Fresh from having won accolades for her raw and real portrayal of Shalini in the web series Leila, actor Huma Qureshi tells Saimi Sattar that women need to show greater resolve and stand up for themselves
Huma Qureshi sashays in wearing a beautiful red gown and what follows is unexpected to say the least. In the video put out by Netflix, within four days of a release of a film that has done really well at the box office and is almost a users’ manual for toxic masculinity, the actor in a fun way tries to put a stop to mansplaining. Using a pacifier called Shush, that is clearly a throwback to her character of Shalini Rizwan Choudhary, who is searching for her daughter Leila in the eponymously-named show, she displays how easily it can shut patriarchy. “It is easy to use plug-in technology and allows users to silence their silencers,” Huma says in the video. While the entire sequence is entertaining, the last bit is what makes the message hit home. When the director tells her, “This is too intelligent, you need to look sexy,” Huma promptly stuffs Shush in his mouth.
Talking about the campaign, Huma, fresh from her outing in Leila, says, “I loved the way that this entire video has come out. The OTT platform is known for its discerning content and so what is heartening to see and experience is the way that they chose to market it. Rather than doing two to three interviews, one press conference and one or two dances at malls, they pitched it in a manner that was in consonance with the content.” Huma points out that though the idea was inspired from a video made by Marion Cotillard where she said that men should look women in the eye and not the chest, Netflix took it up and made it their own.
While its purported aim is to promote Leila, Huma does agree that the various OTT platforms are at the forefront of portraying women taking charge of their lives, be it Shefali Shah in Delhi Crime, Radhika Apte in Ghoul, Dia Mirza in Kaafir and of course she herself in Leila. “It was a long time in the coming and this is just the starting point as it will go further. It is nice, refreshing and rather liberating to see women being the prime movers rather than being rescued by men and I am glad to be a part of the process. It is a beginning point where a lot of actors, actresses and stories would follow. It is a great and healthy trend and I hope it stays that way,” says Huma, her characteristically deep voice flavoured by excitement that is evident even on a slightly patchy phone line.
She points out that while Shalini is a lot like her, “the character was liberating in a lot of different ways. I feel that while doing some of those difficult scenes, where despite everything she kept her dignity, maintained her resolve to find her daughter, I also internalised some of her strength.”
Huma was sold on the story from the word go. “When I got that call from Open Air Films and met Deepa Mehta (who directed the first two episodes of the six part series), I knew I had to do it. I was really hoping that they do not meet other actresses or go to anyone else. I would have been heartbroken. For me, it wasn’t just a role or a film. It was much more than that. I wanted to be a part of this journey as it was trying to put across a very different story,” says Huma, who with her very first outing in Gangs of Wasseypur had grabbed eyeballs, describing why she decided to take up the project.
While she has never been a wallflower in any of the roles that she has played, be it the bisexual Muniya in Dedh Ishqiya or Pushpa Pandey in Jolly LLB 2, it is in Leila where she has come into her own. Rather than how she looks, the emphasis was on what her character was like. In the entire series that runs for about six hours, Huma is mostly seen wearing the same set of clothes, her hair in disarray, face sometimes covered with grease or mud. “Deepa had a vision and as an actor, you are waiting to be pushed when you have that right material and the right character where you can really give it your all. Somewhere not all opportunities are equal and not all roles are as demanding. I felt that Leila was the right moment for me. I am grateful that I have been given that space to play a character like Shalini with all her strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and everything,” says she.
To play a character minus the gloss that is the norm in the Hindi film industry, her approach was different. “I read Prayaag Akbar’s book (on which the series is based) and the script. I was involved in every possible draft. But as for a physical reference point, like a film that I had seen or a character that someone had played, there was none,” she says and goes on to add as to how Mehta kept on egging her to push her boundaries.
Huma points out that often when the protagonist is a strong woman, the references are usually very alpha. Deepa, however, wanted her to attempt something which was a little offbeat. “We wanted to find a very different kind of feminine energy which could be vulnerable, a woman who could cry and feel for the child and at the same time be a little cunning and be a survivor despite everything and keep her dignity,” she says. In pursuit of that goal, the director asked Huma to play it a little differently. “She kept telling me, let’s do something new and not something that you or I have done before. Let us find a new expression of a woman who is strong yet vulnerable. Her constant reminder was not to bring my bag of tricks and be predictable and not to give the obvious emotion. When a director believes in you and keeps telling you that you can do it, that is very comforting and liberating as it means that I could just be myself and not worry about how I am looking on screen. My endeavour was to look convincing and get into the skin of the character rather than worrying about where the light had been placed,” she says and laughs.
In a show that had some really disturbing scenes, including one where drugged women roll over leftover food as part of a penance, there is one which Huma found the most difficult to execute. In Episode 1, where Sapna, the maid is washing her face, Shalini shoos her away and then sanitises the faucet. “It was a difficult scene to do as I felt that Shalini is a horrible person. I had to first grapple with my own personal emotion as to how I could play someone so evil. It was so wrong and how can I treat someone like that was the question that came to my mind. But I realised that I have to do it as it was important to show Shalini as someone who is grey and privileged who takes these things for granted. It was important to make people realise what we end up doing in day-to-day interactions,” she says. Moreover, when the tables are turned, one realises that there is no difference between a Shalini and a Sapna. The only difference is that of circumstances.
Besides Deepa, the series had two more directors, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar. As an actor, does it enrich the journey or does it result in continuity-related issues? Says Huma, “Each director brings his/her own energy and point of view to the same material. The script was constant but in a state of an evolutionary process. We wanted to portray Shalini as someone at the starting point and show a general growth in her character as the show progressed. It is such a character-dependent show that her journey, her search and her coming of age form the main thrust of the story. So I had to work very closely with all my directors to make sure that the journey was possible,” she says.
The show depicts a totalitarian regime which controls how its citizenry acts, reads, speaks, dresses, eats and marries. Talking of history and the world in general, which find a reflection in art, Huma points out, “Whenever a totalitarian regime takes over, the first thing they try to do is control literature, arts and culture. There have been instances like the burning of the library in Alexandria or the bombing of the statues in Bamiyan. These are just attempts to rewrite history as it is usually written by the victors. It is always easy to rewrite and re-define your past based on what your understanding of the present is. For me, that was very special because there have been so many instances in history where people have come, taken over a country and tried to rewrite history from their point of view.”
So would she say that the show is a reflection of contemporary times especially since many people on social media called it anti-Hindu or Hindu-phobic and started a movement to unsubscribe to the web platform? “That is a question for Netflix to answer,” she guffaws and says, “It was not Hindu-phobic and that was never the intention. The show is set in a land that is similar to India, which is called Aryavarta. If the show was to be set in China or Portugal or wherever, we would set it in those times and take references from there. Moreover, people who actually saw the show did not think of it as such.”
Of course, Deepa did modify the script depending upon what is happening in the world. There is a scene where they had planned to show young child labourers being chained to their workplace. Just at that point, migration of children was happening from Mexico to the United States. They were kept in shelters, which were like cages and Deepa insisted on getting the structures designed like them. “When you read about what is happening in America, where Donald Trump is trying to keep babies away from families of immigrants, we do feel helpless. During the shoot, we did read a lot of articles about what was happening in many countries. Of course, as viewers, you will find a lot of parallels around the world. In that sense you are free to draw as many parallels as come to your mind depending on your aptitude or level of understanding or reading. But the idea was not to talk about any specific community in any way,” asserts Huma.
Having been a part of the industry since 2012, the actor’s learning curve has been pretty sharp. She says, “I like the way you’ve decided that I have evolved. I am still evolving. I am the ugly duckling waiting to become a swan,” she says and gives out another uninhibited laugh that has peppered the conversation. But that is not surprising given the fact that Huma is unabashedly a Delhi girl.
She admits to liking everything about the city. “There is nothing that I don’t like. I grew up in South Delhi so my entire life was within a five-kilometre radius. Gargi College, GK M Block market, South Extension and Connaught Place are places that I visited so very often,” says the Delhi girl whose father Saleem Qureshi is a restaurateur who runs Saleem’s, a chain of restaurants in the city.
But what about the way the capital treats its women, given the fact that Huma picks up content that has headstrong women. “Why just Delhi, the entire world treats its women in a way that is problematic. The fact that when a crime against a woman is committed, the family tells the woman to sit at home because the society and the times are bad. That disturbs me a lot. Delhi is notorious for its crime against women and there is a massive need to have a revolution for better safety for women and also for a better space for women in terms of being negotiators within our homes or institutions,” she asserts and starts to talk about Shush again. However, time has run out but Huma surely has much more to talk about at another time.
Saturday, 29 June 2019 | Saimi Sattar | in Vivacity
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