PARTITION-SET drama Viceroy’s House sees Huma Qureshi make the leap to international cinema.
The versatile actress, who has also acted in a number of Indian language films, took on the challenge of portraying a woman caught in the crossfire of India and Pakistan being divided up in 1947.
Huma stars alongside acclaimed actors including Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Sir Michael Gambon and the late Om Puri in the Gurinder Chadha-directed film. Not surprisingly, it was an interesting journey taken by the talented actress, which will now take her across new frontiers when Viceroy’s House is released next Friday (3).
Eastern Eye caught up with Huma ahead of the movie’s recent premiere to talk about the film, her future plans and stepping back in time.
You are a fearless actress, but were you nervous about being part of Viceroy’s House?
Well, thank you for thinking that I am fearless. It is not something I do intentionally. I guess it just comes across in my choice of work, you know.
But yes, Viceroy’s House was unchartered waters. It was very exciting, which is what made me do it. I had to be a part of it.
A film about Partition, a sweeping love story set against the backdrop of the last viceroy coming to India. I mean, it had all the ingredients as an artist and I knew I wanted to sink my teeth into it. And of course, Gurinder (Chadha), I love her work. I love how she is and how she approaches a subject. I was very intrigued to see how a British Punjabi would look at Partition and tell the story. I think the fearlessness comes from that, being intrigued and being curious.
How did you approach playing a character from another era?
Of course it is difficult. It is Indian, but set in a different period. The language and clothes are different. Everything including body language had to be period. I was concerned about that.
Gurinder introduced me to a lady who was a little girl when India was partitioned. She was the niece of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who was close to Mahatama Gandhi. It was quite a revelation chatting to her and meeting her.
She was a living person who knew Gandhi, Nehru and what was happening from a very young person’s perspective. I just had a blast chatting to her, trying to understand how young people were and behaved, how they hung out and
what they did. It was quite revelatory. Both Gurinder and (writer/producer) Paul [Mayeda Berges] did a lot of research on every aspect of the film. They enabled us to absorb the world we would inhabit.
Is there any one thing you learned that surprised you?
A lot of things, actually. I think the most important fact was that, as a student of history or growing up as an Indian when you learn about historical figures and how
India got independence, you always look at all the people as ones you read about in history books. You don’t really humanise them. The research for this
film allowed me to look at them and their actions in a very real way. That is something I am grateful for.
You have several impactful scenes in the film. Do you have a favourite moment?
Yes, absolutely. There are some really fantastic actors in the film including Hugh (Bonneville), Gillian (Anderson), Manish (Dayal). I was really shocked when Om ji (Puri) passed away because he plays my father in the film. There are some very beautiful moments that I shared with him. Our whole relationship in the film is a very deep loving one between a father and daughter. She is concerned for his health and safety.
So there are some very beautiful moments we shared as actors. I got to experience the brilliance of the man and his talent.
Does it help that you look like someone from another era?
I don’t know if anyone can look like they are from a particular era.
You look like a Hindi film heroine from the 1940s or 50s?
Well, thank you Asjad. I will take that as a big compliment. I thought they were very real beautiful women. A lot of people think I am Italian.
(Laughs) I don’t know, really.
I am happy being me. Maybe you will have to ask Gurinder why she cast me. Was it because I looked classically period or I did a
smash audition, I don’t know? I am just grateful to have got the opportunity and be part of a film that has a very moving story to tell. One thing
I hope this film achieves is that we learn from history and mistakes we have made.
What do you mean?
More than two million people were displaced and carnage ensued. Destruction happened only I guess because of greed; I look around and all over the world, with all kinds of right-wing governments coming to power, people are becoming mistrustful and hateful of each other. I just feel there are important lessons from history we can learn – there is no point in hating or division. We must think of humanity and love.
They are the only things worth living for.
As an actor, how did it feel like working with a female director for the first time?
I am glad that you asked me that. I didn’t know what to expect. Honestly for me, gender is not really a big thing. What matters is the person’s talent or ability to tell a story.
She [Gurinder] is very specific about what she wants because she has lived with the story for so long and really knows the script inside out. I thought that was magic. I have worked
with directors who are very good at what they do, but who also, how should I say, play around with their ideas a lot. They don’t have as much structure and allow the actors to explore.
Gurinder, however, was very specific and very aware of the film she was making, the fact that she was making a film not just for Indians, but for a world audience. That was very important to her. We play characters from history
– we can play around a bit artistically, but it is very important you stay true to the motivation and desires of the people you are actually talking about. She has lived all these parts more than anybody, so knew what she wanted.
If you could go back to any other time period as an actor, which would it be?
I don’t know if I would like to play a historical character, but I would like to meet Leonardo Da Vinci. (Laughs) I don’t know if I can play him, though. I would love to play Cleopatra – that would be quite glamorous.
Is the plan for you to follow actresses like Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra to do more work in the west? I think people will want to sign you after Viceroy’s House?
Really? You think so? Bless you for saying that.
I think you shine brightest in Viceroy’s House.
(Smiles) Thank you. I don’t know if I would like to follow in anyone’s footsteps. That is definitely not the plan. The kind of work I do, I try to avoid to formulaic footsteps of anyone else.
Having said that, I am very proud of Deepika and Priyanka. They are talented actresses and have really put India on the map.
I think I am more of a gypsy. I don’t know where this will take me but I am enjoying the ride. I like to go where the good stories call out and want to do interesting work. I want to do more work in the west because I feel, as an actor, that is what I naturally gravitate towards.
They are more about performances and more intense. I will just follow my heart.
Finally, why should we watch Viceroy’s House?
(Laughs) You said yourself I am the best thing in the film.
Viceroy’s House is in cinemas on March 3