Huma Qureshi on Maharani, making Hollywood debut with Army of the Dead, and why digital platforms redefined her career

Huma Qureshi said her character in the political series Maharani may be uneducated when it came to power games but is not devoid of a will to fight patriarchy

Seema Sinha May 27, 2021 17:03:13 IST
Huma Qureshi on Maharani, making Hollywood debut with Army of the Dead, and why digital platforms redefined her career

Huma Qureshi has played a variety of characters ever since she made her Bollywood debut with Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur almost a decade ago. She followed it up with Dedh Ishqiya (2014), Badlapur (2015), the first digital project Leila and more. But what she is really excited about is playing the titular role in the upcoming political drama series Maharani, on SonyLIV. The 10-episode series set in Bihar ’90s, shows how an illiterate woman handles the state as chief minister. The plot of the show revolves around Rani Bharati, a homemaker and wife of Bihar’s chief minister whose life takes an interesting turn when her husband, Bhim Singh Bharati, announces her to be the next chief minister of Bihar. Qureshi's character is shown taking upon the system and patriarchy. Maharani reunites Qureshi with filmmaker Subhash Kapoor (show creator) after the box-office hit Jolly LLB 2 (2017).

“It was during the last lockdown when I was offered this series and I was very happy as well as surprised when it came to me. I loved the writing. I told Subhash sir that this was the role of the lifetime for any actor and I would be very foolish to let it go. But playing Rani Bharati was a tricky one. The big challenge was about getting into that world. It’s easy to play a character who knows things but it is difficult when you have to portray something that you do not know. The knowledge, wisdom…reflects in the eyes and expressions. I was worried, nervous, everybody in the team was nervous. The challenge was how to become Rani Bharati and get people to connect with her. I took a lot of help from the director, creator, writers, cast and crew...they empowered me to embody Rani and that was so much fun and interesting. Thanks to the director, creator for some great lines and dialogue baazi," says Qureshi.

“We did a three-week workshop where all of us read the entire script multiple times. We read each episode five to six times to symbolize the world. Gradually we started understanding the language, Lehja..she is a woman from the heartland, from rural Bihar who hasn’t even been to Patna, or flown in-plane, so how do you express that body language,” says the actress, who donned dark shade sarees clubbed with shawls, dark kohl eyes and a red bindi trying for that perfect look for her character.

“Playing Rani Bharati is multifaceted, she has various shades associated with her character and that has been a great honour to portray. To get into the skin of the character, we tried on various looks that helped establish the phases in her life. I told my costume designer to send a few sarees and when I turned up wearing them everybody in the crew was so surprised to see me in a 'dirty' saree holding a 'dirty' leather handbag, wearing rubber chappal..Suddenly Rani Bharati came alive because many times your body language changes when you wear the costume. But workshops were really helpful to understand Rani,” she says.

Huma Qureshi on Maharani making Hollywood debut with Army of the Dead and why digital platforms redefined her career

A still from Maharani. YouTube

With clear mentions of a Bihar chief minister forcing his reluctant wife to take over as the state's CM, Maharani models Huma's character on former chief minister Rabri Devi. However, Qureshi calls it an unfair comparison. “In our first communication itself, it was made clear that the show has nothing to do with anybody's life. This is a completely fictional story. It’s like not every film made on an Indian woman prime minister has to be Indira Gandhi’s story. There can be fictional stories. In Maharani, too, there is no commonality with any living person. When people watch it they will know that it is totally fictional,” she insists.

There may not be any reference point for Qureshi but she says she made sure that her character didn’t look like any other character she had portrayed in the past. “I have played a few characters from small towns and I didn't want it to look like any of those. Also, for me, it was not about de-glam look but I wanted her to look like a woman from a village who worked in fields. If she looked like that then my job was done. And I remember on the first day everybody was like, ‘we didn’t recognise you’. I felt I had done something right," she says.

Qureshi’s character, who takes upon the system and patriarchy, is shown as a woman with striking contrasts. Rani Bharati may be uneducated in the mannerisms of the political world and power game but, she is not devoid of a will to fight patriarchy and portraying this quality was most exciting for the actress. “For me the most important thing about playing Rani was that she is not dumb. She works in the field, she takes care of the cattle, farm...that is her world. She has never been to school and has very limited access and understanding of anything and yet she is smart. We see this all around us. It is sad and unfortunate that if someone doesn’t know English means he or she is not bright. That is a misconception. The idea was to shatter that image and to fight patriarchy through Rani Bharati where she is uneducated but she has her own wisdom. Native wisdom of how things work in a village and that she applies to a larger political arena. That was really very exciting and something new that we hadn’t tried before in cinema,” says Qureshi, furthering, “By virtue of our gender, yes, we are constantly fighting patriarchy and I think we will for some time to come at least when institutional changes will take place but beyond this, there is nothing really similar about Rani Bharati and Huma Qureshi."

Qureshi, recently, made her Hollywood debut with Zack Snyder’s zombie-heist Army Of The Dead which she calls an enriching experience. “Zack is one the biggest directors in the world and the cinematic value of working with him is unparalleled. The idea of being in his world is very exciting. He said some wonderful things about me in his interviews and that left me blushing. It was very kind and generous of him. I had fun, they really made me very comfortable and very welcome,” she says.

Huma Qureshi on Maharani making Hollywood debut with Army of the Dead and why digital platforms redefined her career

Huma Qureshi in a still from Army Of The Dead | Netflix

However, her role of that of a single mother gets restricted footage in the film that is currently streaming on Netflix. When asked about the blink-and-miss appearance, Qureshi explained, “My debut film Gangs of Wasseypur had about 200 actors and I was a nobody from Delhi. I came with a dream of making it big in the movie business. I didn’t get scared or waited for a conventional launch because I wasn’t afraid of being part of an ensemble film. I knew I would have my moments and I would shine. Today I am talking to you, I am standing here because of that choice. Almost after 10 years, I am making my debut in Hollywood and I am again part of a big ensemble film with a celebrated director. Before selecting a role I don’t think about having a longer part. I should be part of the story and take the story forward. I should be important in the plot and not just be there. My character Geeta’s story is so tied into the main plot of the film that she is quite memorable. If somebody is watching my work for the first time, say in the US, UK.. They should know who I am and what I have done in the ensemble film."

Qureshi is someone who has always been vocal about her opinion. She has often said that Bollywood actresses are rarely given fully fleshed-out roles and more often than not, they are bystanders in other people’s stories or are waiting to be rescued. But today she is happy about the opportunities she is getting. “Yes, I have been saying that female characters are always written from that male gaze, male understanding, male interpretation…But time is changing and today I feel blessed that I get to play characters like Rani Bharati who have their own individual world and standing. Today people are investing in these kinds of stories,” says Qureshi, who is equally excited about her other projects like Bell Bottom (co-starring Akshay Kumar and Vaani Kapoor), Dibakar Banerji directed Freedom and Tamil film Valimai. “I have worked with Akshay before and it is always fun to work with him. We could pull off Bell Bottom shoot (in Scotland) at the height of the pandemic during the first lockdown which is incredible,” she says.

Like many others, Qureshi is also waiting for theatres to open up but the digital platform, she says, has redefined her career, her choice. “For an actor like me I can do Maharani and have a global reach. I would love it if someone watches Maharani sitting in say the UK and gets inspired. I can’t wait for theatres to open, I can’t wait to buy a big bag of popcorn and sit and watch my favourite film on a big screen. But thank god for streamers otherwise where would we be? We should always remember that when the time was hardest, we all turned to streamers for entertainment,” concludes the actress.

Directed by Karan Sharma and created by Subhash Kapoor, Maharani has several other talented actors on the ensemble cast, including Sohum Shah, Amit Sial, Kani Kusruti, Inaamulhaq and Vineet Kumar amongst others. Maharani, produced by Naren Kumar and Dimple Kharbanda, is set to stream on 28 May on SonyLIV.

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