In Leila, adapted from Prayaag Akbar's 2017 novel of the same name, Huma Qureshi plays Shalini – a woman who comes from money and privilege but is now being brutally punished for her sins. Her sins include marrying a Muslim man and raising their mixed-blood daughter Leila. Shalini is not a woman of today – we are told that she exists in a dark, dystopian future. And yet, it's not hard to relate to her. Qureshi says this has been a particularly hard role for her, both emotionally and physically. We speak to her about the challenges of becoming Shalini.
In Leila, you play a mother in search of her daughter. Your husband has been killed and you're estranged from your family. Your character's life is nothing like yours. What was the hardest part about becoming Shalini?
On the surface Shalini and Huma are two very different people. Our lives could not be more diametrically opposite for sure. But at the same time there are lots of things that are similar. They both come from a place of security, a place of love, care, compassion, wealth, and I said to myself what if one day you have none of this. What if it's all taken away from you and the people who matter to you are taken away… then what would you do? So for me the hardest part was to bring myself to the emotional point where I could become this person and put myself in her shoes.
What was the toughest day on set?
Shooting for Leila was a challenge everyday, not just emotionally but also physically. One day I had to throw up in a scene and so I had to put some disgusting stuff in my mouth. Then I had to be dunked into dirty water, the day after it was getting slapped… then the garbage. So everyday there was a progression towards how much torture or humiliation I could take. And although I knew I was doing it for camera, somewhere it hurts you.
It did look like a very rough shoot. By the end of it I was feeling bad for you. Did you have to treat yourself to a spa holiday to recover from this?
I did actually. And my producers were really nice to me. I lived in a lovely hotel. Everything I wanted was taken care of so I had nothing that I was in need of. But yes it was hard, and as I went along I became more sensitive to everything around me. I think I would just get hurt more easily. I couldn't stand noise too much. For example, when I was shooting in a garbage dump I came back physically sick. The fumes you see on the show – some of it was VFX but a lot was actually there. What happens in that huge mountain of garbage is that they've drilled these holes to let the poisonous gas or methane escape and sometimes it was hitting my face. I was wearing a mask but during the shot I had to take it off. I remember two days later the whole skin on my face started peeling and I had to get anti biotic shots. My whole wind pipe started giving me trouble. I don't know how to explain it but your body holds on these memories.
I wasn't worried about how I was looking or what camera angle was happening, or do I have make up or not. I just let go.
Do you find it hard to move on from a character?
No I'm not one of those. In fact that's the first thing Deepa (Mehta) asked me when she met me. She wrote an email to me and asked me what is your process like? What are you like? Are you method? What do you read? I told her Deepa I've read a lot of stuff about the Meisner or Stanislavski technique but to be honest I'm a very instinctive actor which is why I can be very good and very bad in a given piece of work because I feel like I go by my instinct. I need to collaborate my director for that instinct to really get somewhere. With Deepa I really found that. I found that I could be vulnerable. I could make mistakes…she really gave me that space so I let go. I wasn't worried about how I was looking or what camera angle was happening, or do I have make up or not. I just let go.
Is that freeing?
Oh, it's so freeing. The first week I was very scared. Like all girls I have my own set of insecurities that I've grown up with, so it's tough. Ultimately it's your face blown up in 190 countries and its going to some billion users, so they will know every bad thing about me… every flaw, my crooked teeth, everything. But it's also liberating. It took me 10 mins to get on set and the only thing I was concerned about was how I was going to do something honestly and how do I portray Shalini as being strong and yet vulnerable.
What's terrifying about the show is that is talks about a dark, dystopian future and yet there are things in this future that don't seem implausible or very far away. What do you want people to take away from this show?
When I first read the book I felt as someone living in 2019 and working in Mumbai there are so many things I take for granted. There are so many privileges I have as an independent working girl and it's there for me – my Constitution, my country gives it to me. What if one day it's all taken away from me and it could be for some absurd reason? Now that for me is scary. You read the papers and you see that there are women in some states in the US who don't have control over their bodies or reproductive organs anymore. So its nice to have a cautionary tale because it makes us be grateful for what we have and respect it.
It was nice to see you in something that's all about you. But you have said that such scripts are hard to find and you don't want to do something you don't believe in. So how do you actively change this situation till something you like comes to you?
I think the time has gone where you have to wait for things to happen. Of course as an actor you're hired labour so I have to wait for people to give me employment but I think there are lot of things that actors should be thinking about like producing, developing or writing their own content. I feel that's the way to go. Having said that, I see a lot of people feeling compelled to do something to remain relevant. People are even paying tabloids to print their pictures because they feel they need to be seen doing something – going to restaurants, coming out of a gym. I feel it's great but that takes away from what you're really here for. What are you really doing? Maybe I'm just being silly but this doesn't work for me.
Do you see yourself creating parts for yourself?
100 per cent and I think all actors should. I've been a girl whose father is a restauranteur, mother a housewife, my siblings are in the family business and I had a dream that I wanted be an actor and I worked for it, I did theatre and I came here knowing nobody. The journey has had its high and low points and I'm grateful for what I have but I have put myself in the line of fire for these opportunities to come to me. If I was in Delhi I would be living a great life. But would I be living this life? Probably not…. I am a person who thinks reads and writes so I want to take that and do something with it.