Tete-a-Tete

Huma Qureshi has been the talk of B-Town ever since her turn as Mohsina in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. A turn followed up with the role of a small town doctor (Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana) and an urban witch (Ek Thi Daayan). With an action film (D-Day) and another with Madhuri Dixit-Nene (Dedh Ishqiya) lined up for this year, she is now entrenched in what has come to be known as ‘New Bollywood’— new directors finding new ways to tell new stories; reshaping Indian idioms with influences from across the world. She is also amongst the new breed of actresses who are rank outsiders in the industry and defy conventional ideas of how a ‘heroine’ must look or dress. Huma is most comfortable in her own skin, her own body and her own clothes. And she is unwaveringly confident. Confident, but not arrogant. She loves living every bit of life that comes her way far too much to waste her time on arrogance and its upkeep.

On the Sunday we settle down to talk, the interview turns into a long, winding but terribly exciting conversation. We keep losing our way in the labyrinth of words we are setting up and then finding it again. With an uncommon mix of insight and honesty, Huma tears into every talking point presented to her. In this excerpt parts of her mind and journey are laid bare. Both of which are important because she is more than an extraordinary actor in the making. She is an extraordinary woman in the making.

 

 

An edited transcript

 

Where in Delhi did you grow up and where did you go to school and college?

So I grew up in this very, seemingly very boring South Delhi family. But I have a very interesting backgroundmy mom’s Kashmiri and my dad’s from Delhi. He’s grown up in the old parts of Delhi: Chirag Dilli, and Nizamuddin.

 

 

Did your mom live in Kashmir?

My mom lived in Kashmir. She was there till… she moved to Delhi when she was doing her college, and my parents were in love; and they had a very epic filmi romance where she got married to my father and then went back into the family. That sort of a thing. It was pretty cool that way. So it was very interesting growing up. Because I’d go to a normal, regular, South Delhi school, have really cool friends, you know, do all the cool stuff. And then when I had to go for the weekends to visit my grandparents, who lived in Nizamuddin basti. I had to wear a salwar kameez. I had to be a good girl. I had to be well behaved. I had to do my adaabs properly. And then all summer vacations we’re in Kashmir, when my grandparents were alive, my maternal grandparents.

 

 

And they lived in Srinagar?

Srinagar and also in Gurez. My mother’s from a village actually. It took some nine hours by bus and only public transport was allowed, so I still remember, the nine year old me, wearing a salwar kameez and I used to find it very uncomfortable, getting my head covered and travelling in a bus because private vehicles were not allowed. Because my grandparents were too old to travel and we used to stop at Rajdhani, this one mountain army check-post which is covered with ice throughout the year and it was one of the most incredibly adventurous journeys as a kid. Because it was crazy at that point of time in Kashmir.

 

 

That’s interesting. I had no idea that you had roots in Kashmir.

Yes, I still have family there. I go back. I’m very close to them. And it’s very interesting, you know, because politically also it was such a crazy time. Like I had cousins in my family who would say stuff like: “Oh Indians and dogs, go away.” Just to… because you know how cousins fight. And it was a very stupid, kiddish thing to say. But now when you look back, it was so interesting because we’re all from the same family. I just feel like it’s a part of my life, of growing up or I don’t know, whatever, which is so different from kids my age in Delhi.

 

 

Yeah, I can imagine.

Because I grew up with the regular Punjabis in Delhi.

 

 

Who don’t even know what’s going on in Kashmir.

Who don’t even know what’s going on outside M Block, GK (Greater Kailash) 1 market, which is okay. But then I don’t know. I guess from a very young age it taught me and my younger brother to fit in everywhere.

 

 

What were your early film watching influences and experiences like?

You know it’s very surprising, but… I wasn’t, like, how lot of people say, been a film buff forever, I was never really a film buff to be very honest. There used to be a cinema hall where I grew up in Kalkaji, in South Delhi, where I was born, called Paras. It was a single screen theatre. So I remember, very vividly, watching Jurassic Park there, watching all the 90s Madhuri Dixit, Shah Rukh Khan, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, those films.

 

 

Who did you go with?

I think my mom and my brother. The three of us were quite a … we got along famously. We liked similar kinds of things. We loved South Indian food. My father runs a chain of Mughlai food restaurants, but we used to always, whenever we wanted to go out, or step out to eat, we wanted to eat South Indian food.

 

 

Now the only theatre, among the old ones in the area, that still functions, is only Sapna.

Sapna is still functioning, and Sapna also I remember watching a lot of films in because I was then studying in Amar Colony. There was a tuition centre out there for your class 10th. We used to go bunk and watch films over there, but childhood cinema watching is Paras. And then we of course had a VCR at home, so we used to watch a lot of films. Like I remember we had(The) Wizard of Oz and we had Sholay and a couple of more like, you know, animation, Tom and Jerry type things, so I used to watch them on loop and I’d memorize all the dialogues. So I’d know all the dialogues. But I wouldn’t call myself a film buff, in the sense that I’d probably stay up at night and watch some films that were on television because I had to get up early in the morning so I was not allowed to watch movies very late. And like really random stuff like… it could be like Back to the Future or Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, those are the kind of films I really like. Those really fantasy, sci-fi kind of films. Those were the films we really enjoyed. Those were, I think, I guess all children enjoy when they’re growing up.

 

 

But the Delhi thing is not just to be obsessed with films but also a complete obsession with Bollywood. There’s a lot of Bollywood craze in Delhi…

People are completely star struck, you know. It’s like, I still remember having this really fun conversation with a friend of mine. When I had just moved to Bombay and I was doing advertisements, and they’d be very keen, because during every match break, they’d see me selling soap, or a mobile phone or something and they thought I had arrived, like: you come back and you are going to be like a celeb in like the Delhi circle. And I’m like: ‘No, that’s not the point, that’s not what I’m in it for.’ You know? But yeah Delhi, I don’t know why, but there’s this huge fascination with everything to do with Bollywood and the movies.

 

 

More than anywhere else.

I had a very simple upbringing that way. My parents were very particular about the fact that they wanted me to get an education. My dad’s not very educated. He started… he’s just, I don’t know what… eighth (standard) pass or something.

 

 

But there wasn’t that much emphasis on it back then, as there is now.

Correct. And he came from a really huge family, you know, like eight brothers. And he was the second eldest and he had to take care of the family business, so there was never really any emphasis on his education. But he is a very worldly wise man, and, in whatever he’s started, he’s a self-taught man. He’s my inspiration in a lot of ways. For someone without, lack of any formal education or whatever, he’s really managed to set up a business and run it and run a whole family and all of that with so much of integrity. That’s something I hope I can take back from him. So, for me, it was never about… movies were not a huge part of my growing up. There was too much on… I don’t know… there was a focus on family. Because I have a huge family, we have what’s like 150 immediate family members. And there was a focus on education. My parents were very clear.

 

 

I was actually going to ask you this. See, a lot of children grow up thinking okay, maybe I want to be an actor. What was the point when you started taking it seriously?

When I was in college.

 

 

Seriously enough to tell your parents?

It happened very quickly for me, and very suddenly. It’s like I was, in school, I was head girl, I was good in studies, I would play basketball, I would debate, I would do theatre also. There was no passion for something in the sense of ‘Oh my god, I want to do this.’ I think college changed a lot of things for me, because it really opened up me as a person. In school I had a very sheltered upbringing. I can actually tell you… like all my growing up years during school, I’d go to school, I’d come back… everything was very structured, everything was very sheltered. Like if I had to go somewhere, the driver would go drop me, pick me up, I’d go for some (sports or dance or music) practice, get dropped back. Weekends were with grandparents in Nizamuddin basti and for summer holidays, for 15 days, we’d go somewhere… to some hill station or whatever. But 15 days in that one-month period, we had to go to Kashmir. So till class tenth, or whatever, I had a whole road map sort of made, everything was just planned. College changed a lot of things. Like for the first time there was a lot of chaos in my life. Like suddenly there no structure to life anymore.

 

And there were lots of possibilities…

And there were lots of possibilities, and they were endless possibilities. I was suddenly member of a film society. I was watching a lot of films, I was debating here as well. I was doing theatre here as well… but suddenly there was a lot more independence as an individual. You know growing up as a Muslim girl in Delhi, who has a huge family, there are a lot of restrictions on your time. I had a very conservative upbringing. My parents didn’t want me to go out after dark. If I had to go out to friend’s house there was a whole procedure, to sort of ask for permission, and to negotiate how much time we could go for. Which also taught me how to lie at a very early age. Because you can’t always tell your parents the truth right? Because you still need… you just want to have fun right? So things like that. But college opened up a lot of possibilities and my interaction with the outside world really increased and suddenly I was doing so much more than just studying or going for classes and lectures and that was a time I also joined a theatre group called Act One.

 

 

You joined that in college?

I joined that in college. You know, suddenly I was drawn to the world of acting, theatre, into a lot of things and I realized this is what I wanted to do. Before that I was just this person, I probably knew what I didn’t want to do. Like: ‘Okay, I’m good at this, but this is not what I want to do,’ or ‘I’m good at that but that is not what I want to do.’ But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. There was no direction as far as that was concerned and the kind of person I am—I blend in easily wherever I go—I found it easy to do a lot of things but I did not necessarily enjoy them.

 

 

So did you have the conversation in parts with your parents, like you told them that I want to do theatre now or did you straightaway tell them that I want to be an actor?

See, I think they saw it that it was something that I was really passionate about, and I was getting appreciation for it. When I’d do a play I’d obviously call them for it and they’d come and they’d read the review in the paper. Or my college play, or the fact that I won some competition, or that we were travelling to cities to perform and people were inviting us. So they obviously saw that it was something I was good at. They also saw that it was something I was really passionate about. So you know how parents are… “Oh! It’s a hobby. It’s a passing phase. You know how student life is… ” and I was doing so many other things too. This was not the only thing. I was also heavily into student activism and if there was some workshop I had to go for it or if someone was doing a rally or a protest march I had to, sort of, be a part of it. You know how the Delhi University scene is. So I was one of those kids who was all over the place. So they never really thought that it was something I was taking seriously. I think the switch came when a friend of mine who was working in Mumbai as an assistant director called me for an audition, and he said: “There’s some audition happening and why don’t you test for it.” And I was, I remember, in Leh. I was on a holiday with my folks. And I said: “Yeah let me come back and I’ll come for like a weekend to Bombay and we’ll have fun, we’ll party, we’ll go out, it’ll be like a fun trip.” And I obviously told them I just have to go for some college work and I obviously fibbed my way through.

 

 

You were still in college?

I was still in college and I came to Mumbai. And, of course, I met this friend. I met the director of the film and I tested for it and it was a good indie sort of film. And the next day the producers called me and said: “You’re on for the part. Can you move to Mumbai and we’ll begin shooting in two months time.” And I was zapped. And I was like, really? A Bollywood film? So I’m going to be an actress? And I hadn’t told my folks. So it was like another thing.

 

 

But it always makes it easier when you have something and then you’re telling them rather than telling them…

But they thought I was being conned by people. They thought these were some fraudulent producers. They were like, why will someone offer a film to our daughter? Who is she? These people must be some crooks. Because parents have this notion about the big bad world of Bollywood and my folks, even now, they have no idea what I’m doing or what my brother’s up to. They’re just very happy that they see our pictures in the paper and we’re doing well, we’re not in want of any money. You know they’re just very happy with that. We could be cobblers, but as long as we’re happy they’d be okay with it. My dad, the other day I introduced him to Irrfan Khan and I said, “Dad, you know he’s my co-star.” And Irrfan met my father, and my dad’s like: “Arrey, I’ve seen you somewhere.” And I’m like, “Dad, he’s a very famous actor.” “No, no. I know but I’ve still seen him somewhere.” And I was like: “Can you please give it up?” And of course, Irrfan was very gracious and sweet he was like, “I think I also have met you somewhere.” So all of that. But that’s how disconnected they are. They don’t recognize people.

 

 

This is a very unique term to our industry: ‘the struggling phase.’ Whether or not you’re struggling, it’s called the struggling phase. What was it like for you? Because, also, it’s a very fascinating world right? The whole thing of auditions, and lots of people who want to be actors, and going from one audition to the other. I’m pretty sure you have tons of bizarre stories.

It was scary. I didn’t know what would have happened. Please understand I’m a middle-class, sheltered, Muslim girl from Delhi. Half my family lives in Nizamuddin basti. Half my family lives in Kashmir. My parents sent me to a South Delhi school, which is very cool, and I go to like a regular girl’s college and I’m interacting with students from all over Delhi University. But I’m still that girl who comes back home and is protected, is not allowed to go out after eight, is used to people talking to her in a particular way. And suddenly you come to Mumbai. And I was one of those stubborn kids. My dad told me: “If you’re moving here, I’ll give you one year.” We used to argue, we used to chat, we used to… every kind of emotional blackmail happened. And I finally told him: “See, I will do this at some point of my life. If you won’t let me do it I’ll do it when I’m 40, I’ll do it when I’m 60, but I will do it. But I’ll always regret that you didn’t let me do it when I wanted to, when I could have.” And my father—my mother claims that I have him around my little finger—so he obviously melted and said: “Fine, you go for one year. If it doesn’t work out, you come back. Do an MBA, study, go abroad, get married. Do what you want to do but do something sensible. This is not making sense to me. I don’t know what world you’re living in. You think it’s just upar aasman, neeche zameen and it’s just you (You think it’s just the sky, the earth and you). It doesn’t work like that.” And he probably was right from where he was coming from and I’m glad that I had sensible people around. They didn’t just say “accha go.” They tried to explain thing to me. It was also important for me to know how important it was for me to be… that this was my struggle period. That was my period with my folks where I had to sort of really understand: ‘Is this really as important for me to argue and to fight and to really convince them in a way?’ When I moved to Bombay it was one of the loneliest periods of my life. I’m a people’s person. I like being around people and I’ve always been around people. But I just shut myself off for one year, because I was scared. I felt like I had to prove a point back home.  I felt I had to do a certain stature of work because I had this idea of myself as an actor, and my parents come from a certain family and I didn’t want them to ever feel like: Oh my god what is she doing? This is so tacky. This is so embarrassing. And all those things were just pressures. No one put them on me but I just took them on myself. And it was so bizarre because I would get up in the morning, I’d get dressed, and I’d go for these auditions. And these auditions were—you know how it works—in these tiny dingy halls, in some obscure places and lanes I hadn’t even heard of. And I was new to Bombay so I didn’t even know. And I lived in a PG (a paying guest accomodation). My dad told me: “I’ll get you a car, I’ll get you a house.” But I was like: ‘I want to struggle, I want prove it to myself that, you know, you have these… you don’t want to make it… I don’t know… kids have these stupid things. Like I had this thing ki that I don’t want to take zyaada paisa (too much money) from my father. I’m just going to take this much, I’m going to stay in a PG. I’m going to rough it out. I’m going to save money on autos, I’m going to get dabba. I want to do it like how it’s done, how everyone does it. Because that’s how you feel it’s done, right? And I was depressed. I thought: ‘What is this?’ Because I’d go for these auditions and there’d be people who’d talk to you rudely and who’d think that you’re just some scum of the earth who’s just crawled out of somewhere. They’d say, “Achcha what’s your name?” And they’d be just very uncouth and you’d be like: ‘Why are they talking to me like this?’ And you’d be waiting in a room, like a tiny room, with 40 people, and you were obviously dressed up and you’ve done your hair, your face is dripping because it’s so bloody hot and you go inside and they give you some two lines to read, and they’re so dismissive of you. Most people don’t even give you the respect that you’ve come, and that you’ve invested your time. And I understand because it’s the bulk of numbers that they’re also sort of overwhelmed with. But for that individual who has just moved it’s just so weird. Thankfully I also met a lot of nice people who believed in me, who helped me without any sort of kickback or gain. They just helped me because they believed in me or they cared for me. And they still do which I’m so thankful for because those were the people who sort of made it easier for me to stay here or gave me some hope, or gave me some feeling that it’s not so bleak. But again, I’m not trying to paint a very… but there were some very depressing days in that one year.

 

 

It’s about the degree of detachment. If you can look at it with slight detachment it’ll be very funny. But if you feel like ‘Oh my God,’ if you let it get to you, then it can also be really super depressing. Like: ‘Oh my god, what is this nonsense?’

Correct. And I think the only remedy is to just look at it with a pinch of salt, and just feel like: ‘Oh my god, how retarded was that conversation?’ or ‘How retarded was that audition?’ or ‘What were those people thinking?’ or ‘What was I doing?’ You know because I’ve also gone… I’ve given horrible auditions. There have been places where they asked me some retarded shit… “Accha dance karke dikhaao (Okay, dance and show us).” So without music you are just dancing and someone’s recording you. And you are thinking: ‘Why am I doing this? What is going on?’ But it’s interesting, because now when I meet the same people, some of them remember me. Most of them don’t, because you were just somebody in the crowd. But I remember them and it’s interesting how that turnaround happens. I have very fond memories and I just think it’s life and it’s important to look at life in a very detached way and just to see how, sort of, it’s changing. Like my associations with places, Aram Nagar used to be one headache of a place, like… again those little lanes, those ajeeb (strange) places, it used to petrify me. Now when I come back here there’s another way I look at it. Possibly in another 10 years I’d look at it in another way. So it’s just that I guess. You just have to constantly change your associations with these places.

 

 

And you were doing ads, right? You started with doing ads?

I started off with ads.

 

 

So that would have been a nice sort of buffer, because you were at least making some money and you were…

Well the first ad I got paid for was five thousand bucks.

 

 

Right. Okay. Not so much.

And they didn’t give me my cheque for two months. I had to call them every day. I said, “Listen I don’t care for the money. I just want the cheque because this is the first ad that I have done. I’ll give you ten thousand rupees, just give me the five thousand ka cheque.” It was a good ad, because it was with a big star. It was with Abhishek Bachchan. It was for a big mobile company and it was a big production house. So yeah that was…

 

 

How many ads did you do?

Quite a few ads. In fact, I worked with some of the best ad filmmakers and some of the biggest stars while I was just doing ads. I worked with Aamir (Khan).

 

 

And Shah Rukh, right?

And Shah Rukh (Khan), and Abhishek (Bachchan) and I worked with Pradeep Sarkar and Shoojitda (Sircar), and a whole lot of big ad filmmakers. In that sense I’ve been very fortunate, I feel. Because I would just go for these auditions like everybody else and I remember the first shoot I did, I got paid like lousy money— five grand, ten grand, fifteen grand. But I always knew I was not in it for the money.

 

 

How long were you in Bombay before you started shooting for Gangs (of Wasseypur)?

About a year and half. Little more maybe.

 

 

And Gangs came your way, because you worked for an ad with Anurag (Kashyap) as well, right? Which was with Aamir (Khan)and Anurag (Kashyap).

Yes. I’d done an ad with Aamir earlier. So they told me, it’s another Aamir Khan ad but it’s Anurag Kashyap. I was like: ‘I’ll do it. Just tell me when I need to come.’

 

 

And did you audition for this role?

I have auditioned for every movie I’ve done. I’ve auditioned for every ad that I’ve done. Every single one, and they’ve not been easy auditions.

 

 

But I want to talk about your character, talk about Mohsina a little bit. What was your brief for the character and what did you bring to that character?

Mohsina. So it’s very surprising but I did not read the script for Gangs of Wasseypur. I was not allowed to read the script of Gangs of Wasseypur. Two people, me and Piyush Mishra, Anurag Kashyap banned us from reading the script. It’s a separate matter that I obviously sneaked a script from someone and I read it and I was devastated because I said, “There’s no role.” I said, “There’s nothing I’m doing in the film”. Because, it was possibly the least well etched out character. Like, for example, in the script, it was written ki Faizal and Mohsina go to the market. That’s it. Scene No. 42 is Faizal and Mohsina go to the market. Why do they go to the market? What happens in the market? Nothing. Anurag said, “I don’t want you to read the script,” and I was like, “But I don’t know what I’m doing in the film.” And I was feeling ki “Oh my god, am I going to be just like an accessory? Someone in the background? What is going to happen?” I had no clue. But he explained it to me later. He’s like, “I didn’t want you to over-prepare for it. I knew, being your first film, you would over prepare for it, and you’d be so excited and ‘Oh I’m doing this film!’ and you would kill the spontaneity and the realness of the character. I just wanted this relationship between this man and woman to be as real and as tangible as it can and as spontaneous.” So we didn’t read the script, we didn’t workshop, we didn’t talk about the script. We spoke about ourselves. I spoke about myself, my heartbreaks, my relationships, my struggle, my moving to Bombay, my getting the film. Just me as a person. Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) spoke about himself, Manoj (Bajpai) spoke about himself, Richa (Chadda) spoke. We just spoke about ourselves as people and we just realized that we could look so dissimilar, we could be coming from different backgrounds, different social realities, but we were just people and we had similar experiences.

 

 

What is the brief he gave you? He just said, “Okay, this is a girl, she is from this town… ? Like what was your brief and how…

Yeah, she is this girl, and she is Mohsina. She watches movies. She’s in love with this man, and he’s the only one she cares about in the world. I’m telling you, I’m honestly telling you. I still remember the first day of shoot. I knew what the shot was. The shot was Faizal Khan is in jail and he’s coming out and the reception party is there and we’re sort of…

 

 

You’ve gone to pick him up.

We all pick him up and stuff. That was my first shot in the film. And that day I think something had happened, Anurag had to come back to Bombay for some work and he was expected to arrive by afternoon; and that shot, an assistant was supposed to take, and I was like really heartbroken— arre yaar my first film, my first shot, and the director’s not going to be there. So I was just getting ready, but somehow things got delayed, and by the time we were about to roll, and it was magic-like, and Anurag came back. And he was like, “Oh. Come, come, come.” He just told me ki “Just do your own make up and I want it to look tacky. I don’t want it to look as if you’ve done make-up. It should look as if this girl has done her own make-up.” So I understood a little bit: Okay, so this is what we’re doing. Then he came and he gave me this fake pair of Ray-Bans: “Wear this.” and I wore them. And I wore it, I looked at myself and he said, “This is your character.” I said, “Okay.” I don’t know why I said okay because I still didn’t understand what was going on. But I just looked at myself and said, “Hm.” But you know when you see an image of yourself, it’s also sometimes from external to internal, sometimes from internal to external. But sometimes you see that image, maybe it gives you a little something to work on.

 

 

Well, given that you had nothing.

And I was just there and we shot that scene and that’s how Mohsina happened.

 

 

Tell me more about relating to Mohsina.

So that’s how Mohsina happened. She happened little by little, there was no idea of ‘Okay this is what Mohsina is going to be and this is what we’re going to make.’ She just happened bit by bit. So what I related to about her… actually everything. You know, I guess when you play a character, you just stop fighting with yourself. You stop thinking: Oh she’s not educated. So? I’m illiterate about a lot of things. That’s okay. So, it’s just that. Okay, she’s in love with this man. I’ve been in love, fair enough. She’s ditzy. She’s a little vain. I’ve been ditzy in situations and I’ve behaved like that or whatever. I can be vain. But you know I guess it’s important when you’re trying to play a character, you have to stop fighting with yourself and that person. Just allow. And it is difficult at times because you also have these natural reactions to things. For example, I would say, ‘so’ or ‘actually’. But Mohsina can’t say ‘so’ or ‘actually’. But those are vocabulary things you have to fight. Otherwise, if you just allow her to be and don’t really question her too much I think it just happens. With Mohsina, it just happened. Her relationship with Faizal, it just happened. Actually what also helped me in Gangs of Wasseypur was that Anurag does not follow the classical mode. He shoots it in a very guerilla sort of a way. So as an actor you’re not worried about your angle, whether I’m catching the light or not. I think those things I’m learning now in my third or my fourth film. In Gangs, I was just being free. I didn’t care whether achcha mera (my) left profile… (was looking good) People ask me today, and I’m like: I don’t know. I think that they both look the same.

 

 

But the next two films you did were with relative newcomers— I mean, their first feature films at least. Kannan (Iyer) and Sameer (Sharma). How were their processes different?

Sameer is very different. What I love about Sameer is that he picks up the small things in life. He looks at the small moments. He’s not somebody, again, who’ll go with the ‘dhadang’ moment, or that he’ll try and dramatize something, because you know this is cinema and you need to. But he’s a great storyteller because he’ll pick up these small nuances that are there, which is what makes a film like Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. Like even today, you know, people watched it on DVD and they write to me or they message me or they write  to me on Twitter, and they love it because they find it so real. In that film what we’re trying to do is to show Punjab in a way you’ve not seen it before. For people, Punjab is loud clothes, loud make-up, loud dialogues, backslapping, and all of that. People don’t really know what Punjabi families are like, how they talk, how Punjabi women are. Everyone’s a caricature. And what Sameer consciously and violently tried to do is that he didn’t want to make a caricature of his characters. They were mad, they were quirky, they were all of that. But they were not caricatures, which is very important. Like possibly, if it was left to me, I would have played Harman as a very quirky, bubbly girl. But he told me all the time, he said, “No. She has great passion, she has great fire, she’s all of that but she’s not a caricature. She’s very real.” And when we went to Punjab, we obviously met a lot of people. I’d never been to Punjab before although I grew up in Delhi. But we went to Ludhiana. We shot in a place called Lalton (Lalton Kalan, a village in the Ludhiana district). We went to the house, we met people and then we realized this is the real Punjab. This is what we need to capture, this is what we need to get. So his process again was very different. He would… just like Anurag would just not brief me before a shot— but Sam would come before every shot and we’d have like a little moment and he’s saying, “Just make it real, just feel it. Just go where she’s going, or just… ” Because, also, if you’ve seen the film, there’s a lot of backstory, which just comes across in dialogues. You don’t go into so many flash cuts: Achcha! Tum mujhe tab chod ke gaye the, phir yeh hua tha, (You had left me back then, and then this happened). So all of that is felt. Yet it should be in the flicker of your eye, or in a gesture or in a smile or in something. That relationship should just unfold. Kannan, again, a very different process. Kannan is someone who I feel is such a great mind, and he’s so passionate about films. You need to have a conversation with him to really know how knowledgeable and how passionate he is about the movies. With him it was very different because I had spent the most amount of prep work on Ek Thi Daayan, because I was also the newest person, and it is a very strong character. It’s got lots of shades. It’s got this whole graph. So we didn’t want to get that wrong. So, I mean, sometimes we’d sit for hours and go over like each sort of scene, each line, sometimes each word. And Kannan’s Hindi is atrocious, because, you know, he’s South Indian.

 

 

I also wanted to ask you, the film begins with a disclaimer of ‘It does not want to stereotype women as witches.’ There was some controversy about it. Now the thing is, it is a work of fiction. It is a novel that existed beforehand. But at the same time, this is a culture where even today women in UP, Bihar and other parts of India are branded witches, hunted, burnt and killed. Of course it is up for debate whether a film like this can encourage that, justify that, or whether is it too removed from that. But how much does the politics of what you’re portraying bother you?  

I would not do something, which would sort of propagate violence against women or stereotype them. But I think there are two different things over here, which we are mixing up. One is you’re making a film for entertainment. You’re making a film which is supposed to entertain, and it’s a story. It could be story about daayans. It could be a story about magicians. It could be a story about aliens. It could be a story about a couple, a rom-com or an action film. I’m not saying, if I’m showing a bad cop in a film, that all cops are bad. Why are we saying that if I’m making a film about bad daayans, all women are daayans or all women are bad? You know, I feel we have a problem. We only want to show women as being good women, or virtuous women. The moment we give them power, the moment we make them evil, we have a problem with that. We say, “Oh my god, you are stereotyping them.” But my problem is why not? Isn’t there also a sense of empowerment in a way? We’re not saying we’re trying to change the way people think but if you commit a crime in a village in Bihar against a woman and brand her as a witch, you have to change a mentality. You can’t justify that crime and say, “Oh I saw the film and got influenced by that.” It’s a very stupid way of looking at it and it’s a very stupid way of us as a society shutting out that responsibility. Films are meant for entertainment. They are not upholders of morality. You cannot blame them for everything. But there is a responsibility. I’ll come to that as well.

 

 

No but actually, the question I was asking you is not… I was asking you how you make that decision for yourself.

I make that decision because I try and pick characters who are well rounded. I would hate to play a clichéd character who is only good or only evil.

 

 

No in terms of social responsibility, would you ask the director: “What is your vision? I need to understand what your vision is.” Or would you be like: “No, I don’t care about anything else. But I need to understand I’m not playing a character or being a part of a film which I feel is… ” Do you have to justify to yourself in your head? Do you feel like you have to get that justification from your director?  I know it’s a just a couple of films, but how would you approach it?

You know. You know what the intent is behind making that film. You always know as an actor.

 

 

Before you start?

You always know and are always allowed to ask questions, and you discuss. So you always know what the intent of the makers of that film is. Once everyone is in the picture is when you sign on the dotted line. It’s a team effort at the end of the day. I can’t be in a movie and make something out of it if we’re not on the same page; it doesn’t happen like that. It is a very collaborative, very close-knit sort of an effort. So I always knew what the intent was. I knew I was doing a film… because I’d never done a supernatural film… I wanted to work with Kannan, I wanted to work with Vishal Bhardwaj, I wanted to work with Ekta Kapoor, I wanted to work with the star cast that we have. They’re all fabulous. So I knew we’re not going to stereotype women and for me it was interesting to play a character which had so many shades and was so well rounded. I’m not just playing an evil woman. I’m not playing just a good woman. I’m not playing a rape victim and we live in these clichés unfortunately. Finally, I think we have such good writers and directors who are making and creating such well-rounded characters.

 

 

Complex characters…

Complex characters, real characters, tangible characters. And I think what was happening earlier in writing, especially for female characters, is that everything would be just one way of looking at things. She is upset, so she’ll always be upset. She’s happy, chirpy, so she’ll always be happy, chirpy. But that doesn’t happen in real life. You know I’m the most talkative person on the planet, but when I go to someone’s house, I’ll behave, I’ll be quiet, I’ll take time to open up, I’m not going to be the same person… It doesn’t happen. Only retards do that.

 

 

No, not even retards. Only Hindi film heroines are supposed to do that.

Even if I’m dying, I’m going to have lip gloss on. Arrey, I’m dying! It happens with me. I have also had to fight with a lot of my… actresses are always surrounded by this army of stylists and hair and make-up people. So I remember this one scene in the film for Ek Thi Daayan, I’m supposed to be in the hospital and my whole face is like smashed and I have scars and prosthetic. And I had two set of people working on me. Of course, one was my regular team of hair and make-up people and the other was the prosthetic team. And obviously my regular person, who does the glamour make-up and the beauty make-up, he was like “Oh my god, this is horrible, you’re looking… ” I was like, “That’s good, right? People should look at me and go like, ‘Oh my god, poor thing. She just got pushed by that witch and she’s going to die. That’s good, right?” He was like, “Just put some mascara”. I’m like “I can’t put mascara, I’m supposed to be dying.” “I don’t care if you’re dying, just put mascara”. And I had to fight with my own make-up guy because I was like, “Listen, I’ve grown up watching Hindi films and making fun of heroines dying with perfect blow-dried hair. I can’t do that myself. I would laugh at myself. So please, it’s anyways difficult enough, let’s not complicate this by putting mascara.”

 

 

What is your process? Are you more a studied actor, or are you more a spontaneous actor? I know it doesn’t have to be one way or the other but which way do you lean? Which is your comfort zone?

Honestly it depends on who I’m working with. It really does. I have started working on films… like Luv Shuv… I started working on it 15 days before we were about to shoot. So I didn’t have as much prep at that time. I’ve had prep work of almost four months, for Ek Thi Daayan, more possibly.

 

 

Yeah, but I was asking more in terms of how much research would you do? For example, how much do you need to know? How much do you need to know from the director, like: What is this person’s backstory or what is…

Everything. Actors should be mean to their directors. They should grill them, call them at odd hours, trouble them, they should ask all their questions before. I do. Trouble them as much as you can before you go on shoot. But when you’re on shoot, you should just trust them.

 

 

Tell me something have you noticed what ends up affecting your performance? It may not be visible on camera but you, yourself, as a person, have you noticed some things that ends up affecting your performance? It could be anything. It could be the weather…

Yes, I think it’s important to be in an emotionally stable state. It does happen that you carry some of your… you could have had a fight with someone or an argument or it could be bad weather. It could be anything. But I always try to remind myself that no one will remember what you ate that day for lunch or whether your car broke down, or whether you had an argument with your boyfriend. What they’re going to remember is the time that you’re on screen, so just make that count. And a lot of things happen. It’s so distracting on a film set. Initially I would find the whole process of even… I’m trying to get into a scene and it’s emotional and someone’s coming and fixing my hair, someone’s doing touch up and I’m just like: Just stop touching me. I’m trying to focus over here. And you realize film acting is so much about keeping your focus. I took to meditation for a while after that because I realized I was just getting so distracted on the film set.

 

 

What I also wanted to ask you is have you become a better critic of your own performances?

See, I’m very critical of my own performances. Like even in a scene, there are moments where I’m not happy when I see myself, because I know when I’m not real; and for me the only thing that matters is being real. And I know ki at this moment I didn’t feel it. I just said it because that was a line. I am critical because… and no one knows that, no one will notice that. Because you were there, you felt it or you didn’t feel it. So I’m very critical.

 

 

So the audience is watching it, for one and half hours. They’re watching it with popcorn. For them it’s a holistic thing. Unko ek line mil gayi, they love your performance, or they love the film. But you know it in a completely different way. You’ve done the scene probably 30 times, seen it, dubbed it, whatever— so it’s a different analysis that you have. But how good a critic do you think are? Or do you think you are too harsh on yourself? Have you found a balance where you feel like: Yeah now I’m more objective about my work. Well, you can never be really objective…

It’s very weird. For example, there are some so–called critics, and I’ve read their reviews about my work, and they don’t talk about my acting. They probably get into like ‘Oh she’s a little too chubby to be a mainstream heroine.’ But those are the so-called critics who get published and they write blogs and people read them and it affects public opinion, so therefore it’s important. But I’m reading the review and I’m like: Okay, so you discussed this and that’s all you noticed? I mean how myopic? That’s all you noticed? For me a critic writing about the fact that I’m four kilos overweight is akin to a rickshaw wallah saying, “Arrey, Emraan Hashmi ke picture mein ek hi kiss tha (Emraan Hashmi’s movie had just one kiss).” For me it’s the same mentality obviously and it’s really absurd. And I look at myself and I’m like I look fine. But I have issues with things where I look at myself and feel: ‘But that’s not real. I’m not feeling it. I’m faking it. I’m just saying this line, because it was written, and I had to say it and that was my mark and I had to hit it and my co-star was standing there but oh shit, I’ve messed it up.’

 

 

But what do you think is, right now, your biggest strength as an actor.

I’m just fearless I guess. Like a role like Tamara, I saw this film with a director and he said, “It’s a role a lot of people would probably be a little afraid to do, because it’s a tricky one.” It’s not mainstream again it is mainstream but it’s not mainstream, so people have all these ideas of how you should conduct yourself or the kind of roles you should be doing or I want to be seen in this light and this is who I am. I think, in that sense, I’m pretty fearless. I feel I have no baggage. I have no grandfather whose legacy I need to live up to. My father runs a kebab business in Delhi, so anything that happens is great. And for me I need to be happy with the work that I’m doing, and I’m very happy with the work that I’m doing, and for me it’s about doing something new. I don’t think of myself in terms of an image, or a brand, which actors tend to do, which is very unfortunate. Maybe it’s just too early for me to even think of these things and I don’t. I consciously don’t. For example, a lot of people told me when I signed Gangs of Wasseypur “Why are you doing Gangs of Wasseypur? It’s got 300 actors in it. You’re opposite Nawaz. Who is Nawazuddin Siddiqui? Because obviously Nawaz was not Nawaz then, he was just an actor. “Don’t worry, you’ll meet some people, I will introduce you. You will do one full mainstream heroine type role, rom-com,” and I said, “Of course, I’d love to do it. I love romantic comedies. I have grown up on a staple diet of romantic comedies and I would love to do it. But this has come to me now. Why should I not do it now because it doesn’t fit into the industry’s understanding of how you should be launched? I don’t care for it. And I believe fearlessness, that irreverence that I have as an individual, it serves me well. It keeps me happy. I would hate to be put in a box. I would hate to be like everyone else. I would just hate it.

 

 

Put yourself in a box, and start to feel like main yeh nahi kar sakti, main woh nahi kar sakti (I can’t do this, I can’t do that)…

Yeah, because now I am… For example I did an interview yesterday and they were like, “Oh now you are finally glamorous.” And I’m like “Finally glamorous ka matlab kya hota hai? Matlab main koi mar thodey hi gayee thi (What does ‘finally glamorous’ mean? I mean I wasn’t dead all this while).” I speak in English, I wear regular clothes.

 

 

Also I thought Mohsina was very glamorous.

She was, but you know she was this desi girl. “And then you did Harman, they spoke Punjabi and Bhojpuri. They wore salwaar suits. When will we see you in dresses?” And I’m just like, “Listen, I’m not insecure about wearing dresses, or that I can’t speak English. You can’t take away who I am from me. It’s a character I’m playing.” So I am not thinking of myself. Just because I’m playing Mohsina, I will not become Mohsina, or if I’m playing Tamara, I will not become Tamara. I think in this country what we need to do is understand that there are actors and there are characters you portray and they are not the same. I’m playing Tamara— doesn’t make me a witch. I’m playing Mohsina— doesn’t make me get married to a gangster. I’m just saying…

 

 

I certainly hope not…

…I’m not mad.

 

 

How have you sifted through the praise that’s coming your way? Which ones have you let matter? No, you don’t have to say which ones you haven’t let matter, but some praise that you have allowed yourself to enjoy.

For me the biggest compliment is when someone tells me that you are watchable on screen. Because I’ll tell you, ultimately what matters— it doesn’t matter what you look like, or what you wear. Of course it’s a visual medium so you have to look nice in a certain way. But for me it’s important that the audience is connected to you. It matters to me. Did you get the boy or not? Did you kill the bad guy or not? It matters (to the audience). Your objective as a character on screen becomes the audience’s objective. They want to see, they are connected to you. You could be a waiter, you could be anybody, but it matters to them— what you think, what you feel. And what happens to you.

 

 

Have you allowed yourself…  you are three films old, you’ve been an actor for a very long time, but you’ve been a star for a shorter period of time; have you allowed yourself to indulge in that experience of stardom?

Yeah, but you know I love it. I have to admit, I love it. I find it very amusing how people treat actors.

 

 

Stars, you mean…

Stars. Okay. I don’t consider myself a star…

 

 

Woh toh matlab whatever the going definition of a star is. That you are, of course, right?

But I find it very amusing how people treat stars. It’s like they’re touch-me-nots. And I’m a very expressive person so I’m like “I don’t like this tea, yaar.” So everyone goes crazy. “Oh my god, she doesn’t like this tea!” I’m sorry. I just expressed I didn’t like it. If you could change it, it will be nice, but I don’t want a scandal because I didn’t like the tea. Or if I don’t like a film, or I don’t like a book. So you have an opinion, and you’re used to talking a particular way…

 

 

And there’s a lot of weight on your opinion, suddenly. Because, “She does not like that film.”

Yeah suddenly, yeah! I find it so pressurizing. I’m just a person. I don’t know everything. I don’t have to… people call me, “So the government has put this new tax. What do you think?” I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about it. Suddenly your opinions are so important, your likes-dislikes are so important.

 

 

But have you allowed yourself 5 minutes of enjoying it? Or have you not had the time?

No no. More than five, trust me. I love it, I love the adulation, I love that admiration. I love it when people like my work, I love it when people ask for pictures, and for autographs. I love all of it. And also it’s new. Maybe at some point people say that’s very annoying, but I’m loving it because that’s what you’ve always wanted. I love the look when people recognize you— a lot of people recognize you but they’re a little shy to approach you. I love all of it. I love all the perks that come with being famous and being popular. It does give you a lot of freedom in terms of what you can do… money, all of that. I love all of it, and I’m enjoying all of it but there is this other side to me also which likes being anonymous. I like switching off and then going for little holiday somewhere where nobody knows me and I can just do random stuff. Sometimes, you know, I go to someone’s house and I’m just being myself. But then everyone will start, and you notice that they’re noticing you and that just makes you a little conscious and it makes you behave politely or quietly, or just…

 

 

Or act extra normal. Then you’re like, why should I act extra normal?

Yeah exactly,

 

 

How has your relationship with your own body and beauty changed over the last four or five years?

A lot, actually. I grew up with all the insecurities that any person, any girl growing up would have. I had a boy-cut (a very short haircut) for the longest time ever. I had been tomboyish most of my life. Now I behave more like a lady, in certain situations, not always. But I have grown up with boys. There is a certain freeness that I’m used to, a certain way in which I’m used to conducting myself in. I had short hair. I used to dress like a boy. I used to wear my brother’s clothes all the time, even in college. I used to think I’m not very pretty. I’ve grown up thinking I’m not very attractive. Because I always had friends… Delhi girls, you know, they are always dressed up and it’s always about boys and parties and that was never my scene.

So I had all those issues yaar. I thought I was fat. I thought I was ugly. I thought I was too boyish. I thought boys wouldn’t like me. And I was one of those assured girls who just think that they are too smart or too cool to worry about boys. I was one of those. But I had a difficult time. It’s only once I got acceptance as an actor—and this is kind of crazy—that all the compliments started coming in about how people thought I was beautiful and all of that. It took me a while to even accept that, because you’ve had body image issues, and you’ve had issues about how you look, and we all do. I thought I had crooked teeth, just randomly. These are just things, you might not agree, but these are phobias or these are things that you have in your head about yourself and you realize that people don’t see them and it’s only in your head. I guess being in Mumbai and being independent changed that for me, a lot.  I always felt when I was in a larger group or with my family, I was always trying to hide. And I guess because of the upbringing, the conservative Muslim upbringing, I always didn’t want to look attractive, didn’t want to look pretty. Because sexy girls are not nice girls. Nice girls are always shy and coy and quiet. It’s always safer to be that because you don’t stick out. You don’t stand out. And I think moving to Mumbai, being independent, it definitely changed a lot of things. Getting my own house, getting my own car, it gives you a certain amount of just being assured that it’s okay. It’s alright. That changed a lot. And it’s kind of crazy because now I’m in a profession where everyone can say anything about me and just say so because I’m in the public domain. They can say what they want to or about me, and it’s interesting because now it doesn’t matter anymore and it’s so ironical.

 

 

What about fashion? Is that something you enjoy, or is that something you don’t give a shit about?

I enjoy it. It’s also new for me. I’ve been, like, tomboying up.

 

But see dressing up and fashion are two very different things.

Completely, but I’m also a tomboy who is in the process of transformation. I’m in the middle of it as we’re speaking. So now suddenly I have these hair and make-up people and these stylists who want to work with me because my movies are doing well and they keep sending me their work. And photographers who want to click me. And I don’t know what works because for me it’s all uncharted territory. So I don’t know if straight hair looks good on me. I don’t know if red hair will look good on me.

 

 

But as long as you are having fun and not agonizing all the time.

Yeah because everyone thinks long hair is good for heroines, so we’re going to have long hair. This works for me, so I’m going to safe dress like this. But it’s about having fun at the end of the day and about experimenting. I love experimenting, I love being around people, and saying: “Let’s try it out.” Of course I fear, like anybody here. I don’t want to be written badly about. And there is this huge… some underground fashion police, who are just out to just sort of claw you out. So I don’t like being written badly about. It’s not nice to see a bad picture of you on a write up saying “Oh my gosh, what was she thinking?” But I don’t kill myself over it. My managers get more worried about it: “Oh my god! What happened!” And they’ll fire my stylist.

 

 

But poor things, it’s their job.

But that’s their job. I read it and I’ll be like: ‘Hmm. We should fix it, we should not do this again and then, okay, step number two.’

 

 

If you take it seriously, because a lot of the fashion police is really like…

They are very nasty.

 

 

More than nasty, I don’t know if they have a sense of fashion either.

I think they have their favourites, and I think they are these really sort of depressed men and women. I picture them like this. So whenever I read a bad write up, I’m like: ‘Hmm.’ So I went to this event like two hours ago, and it’s already on the net, and there’s a whole write up, and they’ve dissected my whole look. They are some caustic, really depressed people, who have no life, who have no friends. They are sipping coffee, they have dark circles, in some underground dingy basement, uploading my pictures and dissecting it.

 

 

How much do you feel your career could turn on how you look and present yourself? Beyond a basic, of course. You can’t let yourself go…

I think it does depend on that a lot, unfortunately or fortunately. I don’t know. But see its about, there’s one thing going for a red carpet appearance when you have to put your best foot forward and you have to dress a particular way. Then there’s something called a personal style. I might like grey slacks and oversized t-shirts, and that’s just me. That’s what I am most comfortable in. But there is again this whole social space that we move around in, that we party in and which we associate ourselves in and all of that. And people do watch you at times. And somehow, like I said, it’s not even the lay people but even people from the industry. They’re constantly judging you on how you’re conducting yourself as a star or not. Are you conducting yourself as a fashionista? Are you conducting yourself as the next big thing or not? And it boils down to your hair and make-up, what you’re wearing, the car you’re driving, the cell phone you are carrying; unfortunately, but it is true. Because these are the little signals that you send out to people who are, sort of, placing you in the social hierarchy. I don’t know the right or wrong of it, but it happens.

 

 

But the point is you are constantly aware of a gaze and you are acting for some gaze or the other.

Exactly. There is a gaze, there is a constant gaze, you cannot deny it. I guess when you sign up for it, it’s a part of it. It’s a part of the whole deal. You will be subjected to a 24 hour scrutiny. People will know exactly what you’re up to. It depends on you. Whether you want to put your best foot forward all the time, whether you want to be under their scrutiny, whether you want to be the most fashionable actor or actress in town, or you don’t care. But then you also have to be prepared for the consequences because people will label you, because they’re just dying to label you. They are not happy until they have labelled you. Either you have to be the next Madhuri Dixit, or you have to be the next Nutan, or you have to be the next Kareena Kapoor. They are not happy until they have figured you. They don’t like vagueness. They don’t like chaos.

 

 

We were talking about women and roles. A lot is changing of course. The kind of roles that any of you are doing right now are a far cry from what women used to do. But is enough changing? Does it bother you sometimes that there are still not enough roles for women?

I’m very busy. I wouldn’t say I’m spoilt for choices, but I have enough on my plate to really keep me busy. I have people who already are thinking of me or tweaking roles or writing for me. I find that a huge compliment. I signed Ek Thi Daayan, before Gangs of Wasseypur was released. It doesn’t happen or it doesn’t happen often. Because I remember the cinema I grew up watching, all of us have grown up watching, and I see the cinema now while I’m working and I hear stories about how things were, and how things are. For me it’s important that change is happening and we’re a part of that change. I can’t sit back and not take responsibility, no matter that I’m a very small part of the entire pool but I think all of us are making a change happen. I was talking about Konkona (Sen) the other day, or Kalki (Koechlin), for me these women are as important as Vidya (Balan) and Priyanka (Chopra), because they’re not conventional but they are constantly pushing the envelope. Someone like Vidya Balan, I mean, the fashion police went after her. I have so much respect and admiration for her, because she is the only commercially legit substance, and yet you just don’t know how to put her in a box… she’s everything. Or even Priyanka Chopra. She’s glamorous, she’s beautiful, she’ll do a Saat Khoon Maaf, she’ll look aged, she’ll do whatever. And they are strong independent women who are making these choices for themselves. I’m a nobody. I came from nowhere. I just dropped in and I had acceptance. I can’t complain about anything. I’m working with some of the best film makers, and I feel honoured and privileged because I know any big star in the country today would want to work with them, and I’m being chosen for films and interesting parts. It is overwhelming. But it’s beautiful and it’s fascinating because I feel I’m in the middle of things. I go back home, my brother’s also an actor (Saqeeb Salim), we discuss our work and…

 

 

You guys stay in the same place?

We stay in the same place. He started off with the Yashraj film that he’s doing, Karan’s short (Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh, Bombay Talkies). I started out with Anurag Kashyap’s film (Gangs of Wasseypur) and I’m doing a film with Vishalji (Bhardwaj). So we come back and we’re just discussing… And it’s so amazing because, for me, we live under the same roof, but everything’s happening.

 

 

And also you’re part of a very diverse range of cinema.

Exactly. And Saqib and me, we are very similar people. We have very similar likes and dislikes, we like similar kinds of films. We’ve grown up together watching the same kinds of movies and being fans. But it’s so interesting that we have that range to pick and choose from and work in at the same time.

 

 

And that both of you have made it. This probably does not happen unless you are a dynasty

We’re the brats who have come from out of town. We are the migrants.

 

 

Have you also learnt by watching performances of other actors? On screen, not just in front of you…

I have and I still do. Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Ryan Gosling, Leonardo (Di Caprio)… and these are like the contemporary actors we’re talking about. Because it’s also interesting for me to see their body of work, as it’s happening. For me it’s interesting what a Ryan Gosling…

 

 

It’s exciting, right?

It’s exciting because we are also living in similar times. Although different industries but similar times. So for me it’s very interesting to see a Ryan Gosling’s career path. He’s doing a Drive, he’s doing a Blue Valentine, he’s doing Lars and the Real Girl. He’s doing all these films and he’s doing it today. Often when you look at earlier stars, I feel they are a different reality. They have a different social thing happening.

 

 

And you get it but you don’t get it.

You get it but you’re like it was a different time, the economics or whatever was different, so it doesn’t apply today. But someone like him, it’s so fascinating to watch his career path and the choices he’s making. Or even Leonardo. I still feel after a Titanic, he could have still been a heartthrob. But in Django (Unchained), he plays a monster in that film. A monster. And it’s so amazing to see him. Or even like a George Clooney, or a Matt Damon, or a Ben Affleck and just the kind of films that these guys are doing. I love these actors who are doing these things because they are producing, they are writing. So these guys are very inspiring in that sense, because I feel they are also contemporaries in a way, but they’re not looking at even the Hollywood formulaic way of doing things. They’re constantly inventing ideas, pushing the envelope, directing, writing…

 

 

Name an actor or an actress, from any generation, dead or alive, whom you’d like to have a conversation, either about the life they led or their acting. It could purely be about the….

Any of the yesteryears stars, from Bollywood.

 

 

Name one.

There are so many. Like a Parveen Babi, or a Smita Patil, or any of these wild reckless stars, because I just love the stories. I really feel today’s stars are also very boring. Everyone is so diplomatic and politically correct and intelligent. I just feel like they lived their lives with so much of passion, with so much of flair, and I love that. In a way they broke rules, they did crazy things, but there was so much of honesty and passion in what they were doing. I find people today a little more proper and maybe a little more artificial. They always want to be right, and not say the wrong things. I find that very fascinating. I just want to know what made them tick, or the choices that they made, or the affairs that they had, or the torrid relationships… It’s just everything. It just seemed like a more exciting time to live in and I love the old Bollywood stories.

 

 

I’m going to come back to a question of this whole New Bollywood thing which you’re a part of— the Vishal, Anurag, Tigmanshu (Dhulia) thing. It’s very exciting because it’s like what it was when (Harvey) Weinstein and when Sex, Lies, and Videotape came. It’s that part of the industry for us. And you are there. You are part of that. You called it the “Gangs of Aram Nagar” once. I was reading this in one of your interviews, and I thought was quite funny. And yet it’s a small, intimate group. As an insider, what is the energy now? Because the energy that’s there now, will not be. When (Quentin)Tarantino becomes mainstream, that whole thing doesn’t remain, right? So you’re at that very unique point when it’s all sort of just happening. When Gangs of Wasseypur is going to Cannes and there’s this whole fermentation. I don’t know if you’ll have any observations, because you’re right in the thick of it, but if you have any…

When I was shooting for Gangs of Wasseypur, I think, Udaan had gotten a lot of awards that year, and Anurag was very happy. He was like, ‘Udaan won this, Udaan won that.’ Dabangg also released and it also earned a lot of money and won some award as well. And he was really happy and, because one was his friend’s and partner’s and the other was his brother’s, he was very excited about how the films were shaping up. So I was like, “Now, who will you fight with?” and I was pulling his leg. “Now there is no one anymore left to fight with. Now you’re the new mainstream.” So I don’t really know. I think what’s always exciting is to keep agitating, is always to keep pushing things. Someone once said: “I’m always with the opposition, no matter who the government. If I’m a Leftist, and the Left government comes up I’m going to oppose them as well.” Because that’s the only way in which you truly bring about change, you truly keep evolving. I guess complacency, whether it be for the newer lot or the new wave or whatever you want to call it, or the existing… whatever… it’s death, yaar. You can’t say this is it because there is no ‘it’. There can be no ‘it’. If you had the Sex, Lies, and Videotape then, you have this other new breed of things that’s happening right now. And it’s very hard to, right now, put a finger and say: Okay, this is what’s happening. But it’s exciting. People know something is happening. You can just sense it. It’s like a taste in your mouth. Sometimes you don’t really know whether it’s sweet or salty or it’s sour or…

 

 

Tell me something. Is Bombay home now? Or do you still long to live in Delhi?

Bombay is home. I don’t think I can live in any other city in this country apart from Bombay. There is a lot that Bombay has which is so beautiful and so unique. A sense of independence, a sense of security, especially for a girl. I didn’t think that I would ever rent out a place of my own. When I first came to Bombay, I still remember, I rented out a place. I bought a mattress and a bottle of water. I said, “I’m going to live in this house now.” And my friends were scared. “How can you live alone?” And I’m not used to living alone. I never lived alone.

 

 

But Bombay makes you feel like it’s possible.

It is possible.

 

 

You know your twitter profile says that you like to write. What do you like to write?

Oh! I should change that. I haven’t written in a really long time. But I used to, mostly for myself.

 

 

What?

Anything. Short stories, poetry. I have even written some scripts, chota mota. I’ve even made one of them into a short film with a friend of mine. I’d written a short story long time back and then this friend of mine, he’s an ad filmmaker now, but we both were starting out and there was no work, and those were the struggling days in Bombay. We used to get really bored and sit in coffee shops and be like, nothing is happening. He was an assistant director then. His name is Vivek Das Chaudhary. He’s just started his first film, a week back. He’s shooting in Bombay… in Delhi. So we used to just sit and be like: What the hell do we do? So we got a little bit of money from here and there. He got a friend’s camera. Someone gave us some stock. We shot it on film. So, did things like that. And then an editor was a friend, so we pooled that in. So it was just like a project. We haven’t even showed the film to too many people. It’s something to be proud of, because now all of us are doing something in our lives. There’s another girl with me in the film, she won the National Award this year, Usha Jadhav. Vivek has just started his film. The cameraperson of the film is a huge cameraman in ad films right now. I think he is also about to start his first film— Tapan Basu. So it was very interesting for us, because we were just friends. We used to just hang out and not have any work to do and faff around. So I wrote a story. I acted in it also, got another girl to act in it. Had no money, just got a camera, went to town somewhere, shot near the station. So things like that. I like doing things like that.

 

 

And what about reading? Is that something you used to do more of? Do more of now?

I used to obviously do a lot more of. I have a decent library at home. I read anything. I’ll pick up something.

 

 

Are there any writers that you keep going back to?

I like reading autobiographies. I find them most interesting. I guess primarily because most of them are so similar, if you actually remove all the sheen and the facts and the figures. It’s about people with passion, with a drive, no matter what the odds could be. It could be an illness, it could be a broken family, it could be alcoholism, depression, anything. But it’s always about your spirit. And I find that so fascinating whether you read a political biography or an athlete or anybody… and it’s so interesting. I find autobiographies, at the moment, very fascinating, but they keep changing.

 

 

What do you think are the modern day challenges of a man-woman relationship for our generation, irrespective of whether you’re an actor or not? I guess in urban India. Things would be very different in rural India.

A lot. Just the way we date, we woo. It’s very different, I guess, because we are a practical generation. A lot of it has to do with status.

 

 

Also the way women are changing.

Also the way women are changing, faster than men. Suddenly we’re not just in the traditional roles. We are far more well read and well travelled. We don’t have so many morality issues associated with us anymore and men probably don’t know how to deal with it. A lot of men can’t deal with single, independent, free-thinking, cosmopolitan women. Suddenly it’s too much for them to deal with. And I don’t blame them, because there is no precedent for them to look at to get hope or inspiration or… they just cannot deal with it. And also, I guess, women don’t know what they really want.

 

 

That’s a very defining feature of our generation.

I mean when I was 19, I just wanted to get married and just have kids. I thought I was in love with this guy and I thought, this was it, and I wanted to get married and have children. I was 19. And now when I look back, I was like: Oh my god! What was I thinking? What was wrong with me! What the hell do you know when you’re 19? But I guess, today, my career is the most important thing. I’m not in a relationship. I’m not in love. But would that have been better? I don’t know, maybe.

 

 

I think it’s also about what we want, because it’s also the generation… we also grew up on loving Shah Rukh Khan in Darr, so we wanted…

We wanted mad, passionate romance. Yeah, but I’m just saying, I like somebody I can just be with. Where I don’t need to pretend. And I still feel despite all the practicality that I have acquired, and how sensible I have become, that I’m not afraid to show someone my real side.

 

 

See that’s different, and letting yourself go and be crazy in love. Would you allow yourself to be crazy in love?

If I find the right guy. See that’s the tricky part. Because even though you may, the other person is not always…

 

 

What if the other person was not? Would you allow yourself to be in a one-sided crazy passionate…

No.

 

 

Yeah I guess not.

No. No. It’s too traumatic.

 

 

But is it worse now with your relationships being written about or the non-relationships being written about, or the scrutiny? Does it get worse or is it actually the same? The challenges related to it remain the same?

It is worse because people think that because you’re an actor, you are a commodity. You are not a person. They can write what they want about you. You don’t have a family, you don’t have relationships.

 

 

But what about dating? How does dating become more difficult?

It does become more difficult, because: A) Like I said before, tabloids think that there’s far more interesting stuff happening in your life than what’s actually happening. You know that’s one part of it.

 

 

Thank God…

Well yeah. It’s always like: I’m having too much fun, I’m partying every night. Not! But it is difficult. Like I’ll tell you the peculiar situation I am in. I’m new in this town so I’m a new girl in that sense. The friends I have or that I have made are all work related. I don’t have school friends or college friends that I grew up with. All my friends are back home. When I go back home, they are leading their normal lives. When I meet boys in Delhi, they’re just enamoured by the fact that you’re an actress. So you don’t know whether someone really likes you or they just want to be seen with you, or they just want to go back and say, “You know what? I went out for coffee with her, I went for a date… ” or something. So you don’t really know. You come here and it’s different because all the people I meet are work related. So even if I have to be in a relationship, it’ll have to be someone from my circle of people. I guess even when I’m talking to someone or if we’re about to start something, or not or whatever, there’s so much of chatter about it. So there’s no normal thing that can happen. Like for example, I like a guy and I’m at a party, and I’m talking to him, and we’re just talking, and getting to know each other because that’s how people get to know each other, right? And twenty people are just looking at you:“Oh!” And even before anything has happened, they’ve imagined everything. You probably just nip it in the bud. I don’t know. But the good thing also is that if you can keep your sanity, if you can be a little level-headed about it, you always can tell the difference, between real affection and not.

 

 

That you can.

That you always can.

 

 

What is it that you’re looking forward to most in life right now?

My work.

 

 

Okay if you could control it, how would your life play out?

I don’t want to control it.

 

 

Okay so then basically you’re saying that you would want it to be full of unexpected turns and surprises.

I’m the mad girl from out of town. I’m the irreverent girl.

 

 

And you want it to stay that way?

I want it to stay that way. I don’t want so much control. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

 

 

Do you long for the structure that you grew up with?

No, I don’t. I like the chaos I’m in right now. It keeps it exciting. It keeps me on my toes. Because right now I feel there is just these endless possibilities. I’m like a child in a candy store and everything is so bright and so colorful and so inviting. I don’t know what I really want.

 

 

And it’s okay…

But I want everything, and everything is attractive. And it’s okay, not to know. I just want to look around, see what’s going on and then maybe decide, or not. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I don’t know how long my career will last. But I’m not even worried about it. I’m a girl who’s here from out of town and she’s new and she’s meeting all these people and she’s getting to do what any girl would want to do and I’m just having fun.

 

 

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Huma Qureshi – TBIP Tête-à-Tête

Interview
July 2013
By Pragya Tiwari

Pragya Tiwari is Editor-in-Chief at The Big Indian Picture.