Why Huma Qureshi took on the 'role of a lifetime' to play a politician in 'Maharani'

The acclaimed Bollywood actress plays a housewife thrown into the male-dominated world of Indian politics in the new series

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Those familiar with Indian politician Rabri Devi will know of her audacious rise to power from an illiterate housewife to a three-term chief minister of Bihar starting in 1997.

Devi's story, about how she was pushed into the role by her husband Lalu Prasad Yadav – also a former chief minister who was forced to step down after being accused in a corruption case – is now the stuff of legends in India's often colourful political history.

But any attempt to draw parallels between Devi's success and the storyline in the new thriller Maharani would be misleading, says its lead Huma Qureshi.

The acclaimed Bollywood actress plays Rani Bharti in the SonyLiv show, now streaming in the UAE, about a housewife whose husband nominates her as the new chief minister of Bihar after he survives an assassination attempt.

"In our first communication itself, it was made clear that the show has nothing to do with anybody's life," Qureshi tells The National. "This is a completely fictional story and there is no commonality with any living person," says the actress, recently seen Zack Snyder's Netflix film Army of the Dead.

Created by Subhash Kapoor, known for the acclaimed Jolly LLB films, Maharani comes at a fraught time when an increasing number of Indian shows are facing the ire of political parties. Series such as Amazon Prime Video's Tandav and Netflix's Sacred Games have faced calls for bans from various factions who have taken offence to their content.

Qureshi is not concerned.

Huma Qureshi made her debut in the 2012 acclaimed Bollywood film 'Gangs of Wasseypur'.
Huma Qureshi made her debut in the 2012 acclaimed Bollywood film 'Gangs of Wasseypur'.

"I am an actor. My job is to act and do justice to the character I'm given. I focus on my acting and not putting my brain into what will people think," she says. "It is up to the people now if they wish to watch it or not. As far as the story and character go, it's a fiction drama and it has no similarities with any political figure or party."

Since her stunning debut in the acclaimed 2012 Bollywood film Gangs of Wasseypur, Qureshi, 34, has built an impressive resume with films such as Dedh Ishqiya (2014), Badlapur (2015) and Jolly LLB 2 (2017).

Huma Qureshi in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
Huma Qureshi in 'Gangs of Wasseypur' (2012).

She is also known for her frank takes on hot-button issues on social media, covering everything from the #MeToo movement to mental health, and clarifying rumours about her personal life.

One of the reasons she took on the role in Maharani was because it subverted the usual narrative, she says.

“The most important thing I want people to take away from the show is just how we look at women. The idea ... is that a woman can do anything when she sets her mind to it, and how often we conform women and their lives, their bodies and minds, their ambitions and we see them through the male gaze,” she says.

Rani Bharti was the "role of a lifetime", she says.

Huma Qureshi in 'Maharani'. SonyLiv
Huma Qureshi in 'Maharani'. SonyLiv

"It's not every day that you get to play such a complicated and layered character. Rani is absolutely opposite to how I am and that was the exciting part. Writers and creators should also come up with more well-rounded parts for female protagonists like Rani Bharti."

Qureshi admits, however, that getting into the skin of the character from rural Bihar – someone who hasn’t even been to Patna, the capital city, or flown in a plane – was a challenge.

"We tried on various looks that helped establish the phases in her life. I told my costume designer to send a few sarees and when I turned up wearing them, everybody in the crew was so surprised to see me in a 'dirty' saree holding a 'dirty' leather handbag, wearing rubber sandals. Suddenly Rani Bharti came alive, because many times your body language changes when you wear the costume," she explains.

I try not to repeat myself. By the time my career ends I want people to look at my filmography and say that I have done different roles

“The big challenge was about getting into that world. It is difficult when you have to portray something that you do not know. The knowledge, wisdom… reflects in the eyes and expressions. I was worried, nervous and so was everybody in the team.”

Her efforts seem to have paid off as Maharani has received almost unanimous praise, with a lot of credit given to her portrayal.

"Huma Qureshi exerts herself more than she has in recent performances [and] gives her all to possibly the most important role of her career," scroll.in writes.

The Times of India said Qureshi "takes giant strides as a performer".

"Huma Qureshi, in this fully loaded role, is spectacular. She brings Rani Bharti to life with zeal… Her accent, body language, mannerism, sitting posture, expressions… everything is to the point," read the publication's review.

Qureshi wrapped up filming right before the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a grinding halt in India. Before that, she had just finished shooting Army of the Dead, which recently became one of the most-watched films on Netflix with more than 72 million views.

Huma Qureshi and Theo Rossi in a still from 'Army of the Dead'. Netflix

The best thing about working on Snyder's film, she says, was that she was not treated any differently from other cast members, which included Dave Bautista, Omari Hardwick and Tig Notaro.

"Army of the Dead is so much about representing diversity. The environment was like we wanted to learn about each other's cultures. We wanted to know more about each other's work," she says. "They also made me cook for them, so we went hunting for Indian spices and I prepared chicken for everyone."

Qureshi, who got the role after she was seen in the Netflix series Leila, says the script determines whether or not she signs up for a role.

"I try not to repeat myself," she says. "By the time my career ends, I want people to look at my filmography and say that I have done different roles and that was one of the big reasons that convinced me to take up the [Maharani] role."

While the pandemic has been devastating, Qureshi says she's hoping for things to return to normal soon. She's also learnt to be less critical of herself.

"I was harsher on myself a few years ago but now, because of the pandemic, I'm in a different mindset. I have learnt to not compare myself with other people and I'm happy to be able to entertain people and bring a smile to their faces during such tough times," she says.

“This pandemic has shown us the worst side of people, but it has also shown the best side of human beings and how generous and kind we can be.”

Maharani is now streaming on SonyLIV