When South Indian superstar Rajinikanth is playing the champion of the poor and down-trodden in the gangster drama Kaala, what are the chances that the women in such a film are given any heft or play?
Don’t get us wrong here. There’s no escaping the fact that Rajinikanth is one of India’s most long-enduring idols and remains one of South India’s most beloved stars. His films are often critic-proof and defy bad press, with fans displaying groupie tendencies thronging the cinemas to catch their favourite hero in action.
While Bollywood actress Huma Qureshi, 31, is a star in her own right, holding your own in a Rajinikanth film can be a daunting prospect. But the actress — who made her mark with Hindi films such as the gritty crime thriller Gangs Of Wasseypur series, the risque hit Dedh Ishqiya with Madhuri Dixit, and the revenge drama Badlapur — isn’t worried.
“The world is changing and our movies are changing. Being in a Rajinikanth film is a dream come true of an actor. As an actor, more people will get to know you and your work… While being a part of a Rajinikanth vehicle was a major attraction, it was the script of that drew me to Kaala,” said Qureshi in an interview over the phone. Zareena, her character in Kaala, isn’t a “bechara abla naari” [a damsel in distress], she insists.
“I am not playing to some stereotype of a helpless woman here and that’s so refreshing. We are not playing to the galleries here… I am not playing a cardboard character with no real dimension or life. Zareena has so many different shades and nuances,” she said.
Qureshi, who wasn’t born to an acting dynasty like some of her peers, wasn’t asked to audition for Kaala. A meeting with actor-producer Dhanush in Chennai and an animated discussion about the film led to her casting in the much-anticipated drama, which opens in the UAE cinemas on June 6.
The trailers indicate that Qureshi is playing an activist of sorts. While she isn’t keen on dwelling on the details, she says that her relationship with Kaala, the titular role played by Rajinikanth, constantly evolves and goes through tumultuous phases.
“Both Kaala and Zareena’s love story has a span that lasts a certain time and their graph is very interesting. At some point in the film, Kaala and I don’t see eye to eye. There’s no antagonism, but we have different ideologies,” said Qureshi.
Kaala, directed by Pa Ranjith, is a tale chronicling the rise of a slum dweller-turned-slumlord who becomes a clout-addled patriarch with a great sway on the Dharavi residents, one of the largest slums in India.
But it wasn’t her role as Zareena that had her on edge. The prospect of speaking Tamil, which is not her native language, “petrified” her.
“It’s a big film and a big opportunity for me. And I want the people down South, especially Tamil Nadu, to feel that I have done a decent job with their language. I just want them to accept me,” said Qureshi, who claims that she doesn’t tailor her career with any particular strategy in place. Her modus operandi is painfully simple.
“I go wherever my films take me. All I am looking for is an opportunity to do some good work… I don’t want to be put in a box. I hate that,” said Qureshi, who had recently attended the Cannes Film Festival to endorse a beverage brand and was recently seen in Hollywood director Gurinder Chaddha’s partition drama The Viceroy’s House.
Cinema and artists should worry about languages or boundaries, claims Qureshi.
She has an interesting conspiracy theory in place too.
“If you start off doing an Anurag Kashyap film [like she did with GOW] and then you begin to do a commercial film, then many people think it’s not your space. But if an actor begins his or her journey with a commercial film and then does an independent film, then you applaud them for their brave choice and hail it as a great decision. It isn’t fair or right. I didn’t get any dream launch where I danced or sang… Though I don’t regret it and am happy with my choices, I have not become a sell-out by doing a massy [a film with great mass appeal] project.”
Kaala is symbolic of her attempting to conquer the commercial film space where the focus is on entertaining rather than focusing on keeping things painfully real.
Her decision to act in Kaala also led her to discover the greatness of Rajinikanth, the inimitable superhero who’s known for his on-screen antics such as flipping his sunglasses or the cigarette with admirable pizzazz.
“Sir [Rajinikanth] has this great style of dialogue delivery. He has inimitable style… I wish I had that kind of flair. I wish I had that kind of dialogue delivery. I am so jealous because he’s so unique, special and amazing,” said Qureshi, adding that he’s one of the most humble actors that she has encountered.
But it isn’t just Rajinikanth who’s keeping her in a jolly mood these days. Qureshi is quick to praise the Veere Di Wedding and Raazi team for changing the landscape of Bollywood films in 2018. Their collective box-office success has proved that women can also set the box-office cash registers ringing.
“I am so proud of those girls because this year it’s heartening to know that two female-led films have pushed the envelope. Our cinema is changing because they are giving an agency to female characters… Girls like Swara Bhaskar, Shikha Talsania, Sonam and Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Meghna Gulzar are torchbearers of a movement that says that women-led film can get a great box-office opening too. I applaud and appreciate them.”
Don’t miss it!
Kaala is now showing in the UAE.
Did you know?
Huma Qureshi loves a good TV series. So, what’s she currently obsessed with?
“Luther. Idris Elba is a fantastic actor and it’s such an amazingly cool series.”