It was one phone call that landed Aaliyah Qureishi a dream Bollywood role that could drastically change the course of her career.
“I phoned a casting agent from Mukesh Chabbra Casting and asked if there were any projects I could test for, and he told me there was a role in a Red Chillies Entertainment film I could audition for,” she tells The National.
“I prepared the scene and went in, and it ended up being a really powerful scene. A week later, I got a call saying that the director wants to meet me.”
The director, it turned out, was South Indian filmmaker Atlee, best known for his record-breaking Tamil blockbusters Mersal (2017) and Bigil (2019). Atlee was working on his first Bollywood project, Jawan, an ambitious film that will bring together two Indian superstars – Bollywood's Shah Rukh Khan and Nayanthara, one of the biggest South Indian stars, popularly referred to as the “lady superstar” of Indian cinema.
“Atlee asked me a few questions, like whether or not I had any fighting training and if I was willing to change my hair drastically. I used to box for a year and I had just dyed my hair back from blue, so I was more than willing,” Qureishi recalls.
“Then he said he’d be in touch. A few days later, I got a call from the casting office saying I had been locked in.”
Qureishi, who released a six-track EP called Why Should I? in April 2022, describes the call as “unbelievably exciting”. But nothing prepared her for the moment she met Khan on set.
“It's every actor’s dream,” she says. “The first time we met was about a week into shooting. He hugged me and when we said we were excited to work with him, he said, 'Not more excited than I am.'
“I feel so lucky to have got the opportunity to work with him so closely because not only was it like a masterclass in acting, but also I got to experience his kindness, humility, wit and discipline as a human being, and I think that’s something I aspire to cultivate in myself throughout my career.”
Jawan, produced by Khan's wife, Gauri Khan, under their production company Red Chillies Entertainment, is one of the year's most highly-anticipated films.
Besides its stellar cast, it includes cameos by Khan's Pathaan co-star Deepika Padukone, South Indian superstar Vijay and Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt. South Indian star Vijay Sethupathi and Bollywood actors Sanya Malhotra and Sunil Grover also star.
The record-breaking Pathaan, which was released in January to wide acclaim, is now the second-highest-grossing Hindi film of all time.
Qureishi, who is the niece of celebrity trainer Yasmin Karachiwala, says she can't reveal much about her role except that she's part of Khan's character's “core squad”.
“We're all strong female fighters,” she says.
For the role Qureishi had to train in hand-to-hand combat, gun fighting and parkour. She also took part in choreographed fight sequence training.
“We got to work with some very talented stunt teams from around the world and got expert training. I really loved working on stunts because it was a crazy adrenalin rush and I got to overcome a lot of fears on this set. But when you see Shah Rukh Khan doing the stunts and the fights like he does, it really inspired me to push myself too.”
Qureishi, who studied psychology and music in the US, appeared in a number of commercials in India before landing her first acting role in the 2022 Netflix series Eternally Confused and Eager for Love.
On Tuesday, she released her new song Don’t Come Back, a dance-pop track about the healing process after a bad break-up that she wrote and produced. She's also just wrapped up shooting for “a really long-awaited series” that's set to premiere on a streaming platform before the end of the year.
Having tasted what it's like to work on a big Bollywood production, there's no turning back, she says.
“Getting to work on such a huge set, where the whole set up is larger than life was a really fun and intense experience. I got to do things so out of my comfort zone. As visually grand as it will look to the audience in theatres, it was 10 times as intense to actually be there and see the effort of creating a perfect shot from behind the scenes,” she says.
“Now that I’ve experienced the thrill of being on such a big and exciting set, I think there’s no going back for me. It’s where I feel my happiest, other than when I’m playing music. So I want to do everything from Bollywood to streaming, to music videos. I just love to act, in whatever form that comes in.”
In Jawan, fans can look forward to “Atlee's visionary flair with all of Shah Rukh Khan's charisma and style,” she says.
“You can look forward to a really fun and exciting film, which also has a really good message at its heart. You can also look forward to seeing us girls beat up some very big guys.”