Huma Qureshi steps into the life and times of iconic Indian cookery show host and cookbook author Tarla Dalal. Dalal, who died in 2013 at 77 years, put vegetarian dishes on the global map. Image Credit: Supplied/Instagram

If we need assurance that Bollywood star Huma Qureshi is a compelling talent, then the proof is in the pudding, declares the actress.

She plays the iconic late chef Tarla Dalal, the diminutive sari-clad culinary wizard who cooked up a storm globally with her thousands of vegetarian recipes, in her upcoming film ‘Tarla’, out on Zee5 global on July 7.

“If anyone has doubts about what a good actor I am, then watch this film. Every time I say: ‘bhindi [Okra] is yum and chicken is yuck, my insides were revolting because I’m such a carnivore in real life,” said Qureshi with a laugh. Her family runs the chain of restaurants called Saleem’s, which prides itself on its delectable meat-based specialities.

“With my father’s legacy, I am supposed to act in this film where I find chicken disgusting and bhindi, torai [ridge gourd], and batata [potato] mussalam, delicious … But in all seriousness, Tarla Dalal made vegetarian cooking cool,” she added.

The last sentence was particularly true. The late celebrated chef and cookbook author, who died in 2017 at 77 years, became a household name when her first book ‘The Pleasures Of Vegetarian Cooking’ hit the shelves in the 1970s. She topped off her writing with over 170 cookbooks and hit culinary shows on television.

“Tarla Dalal was the first one to get Indians acquainted to Chinese and Italian delicacies through her recipes. She helped every Indian homemaker become experimental in the kitchen and she introduced the global style of cooking techniques and dishes to the Indian palate … She broke all stereotypes,” said Qureshi. Excerpts from our interview with Qureshi on her new film exploring Dalal’s culinary journey and life and why the subject of her biopic was ahead of her times in more ways than one.

It was fascinating to realise that the late celebrated chef Tarla Dalal was a staunch vegetarian and was an unlikely poster girl for a celebrity chef …

Long before the world was introduced to MasterChef television series and Gordon Ramsays of the world, here’s a woman who looked like any other unassuming Gujarati/Marathi lady in our neighbourhood. She spoke just like a friendly auntie in our locality. Dalal was short and wasn’t glamorous like the divas of our times. But she created a storm in her eight by ten square foot kitchen and inspired so many people. She was one of the first Indian woman to have a cookbook at a point where it was unheard of. No one had paid money for a cookbook, until she arrived.

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Huma Qureshi plays the iconic female cooking show host and culinary wizard Tarla Dalal in her new film 'Tarla'

So have you gravitated towards cooking after acting in ‘Tarla’?

I love to eat and I love people around me who love to feed me. I want to let that equation stay that way. Honestly, I want to give others an opportunity to woo me with their culinary skills … On a serious note, movies about food hold a special place in my heart. Dalal could be India’s answer to Julia Child [late American TV cooking pioneer] because their paths are so similar. And I have always believed that food and breaking bread in someone’s house is an intimate act. Inviting someone over to your house to share a meal with them is a beautiful feeling. Food is also the biggest leveller. So when I come to your part of the world, you can feed me and I will be your fan forever.

Done, I am great at takeaways and ordering food. Coming back to cooking, can you boil an egg?

I can boil an egg and poach one too. I can also make an omelette along with some dal with tadka [lentil curry with tempering of mustard]. So that’s some fancy skills right? But I have never attempted to make a biryani or chai, since making a biryani is tough and making a chai is too easy.

What kind of leg work did you do to play the role of Tarla Dalal in her biopic? Did you meet her family?

I saw Tarla-ji’s old interviews and all her cookery show. I also worked with Hetal who helped me with my accent in the film because Tarlaji had an interesting blend of Gujarati/Marathi, Tarla-esque accent.

It’s specific to her and we made our own glossary of terms that she used. Our attempt was to capture her spirit. I met her family and her adorable kids. In fact, her daughter runs this amazing cheese place and every other day, she used to send me a cheese platter on sets. While I loved it, I had to lose weight so I couldn’t indulge a lot. I was just done with Double XL [a comedy where she played a plus-size woman], but this film required me to play a younger Tarla in her twenties too … I felt a lot of gratitude to the whole family and the makers for allowing me to play Tarla because she has a huge legacy. I hope I’ve done justice to it.

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Huma Qureshi spent time with Tarla Dalal's family and children to understand her role better Image Credit: Instagram

Tarla Dalal famously led a scandal-free existence. So do you fear that a biopic on a conflict-free subject might not be exciting enough?

I’m not going to give the farm away here. To know if she’s truly without her set of conflicts, you need to watch the film. But it’s no secret that Tarlaji came largely from an era which wasn’t a clickbait world. Nowadays, everything has to be sensationalised or controversy-ridden. We live in an age of consumerism and it’s all about selling yourself well. It’s about marketing rather than having a proper skill set. But here was Tarlaji, a woman who cooked all her life and touched people through a craft she really enjoyed doing. She had a gift for cooking and she shared it with the world. She was all about building a skill set over the years and perfecting the art of cooking, and then sharing that art with the world. Today, you see someone as young as 17 on social media having blogs about having great skin. At 17, what do they know about great skin. At 40, talking about skincare might make more sense.

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The late Indian chef, cookbook author and host Tarla Dalal

So yes, while Tarla ji didn’t have a controversial life, she added great value to the world. She changed a lot of things for many women during her time. She was the first female chef to have her own cookery show, cook books, and have a male sous chef to assist her on her cooking show on television. These were all radical things. Tarla Dalal was the OG (Original) feminist and trailblazer in that sense. Her challenges may have been different, but she’s an icon. She may not have sway her way out of a tsunami, but her battles were huge and her problems were difficult to surmount.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Tarla’ is out on Zee5 Global on July 7.