film and it is about the men and machines and espionage. But I think the girls, whether it’s my character or the other two, have a very special place in the movie and hold it on their own.

For me, it was just exciting to be a part of an action film. I’ve never done action before and I didn’t think anyone would cast me in an action movie. But I’m very grateful to Nikhil (Advani) for giving me this opportunity. I hope I’ve done justice to what he had in mind. I always say I’m as good or bad as the team I’m working with because I’m very raw. I’m still learning as we go by. It’s a medium that I’m still grappling with. Yes, you may say I’m four films old but it’s just been a year and there’s too much information I’m trying to cram. It’s all of those things combined.

Any character traits you could relate to personally?

She’s very pragmatic and I think I am too. Actually I’m very emotional so that’s not true. (laughs) Zoya’s very different from who I am. I’m a very emotional person but Zoya’s calm and collected and knows what she has to do. I’m far more volatile as a person that way. But Zoya also has the ability to put on these masks whenever required. I think I can do that because I’m an actress.

Can you compare your experiences with theatre and films?

Working in film and theatre are very different. I can’t say which my preferred one is because they both have their pros and cons. In theatre, I love the fact that you get an immediate response. You know exactly how it went. Films, of course, you reach out to so many people and so, the percentage of adulation and appreciation is much more, which is great. But technically, it’s just a matter of internalizing or externalizing. In films, you have to sometimes do very little to express. Theatre, on the other hand, just by the sheer design of it, needs you to project, express and ensure that the person sitting in the last row on the last seat is able to hear you as clearly as the first person. They’re both very difficult mediums.

And modeling versus acting?

I’ve actually not walked down the ramp that much. Ever since I started doing films is when I started being showstoppers. Before that, I was doing more of television commercials, which is more acting work than modeling. So I’ve never been a model in the quintessential sense of the word.

How do you feel when you look at the year that’s passed?

Honestly, I feel very cool. I don’t feel cocky or arrogant or that I’ve accomplished something. I don’t think ‘Oh my god, I’ve so much more to do’ or ‘Oh my god, I’ve come so far’. I don’t know what’s happening but I just feel it’s pretty cool. It’s one of those feelings. What’s really nice is that a lot of people tried to scare me. They tried to tell me that I was starting off in a very off-beatish space and I should wait. They said I have the looks and the talent and can be like the quintessential mainstream heroine. I could have chosen to get scared and rejected a film like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ and the other movies that I’ve done. But I’m glad because I guess that makes me different. That’s my USP and what my audiences expect and like from me.

At the same time, I’m very open to doing commercial films. I’ve never been bracketed as an ‘off-beat actress’. I think tomorrow, if I do a rom-com, which I am planning to do, it’d be accepted as much as any of the dark edgy films that I’ve done. I’ve not had an image that people associated me with. The kind of person that I am – very talkative and in my brother’s words ‘badtameez’, emotional, hyper - has not come out in my movies. They’ve been strong, contained characters and my brother says ‘That’s a fraud! That’s not you’ and I say ‘Ya man, they don’t even know how I actually talk’. I’m just waiting for a film in which I can be my mad self.

So there’s someone that you specifically want to work with in the industry?

More than actors and directors, the genre I want to work with is in romance because I think it’ll reflect who I am. I’m a very rom-com sort of a girl. I love movies that make you well up and cry. It’s great to do an action film - it’s a lot of fun, very difficult and takes your endurance levels to another threshold. But I like romantic films.

Is there romance in your life? (Hint: Shahid Kapoor)

If there was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Do you see yourself growing old with films?

I do. I’ll act as long as I can. Maybe I’ll be wrinkled and nobody would want to cast me. Maybe I’ll turn producer or director or writer. But I’ll do something with the movies. They’ve always fascinated me as a child - just the whole experience of watching a movie in a theater. That’s what gets you hooked. And to sort of live the dream, where you sort of aspire for it but don’t know what’s going to happen, is what I’m going with. I don’t see myself not being associated with films.

Clearly, the Indian film industry is taking an independent direction these days. What’s the future of ‘Bollywood’, according to you?

What’s started happening in the last one year is the fact that there are very interesting and stories and characters that are coming out. Earlier, you had very simplistic notions of good/bad, right/wrong, superhero/evil. You had the vamp or the damsel in distress. It’s not that today. Now, you have characters that could be slightly grey - someone could be a heroine but could still be in love with a drug lord. Someone could be a thief but a nice guy who is just telling his story. Someone could be a sperm donor. The hero of the film could betray the heroine and rape her but come back and redeem himself. Those are characters we see around us because people don’t come in blacks and whites; they come in all shades of grey.

Our movies are moving towards that and audiences have started identifying with that greyness they see around them all the time. Once they have accepted it, it gives the directors and actors more confidence to experiment and explore. It’s going towards an independent approach because newer and braver stories are coming out. Who thought that a film about Paan Singh Tomar or Milkha Singh would be made five years back, forget ten? But they are being made and there is fanfare and interest about them. That’s the whole point. People have started accepting it, which gives us a lot of hope.

Even in the commercial space, you’re looking for interesting things. You don’t want to see a guy and girl fall in love at first sight because that doesn’t happen anymore. It happens in very unique and weird ways and film-makers are exploring that. Say, a film like ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’, it isn’t your quintessential Bollywood film. It has so many shades of grey and all the characters are flawed. The set-up, in terms of your song and dance sequence, is there. But the stories have changed - the style and format has changed and that’s exciting!

Music is being used very interestingly. For example in ‘D-Day’, we don’t have any song and dance number because it’s not required. Hats off to Nikhil for not succumbing to the pressure and pushing in an item number suddenly where the heroine comes out dancing and the hero does a shimmy with her. He’s created the music with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and he’s cut it in the film in a very interesting way. You have maybe a lovemaking scene and an action sequence going on and a very beautiful track in the background. It’s real and that’s what people are looking for. Music is such a big part of our Indian culture, whether it’s in weddings or festivals. But it doesn’t happen in the way it’s been shown on screen. Finally, people are feeling that it’s being projected how it really happens.

From the way you’re talking, is it safe to assume that you grew up watching a lot of films?

I was very balanced growing up. We used to have a cinema theatre close to our house and my mother would take us every weekend to see a film. But they were quintessential normal films. My brother and I used to sneak up and watch those cheesy films at night on Star Movies - like ‘Back to the future’, ‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’. We used to love those films and I used to watch them on repeat. I wouldn’t say I was a film buff while growing up. In fact, I was quite the contrary. My parents always thought I’d do something more academic like sciences. But I quit that and did humanities instead because I told them I wanted to be a civil service officer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I had to tell them something.

But being an actor, what has helped me, is the extreme upbringing we had. We’d go to a South Delhi school where you have your cool friends and listen to music and go out partying and then I’d come back home where my parents used to be very strict with me. I couldn’t go out after 8 pm, no boys calling at home and I’d be like ‘fine, Mm. You’re so old fashioned’. Then I’d go to my Dadi’s house, which is even more conservative, and wear a salwar kameez, be a good girl and behave myself. For summer vacations, we’d go to Kashmir because my Mom is from there, which was another world where I had a different set of relatives and a different understanding. From a very young age, there was a political consciousness because of what happens there and the impact it has on our lives.

What happened was that wherever we went, my brother and I knew that we had to fit in. You couldn’t not fit in because then you’d miss out on all the fun. So when we went to Kashmir, we became Kashmiri. I think that sort of helps in acting today because we are adaptable people. Even today, when I prepare for a part and director tells me ‘this isn’t working, let’s try this’, I immediately get into it.

So was going into acting was seen as an act of rebellion?

Acting was more than rebellion - it was a form of acceptance of myself. When you’re growing up, everybody goes through these adolescent pains and feelings of self doubt where you wonder whether you’re good enough. Acting was something I really enjoyed doing. But it was also one of those things I could never accept to myself that I wanted to do. It’s not the easiest thing to tell your friends and family that I want to be an actress because they’ll laugh at you and say ‘tumko heroine banna hai?’ You get mocked and I did.

They tried to convince me that it’s a passing phase. ‘It’s just gone to her head that she wants to be an actress’. Coming from a middle class family, they feel it’s unachievable. They think actors and musicians come from some different tree altogether; they don’t come from us. So that took a while. It only happened because my father really loves me a lot. My mother thinks I have him wrapped around my little finger, which is not true. I told my father ‘Dad, if I don’t do this now, I’ll always hold it against you that you never let me try’. That’s when he got emotional and said ‘Do it. But if it doesn’t work out within a year, you better come back and sort your life out.’ I respect him for that because if he hadn’t given me the deadline, I’d probably have been lazy and bummed around and in a sense, Mumbai as a city can really spoil you with the parties and new lifestyle and the freedom.

For me, as a girl who had never stepped outside the 10 km radius around her house and was always chaperoned, I still remember the feeling when I got my first house. My friends dropped me over there. It was an empty flat and I bought myself two liters of water and a mattress which cost me less than 1000 bucks and I moved in. My friends were petrified but I knew I just had to do it. I felt so grown up and so cool.

It had more reasons for it not to work out than to work out. But I guess sometimes you just have to hang in there, do your thing and believe in yourself and be ox-headed about it. I’m an ambitious person and I like to be good at what I’m doing. Acting has given me confidence. It’s put me in touch with myself.

(There’s a knock on the door to inform us that the other reporters are waiting for their turn. I stop the recording, watch Huma put on makeup for the photograph and do the job my lazy photographer was supposed to do. She approves of the photo, gives me a hug and I leave.)

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