Huma Qureshi arrives for our photo shoot at a London hotel with a bustling entourage. One holds a hairbrush, another a food menu and a third hovers with a lipstick, half-extended and ready for action.
The Indian actress, who lives in Mumbai, is looking immaculate in a full-skirted dress and red suede heels. She wastes no time in folding into poses, working angles for the photographer like a seasoned professional. It’s the premiere of her latest film, Viceroy’s House, and she’s excited, but also concerned about the British weather and freezing in her dress; another designer number that she has brought with her.
However, any preconceptions that Qureshi’s most accomplished role is as a Bollywood prima donna disappear when we sit down.
The 30-year-old is witty, talks enigmatically at an enthusiastic lightning pace, and without any airs. Since a lucky break in 2012’s two-part Indian crime film Gangs of Wasseypur, and the raft of award nominations that followed, she has rarely stepped out of the limelight.
Thankfully, though, she also enjoys sending herself up and relays a story about meeting Gillian Anderson, the actress who played Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Louis, the last Viceroy of India, when she lost all composure.
“She will always be Agent Scully in my head. So the first question I asked was, ‘Is your hair actually red?’” She peels into laughter. “She was like, ‘No, darling’.”
If it was a maladroit meeting, you can put it down to the fact she is still acclimatising to international stars. Viceroy’s House, which chronicles the final months of British rule in 1947, India’s independence and its partition from Pakistan, is her first international English-speaking film. Hugh Bonneville plays Mountbatten, the man charged with handing India back to Indians, and Qureshi is his Muslim interpreter. Her character, Aalia, is also one half of a Romeo and Juliet subplot that looks at the human impact of partition. Aalia, a Muslim, falls for a Hindu boy, Jeet, who works at the Viceroy’s House, but they are ripped apart by a country in turmoil as new borders are drawn. Aalia must decide whether to rejoin her family in Pakistan or remain with the man she loves.
With Bonneville centre stage and the narrative unfolding through the Mountbattens’ eyes, as well as their servants, there have been suggestions the story is too trivialised by its upstairs/downstairs preoccupation. It’s not something that Qureshi buys into. “I am a huge Downton Abbey fan. I was glued to every episode, but I don’t see the similarities.”
So meeting its leading man Hugh must have been a dream come true? “Yes, it was,” she says. “We’d talk about politics at dinner. He was very keen to know about what is going on in India in terms of the political atmosphere now and how relevant the film is. Both he and his wife were interested in what’s going on.”
Qureshi enlisted the help of her character’s real-life counterpart, Jaya Thadani, an interpreter to Lord Mountbatten, who was close to Gandhi and regaled her with stories about how he smelt displeasingly of coconuts — apparently due to his love of a coconut oil massage. More seriously, though, Qureshi is keen to emphasise the continued relevance of the story of Partition. “It happened 70 years ago, but we haven’t really learnt anything. Every few years we keep making the same mistakes again and not learning from history,” she says. “It’s important to tell this story to show there is no point to dividing people or criminalising a particular community. It is just going to create more bloodshed and violence. There are so many Right-wing governments coming up all over the world which are dividing people with hate politics and an ‘us versus them’ mentality. It is really scary.”
It may not be a surprise that she is flexing political muscle. Qureshi’s first visit to Britain was with the British Council for Beyond Borders in an initiative called Connecting Futures as a teenager. It organised young people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to become involved in UK-based community projects and workshops. “From a very young age, being a Muslim living in India, a majority Hindi country, you just couldn’t afford not to be aware of the world around you. I’m grateful for the education I had.”
That began with Backstreet Boys, which she listened to as a girl. She grew up in New Delhi with four brothers — three older, one younger — in a strictly Muslim household. Her father owns a restaurant, where three of her brothers work, and was vehemently opposed to her acting career. “My dad was very hard-working and thought I’d do something academic. As a girl, there are so many things that you are not allowed to do but that are OK for your brothers to. I was always the rebellious one saying, ‘Why can’t I do this? I must do that.’ I was always pushing them.”
She studied history at Delhi University, where she dabbled in theatre and found her calling. By her early twenties she’d moved to Mumbai to pursue the dream. As well as battling family resistance, she has adeptly elbowed her way into an industry that runs off nepotism. And unlike some of her Bollywood contemporaries, who churn out multiple films every year, Qureshi is ultra-picky with scripts. “Everything doesn’t have to change the world but it should have something to say,” she says.
If Qureshi seems a headstrong, confident and whip-smart, she is not immune to the relentless pressure on appearance that comes with being a Bollywood star. “It’s so easy to become a commodity, like you are not a person. You’re supposed to subscribe to an acceptable standard of beauty but God knows what that standard is. It sure as hell doesn’t exist. I find the people who are most successful are not perfect, and that is what makes them interesting. I’d rather be interesting than perfect.” She is certainly that.
Don’t miss it
Viceroy’s House releases in the UAE on March 9.