Huma Qureshi on Partition:1947 - 'We have unmasked the biggest conspiracy that ever happened'
As she nibbles on her lunch, Huma Qureshi recounts how she bagged the role of a Muslim woman — a translator to ‘Lord Mountbatten’ (played by Hugh Bonneville) in Gurinder Chadha’s latest period drama, Viceroy’s House (released under the title, Partition:1947, in India).
“I play a Muslim girl called Aalia Noor. She works as a translator for Lord Mountbatten and is in love with a Hindu boy. The country is getting divided and I had to express lot of pain and angst inside me. I showed my anger and frustration through my dupatta, which Gurinder loved and selected me for the role,” laughs Huma.
Her character is also part of a Romeo and Juliet-esque sub-plot that looks at the human impact of partition alongside the historical retelling.
“Gurinder, then had me and my co-star Manish (Dayal, an American film and television actor and producer) read the lines together as our chemistry was very important. It was interesting to watch Manish rehearse. He is an intense actor and he would rehearse a lot,” said the 31-year-old actress, while talking at a lightning pace.
In her five-year-old career, Huma has worked with a female director for the first time, and she found Gurinder extremely passionate, particularly since she has been working on this project for the last nine years. “She is a force of nature. For a female director to imagine, envisage and make such a huge film was a struggle especially since she is from an Asian origin. I like working with strong people because you tend to grow with them when you discuss and debate over character, looks, scenes...Her energy and process is very different. She is also a very specific director which translates in every frame of the film. She gives her actors a lot of space and lets us interpret and translate the scene the way we want to. It was an enjoyable experience,” said Huma.
While Huma didn’t have to research much as the script was thorough and complete, she did have to work on her accent.
“I didn’t have to read much but Gurinder wanted very specific 1947 British way of speaking English for which I saw a lot of videos of freedom fighters and leaders like Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Sarojini Naidu. Since it’s a period film, I had to get everything right — from clothes to hair to style of conversing with my 'father', with my 'boyfriend' — all this required a lot of preparation,” says Huma, further adding, “Gurinder feels I have an old world face and that I could look like a girl from the 1940s, so I have no contribution in it, and the director had already worked a lot on the look of my character. But I am a very collaborative actor. If I don’t get to give suggestions I feel that my hands are tied.”
A huge Downton Abbey fan, meeting its leading man, Bonneville, was dream come true for Huma. “We would talk about politics at dinner after filming. He was very keen to know about what is going on in India in terms of the political atmosphere now and how relevant the film is,” said the actress, who was extremely excited about shooting in Umaid Bhawan palace in Jodhpur, and she found it "privileged” being driven around in a vintage Rolls Royce Phantom car.
Did it feel poignant revisiting the subject of Partition now? “Absolutely,” says Huma, a history student from Delhi University, adding “It’s important to tell this story to show there is no point of dividing people as it is just going to create more bloodshed and violence. Partition happened 70 years ago but we haven’t really learnt anything. Every few years we keep making the same mistakes again and again. In this film we have unmasked the biggest conspiracy that ever happened. Why did partition happen, we probably don’t know the right reasons."
A product of “Anurag Kashyap cinema”, Huma says that Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) was her perfect launch. “It was very relatable. It went to Cannes, won international appreciation and was dubbed in various languages," she enthuses. Besides Kaala, an action-drama film with Rajinikanth, she has no other project in her kitty probably because she is known to be ultra picky with scripts. “I like working with good makers who don’t dress up a film with stars, budget, glamour... I like being part of only honest cinema,” said Huma, who is keen on working with directors like Rajkumar Hirani and Aanand L Rai.
While Huma believes that the distinction between mainstream and off-beat is long over, she feels that ‘interesting’ is the new mainstream.
“The box office is supporting films with good content and engaging stories. Audience palate is changing. Earlier, very few content-driven films were made but now it is a norm, not an exception. It is a good sign and I am happy that I am part of this new wave of cinema. Cast and budget have merely become gimmicks. Good product is the need of the hour and it will be very exciting for me to see how the audience receives Partition:1947” says Huma.