Unnerving, scary, “Full of possibilities and uncertainties”: these are just some of the emotions Huma Qureshi experienced when she decided to leave behind her cosy family home, in Delhi, and move to Mumbai to pursue acting. Her father, Saleem Qureshi, is one of the capital’s more successful restaurateurs, and is deservedly famous for his Saleem’s chain of eateries. “I left many comforts behind for a life that could have gone either way,” says the five foot seven inch tall actor, who made a strong impression with her very first film, Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). This year, she has had five releases, including Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, Ek Thi Daayan and D-Day, a commendable achievement for someone who is an outsider in the intimidating world of Bollywood. Qureshi is currently shooting for Dedh Ishqiya, in which she is cast alongside her idol, Madhuri Dixit. Dancing with Dixit on screen, she says, “is every girl’s dream come true”.
The actor has come a long way in a short time, successfully straddling independent and commercial cinema. Not surprisingly, she’s rabidly against being categorised as a certain kind of actor. “I resent those definitions. I am fortunate not to be boxed in and that people saw potential in the kinds of roles I could play. I could have followed a conventional path — studied, joined the family business — but I chose to take a risk. And, I am glad I had the courage, or was stupid enough, to go for it,” she says.
Mumbai and the Hindi film industry can be daunting, testing and lonely places. Qureshi credits her family for their support and her upbringing. But, when she decided to move to Mumbai, her parents thought she had “lost the plot”. “It would be a concern for any parent who doesn’t belong to the industry. They tried to talk me out of it, but, today, I am where I am because of the support of my family.” Her actor brother Saqib Saleem (Mere Dad ki Maruti, Bombay Talkies) is one man who, she says, keeps her sane. “This is a fickle world, and there aren’t many people you can trust, but I can talk to him about anything.”
Like her choice of films, Qureshi’s appearance, too, shatters Bollywood stereotypes. Much like Vidya Balan, another woman who has rewritten the rulebook, Qureshi also defies size-zero imagery.
“The fact that she would not be the natural choice for a conventional Bollywood heroine, the song-and-dance type, is a big advantage and something she should embrace and take forward,” says Nikhil Advani, who cast Qureshi as RAW agent Zoya in his espionage thriller, D-Day, for her “extremely expressive face”. “She is a powerhouse performer; she can act without dialogue, just with expressions. Also, I didn’t want a size-zero heroine. I needed to make the film as realistic as possible.”
Sameer Sharma, who directed Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, says that the actor looks like the “women we grew up with and the way a woman should look”. “Otherwise, everyone looks like a model. She’s very confident, immensely watchable and very bright. You can have many conversations with her.”
A debut in an ‘independent’ film (though GoW was not an independent movie, its director, Anurag Kashyap, came from an independent school of thought) does not often lead to commercial success. But, for Qureshi, it has. She has succeeded in carving a niche for herself and in getting herself noticed even in ensemble films. Advani believes this is because she “held her own in her first film”. “That is what sets people like her apart in terms of choice of roles: it starts with a smart choice of first film.”
“I don’t come across as a newcomer because I am at ease,” Qureshi says. “In my head, I know I was meant to be an actor. However, I have no plan and am just going along with things. Every film is a new lesson. Every day, I am learning how to conduct myself as an actor. I am learning to be available, yet trying to stay away from controversies.” She adds that it’s not easy when she regularly features in tabloids. (In the last year, she has been linked with one of her directors as well as an unmarried Bollywood star.) “It’s part of an actor’s life. Fortunately, my parents know who I am and we share everything openly as a family. What hurts is that because you are an actor, people think you are a commodity and don’t bother to verify facts.”
Timing seems to have played a large part in Qureshi’s success. The industry is changing, parts are being written for strong women actors and genres are opening up. Qureshi says she enjoys the choice: of being able to dance, to perform in a film like GoW, do stage shows… “There are no boundaries to bind you. I am not apologetic about who I am and where I come from, but I want to be the best at what I do.”