Huma Qureshi confesses that it’s challenging to respond differently every time she speaks about a movie in a flurry of interviews. In the age where production houses connect with digital content creators, apart from tapping traditional media houses, to market films, it’s natural for Huma to say that as she notes how she was woken up at 4 AM to kickstart the promotions for her upcoming film Tarla. This reality of unceasing content creation is one of the many reasons that excited her about playing Tarla Dalal, the culinary wizard, in the upcoming Piyush Gupta directorial.
“Today, everyone is interested in influencing people,” she begins. “Everybody is an internet or a YouTube sensation. But if you look at it, she (Tarla Dalal) was the first to do it — she was the first influencer. Tarla Dalal was just a housewife who cooked. So with her skillset and ideas, she changed the game for herself and those who followed her,” she says.
“India was different,” points out Huma about the era when Tarla made head turns with her housewife-turned-entrepreneur journey. Around 1.5 million copies of her first cookbook, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, were sold in 1974. The Padma Shri-winner changed the mindset of conservative men who took pride in not entering the kitchen.
“The fact that she did what she did back in the day is commendable. Today, everybody is angry at each other. She did it with a soft brand of feminism. She kept her family together and achieved her dreams. I am very interested in such ‘OG’ stories,” says Huma.
In the past, Huma has been part of many ensembles. But in 2021’s Maharani, she was front and centre. She delivered one of her most confident performances in the political series, coming close in her all-around portrayal of former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi. Aiming to repeat the result, she explains how she became familiar with the personality of the celebrated food writer who passed away due to a heart attack in 2013.
“My mother had a few of her cookbooks and I have been reading them since childhood. I look nothing like her. She is much smaller than me. I tried to imbibe her soul. I worked on her diction and I also worked a lot on my face. In the trailer, my cheeks have become flatter, and my teeth bigger. But her eyes were smaller, and so with makeup, we shaded it in a manner in which my eyes look different,” she describes.
Bollywood has had memorable food films, be it the 1972 Rajesh Khanna classic Bawarchi that endorses the power of home-cooked food or love stories such as Ramji Londonwaley and the age-gap romantic drama Cheeni Kum in which the male protagonists cooked a variety of delicious food to win over their respective women. Then there is Lunchbox, a poignant love story of two lonely souls who find purpose through food. Huma opines that Tarla is slightly different from the conventional idea of a food movie.
“It’s a food film but not a film about food. It’s a film about Tarla’s journey; it’s about her coming-of-age story and food is just a character. The food we show in the film isn’t what we see in Master Chef. The way we have shot food in the film is similar to how a mother prepares food at home — it’s not fancy or plated with designs. It is just wholesome dabba mein khana (food packed in a lunch box),” says the actor.
When she debuted in 2012, Huma found a footing by collaborating with directors who made realistic crime dramas in rooted settings (Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur films and Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur). Her flair for black comedy blended with an understated presence in Dedh Ishqiya and Monica, O My Darling won her praise. It’s been a career of unconventional films amid those that disappeared without a trace but we have hardly seen her playing the typical masala film heroine.
“As an actor, you choose the best offered to you. Maybe these are the films I wished to see,” she says, adding that a decade-old experience has also made her more confident. “I think I have become more fearless. Earlier, I was more worried about how I was performing but over time, I have let go of these fears. I only think about what I do between the ‘action and cut’, and if I’m enjoying my performance and engaging my audience.”
Her association with South Indian films has been with superstars such as Rajinikanth (Kaala), Mammootty (White), and Ajith Kumar (Valimai). While she is keen on more opportunities in the South, Huma makes an interesting comparison between the two industries. “More women are working on Mumbai film sets than South Indian film sets — that is something that should change. We must see them more behind the camera and provide a safe environment for them. Of course, there should be pay parity,” she signs off.
Tarla streams on ZEE5 from July 7