Huma Qureshi: “I knew Viceroy’s House would be special”

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Huma Qureshi is one actress who is managing to weave her way at the top of the acting ladder. Marking her debut in British cinema, the actress will be seen playing a humble girl who is faced with enormous circumstances in Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Viceroy’s House’. BizAsiaLive.com recently caught up with the actress to talk about her role, the film, and all the things she discovered about the history of the British Raj.

Congratulations on your debut British film. How do you feel?
Thank you. I feel excited and very honoured because it’s very important for this film I think to come out. I feel very, very privileged to be a part of it.

How did you come to be a part of it?
Well Seher Latif (casting director) was casting for this film and I knew Gurinder was making this film and she sent me the script to read and said I had to read for it. I said “OK I like it so I will read for it.” So I read for it and sent Gurinder my tape, and then three weeks later I was in London, to shoot for another film. And then I went to see Gurinder’s play, I met her. Then Manish, Jazz (Deol) another actor in the film and I met up with Gurinder and we read a few scenes, and then she said “OK you’re my Aalia.” (laughs).

Just like that. I knew this was going to be a very special moment and I remember in the screening going “Aaaaahhh” (gestures a surprised face). I was really excited and I really wanted to do this film. It was so moving and it’s so emotional, and I knew this would be a special one.

Throughout the film your character Aalia goes through so many different emotions all at the same time, with so much happening to her. How did you prepare for such a role?
Well it was important to get the externals of it correct which was the dress, the language, the demeanor. It’s just a human story so I had to always put myself in her shoes and think if I was in the middle of this refugee camp and I had suffered loss or had gone through and seen all this how would I feel. You just have to feel I guess human-ly. You know, if you’re put in a situation where you have to choose whether you want to stay or go, I thought how would I feel if someone asked me to leave my home. I think to have cast anybody as Aalia of Jeet they would just respond as human beings. Our response wouldn’t be very dissimilar.

That’s definitely something that this film portrays.
And at this time you know, where this world is going through so much. Everyday you open the newspapers and you watch TV and there’s another raging debate happening about what do we do with migrants, and what’s happening with Brexit, and what Trump’s doing in America. I mean to watch all this and you think “Oh my God, haven’t we learnt anything about the world and the carnage and is it always going to be us versus them?” I think at this time in history this is a very, very important film. We should talk about something very simple, and very basic that we keep forgetting, which is humanity and love. You make these decisions but there are people. You’re drawing a line through people’s homes and lives and it’s terrible. I don’t think we’re here to make a very political film, it’s a very important part of history (what happens in the film), because it talks about dual cultures in a big easy but it talks about people in a big way.

You’ve worked with some brilliant actors and actresses in this film. What did you learn from working with them?
Well it’s amazing that we have such a diverse cast. I think what we’re trying to say through the film, reflects in the casting, because everyone’s from all over the world. I was possibly the only Indian actor, I mean there’s Hugh (Bonneville) and Gillian (Anderson) British-America. Manish (Dayal) is Indian-American. I was the only Bollywood actor in that way, but it was nice. I wish I had more scenes with some more of them like Simon Callow it Michael Gambon, I would have loved to do more scenes with them because they’re such legends from British film and theatre. But maybe another film.

Talking of legends, you had the opportunity to share many scenes with the late great Om Puri, whom you share a wonderful on screen chemistry with playing his daughter. What was your experience like working with him?
He was an incredibly empathetic man, and a very very sensitive co-star. I was very fortunate that this was one of his last films and I got a chance to know him as person. Such a simple guy, he would do the most simple things. Like I remember he would buy these little toys from the airport, and he’d give it to me saying, “This is for you, you’re like my daughter.” I mean like who does that anymore? Nobody does that anymore. People just think about fancy gifts and nobody thinks about little things and I’m a little thing person. I don’t believe in grand gestures or anything, I find them very stressful (laughs). I really appreciated the smallest things, like just the concerns, knowing if I’m ok, reaching out to another person if you’re not feeling to great. That kind of stuff and he was really amazing. I haven’t begun talking about what a great artist he was.that’s a whole other chapter. And in the film he plays a blind freedom fighter, and he doesn’t want to leave Indiana and he believes in a united India. And that person reflected I feel from who he was. He always spoke about unity and people living together, about communication. It’s a sad loss.

Having required to do research about the partition for the film, was there anything that surprised you in what you didn’t know?
Yes there is something in the film, which I don’t want to talk about (laughs), but the fact that all of this was about divide and rule, and it was also very geopolitical. Even before the date was announced it was decided a long time ago that this was going to happen, and happen in this way.

What would you like to say to the audience about going to watch the film?
I’d like to tell that that whether you’re Indian or British, it’s a film that’s been made without having taken any sides. It’s not a film that’s going to try and paint the other side in an unflattering light, it’s not about that. Like I said it’s a human story, about as much as Jeet and Aalia are victims through this, so are Edwina (Anderson) and Mountbatten (Bonneville), and how they are pawns of this larger game. And how sometimes these circumstances are just beyond us. So that’s what this film is about.

‘Viceroy’s House’ is set to hit the big screens on 3rd March (UK).

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