The fact that Huma Qureshi is one of the most versatile actresses in the industry is illustrated perfectly with her next three film releases.
She plays a lead role in Malayalam drama White, is part of an international cast in British historical Viceroy’s House and stars alongside her brother Saqib Saleem in Hindi language horror film Dobaara, which is a remake of Hollywood hit Oculus.
The multi-talented star has relished the challenges of the various projects and is looking to venture into the unknown even more in the future.
Clearly connected to her craft, Huma spoke with passion about her forthcoming films, working with Gurinder Chadha, why she is nothing like her screen image, future plans and more.
What was acting in big-budget partition drama Viceroy’s House like?
Well, it was amazing. It was very interesting because I was working with an international crew and cast for the first time, so it was a very enriching experience. It’s always nice to work with people from different backgrounds and it’s a different way of storytelling.
I think I learned a lot and sort of developed as an artist. This really is the future, you know; to work with actors and storytellers from different backgrounds, to create some sort of a new global narrative and this is my first baby step towards that. I personally had a wonderful time working on the film.
And working with director Gurinder Chadha on the film must have been interesting.
It was the first time I was working with a female director. Gender aside, she is a very clear director and knows exactly what she wants. She has a very good understanding of what she is making and is very specific about her direction, whether it’s to do with the scenes or actors. It was really lovely and we got along like a house on fire.
I really admire her, for her sensibility as a woman and an Indian who has lived in the UK all her life. So she has a very interesting perspective on cinema. I have been a huge fan of her work right from Bhaji On The Beach.
With this film, what is interesting is that she is making a film on partition and she has lived in London all her life, and is of Indian origin. So it is a very interesting take that she has in this film, and I am looking forward to seeing how the audience will respond to it. It was a lovely experience.
What are you allowed to tell us about your character in the film or is it all top secret?
(Laughs) Well, it’s not top secret, it is top top secret. I can’t talk about it, Asjad, because the film is still some time away from being released. I don’t want to give away too much.
But of course, my character is based in India and it is a beautiful story set during partition, in the summer that India was cut open into two countries. It is also the time we became independent, so it was a very emotional time with a lot of political upheaval.
However, at the core is a human story, a beautiful love story and how normal people of British origin living in India were affected by this big man-made division.
Were you getting a history lesson as you were acting in Viceroy’s House?
Gurinder and her husband Paul [Berges], who is also a writer on this film, have done almost three years of research about this story while putting the film together. Yes, definitely there is a lot of stuff that I didn’t know as an Indian whose family, back in the day, was also affected by partition. So a lot of new information has come to light. The film sort of takes that into account and tells the story. Like I said, it is for everyone to know and experience when the film is released.
You must love the fact that all three of your forthcoming films are so different to each other and in different languages?
(Laughs) Yes I do, thank you very much. It is a bit of a conscious effort, but also, I was lucky. I hope I continue to have the opportunity of working with amazing filmmakers, no matter which part of the world they belong to or what language they speak.
I think of myself as a global gypsy. I will go wherever my heart takes me or where a good story beckons. So in that sense and because I am a trained actor who has done theatre, I am not really scared of dabbling in a new language or working conditions I’m not familiar with. I take it as a challenge. I want to retire with an interesting body of work. I don’t want to just be known as the pretty girl who did big films and stood next to the hero.
It seems like you enjoy putting yourself in difficult zones and going into the unknown as an actor?
I do. I don’t like the comfort zone because I feel it doesn’t challenge me, it doesn’t interest me, it does nothing for my growth as a person, as an individual or as an actor and I don’t want to repeat myself. It is so boring doing the same thing again and again.
All actors are vain and I am no exception, but I have to say beyond a point unfortunately for a woman, there usually isn’t much beyond looking gorgeous. If you give me a compliment and say, ‘oh my god, you are looking so stunning in that film,’ it’s great, but where do we go from there?
Like I said, I don’t want to be known as a pretty girl who was in three big films, but nobody remembers what she did. That is not my ambition. That is not what I came here to do. My ego is not so big that it needs to be constantly fed by people’s admiration of how I look. I want to do something beyond that.
So you must be happy that many strong roles are being written for women today?
We are living in an interesting time when there are far more diverse roles being written for women. She is not just supposed to be the damsel in distress or someone who has to be rescued. She can make and take decisions and the characters being written for us are far more complex. They are far more well thought out, so I am fortunate in that sense, that I am getting the opportunity to play different characters. I hope and pray that this very healthy trend continues and even better roles are written for and around women.
You must be excited about Dobaara, the remake of Hollywood horror film Oculus that sees you starring opposite your brother?
I have seen some bits of it and it looks very exciting. It is a very special film for both of us because of course, we both loved the original, which was Oculus.
Dobaara is special because where else would we get the opportunity of playing brother and sister and so early on in our careers? I am glad to be featuring opposite him and it is a film that sort of pushed both of us.
What do you mean?
It’s not like we are such a very happy brother and sister pair in the film, it is more edgy. It’s got enough space for both of us to act and do something. We constantly kept pushing each other while filming was on and even as characters in it. That was exciting for me. I was playing a character in a film that is so emotionally charged and full of so many contrasting ideas; when you act with an actor who knows you so well emotionally because you have grown up together, it adds another crazy dimension because I can’t fake anything at all.
With another actor, I may have been able to fake an emotion or something else, and probably get away with it easily, but not with your own brother, not with your own blood. He would pull me up and say, ‘hey, I know what you’re doing.’
What was the experience of doing your first Malayalam movie like?
(Laughs) It was crazy. Mr Mammooty is a huge star in Kerala, of course. I hadn’t seen too many films of his, but I knew who he was. He is a legend. So when they came to me and said, ‘he is doing this film and we would like you to be a part of it,’ I thought, ‘wow, that is like a serious compliment.’ Then I read the script and really enjoyed it. I realised there was something for me to do. Although it is a south Indian film, I had a very wrong notion that they were mostly hero-centric, all about the male star with nothing much to do for the female character. But this was a script that was balanced.
But White was in a language you don’t speak?
I thought it would be very difficult, the whole process of picking it up and being able to emote in Malayalam, but I took it up as a challenge and I am glad I did, because it was really a crazy experience. It was a different working ethic, a different working style, a different way of looking at storytelling and emotions – it was amazing. I am so glad I did it.
You are linked to so many films, but which of the projects are confirmed?
(Laughs) Well, I am popular, but as of now, there is nothing new I can speak about. Of course, there is the Malayalam film White, then there is Dobaara opposite my brother that will be released in September and of course, Viceroy’s House. These are the only confirmed projects I am doing right now. I have not really signed anything right now, so all other stories that you hear about me getting linked to other projects are not true. Unless I say I am doing the film, it is all rubbish.
So have you got used to the fact that in India they make stuff up about you?
I have actually, and I also feel really bad for them. (Laughs) They have nothing better to do, and have to almost justify themselves so they start writing about you. So in a way I think I am doing a social service by allowing them to write about me.
Finally, tell us something that not many people know about you?
There is a lot you don’t know about me. I am so not what my screen image suggests. People I meet say, ‘oh my god, we thought you were really intense and serious’, but I am a total goofball. I cannot walk without bumping into something. I chip my nails all the time because I am constantly banging my hands into things. I am completely opposite to what my screen image is, but don’t tell that to anybody.