'Leila is not about any religion. It is about a totalitarian regime obsessing over purity': Huma Qureshi
Set in a dystopian world that is obsessing over ‘purity’ while struggling for clean air and water, Netflix latest series Leila is a dark and grim cautionary tale. Based on Prayaag Akbar’s eponymous novel, the show, helmed by Deepa Mehta, features Huma Qureshi in the lead role of Shalini who is desperately searching for her daughter, Leila, whom she lost upon her arrest many years ago. We spoke to Huma Qureshi about her character and the relevance of Leila, as she prepares for her second Netflix show, Army of the Dead. Excerpts:
Q: First of all, congratulations! Deepa Mehta called you a risk-taker and put you in the league of the Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett. Tell us about the relationship that you two share.
Huma Qureshi: Well, Deepa is very sweet and kind to say such things. I think she was jet-lagged when she made that comment (laughs)... So, I don’t want to think too much but I have a lot of love, respect, and admiration for her. I think for my performance in Leila, the entire credit goes to her. She pushed me in the workshops as well as during the filming in a way that I had to really go in and internalise that character. So, she is who created that partnership and I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it.
Q: What was your first reaction to Leila?
HQ: I was given a document that basically talked about the series, the look, and feel of the characters and the world, and I found it very fascinating. I thought, even if they do 50 per cent of this, we will be home! I don’t think Indian digital television has really seen anything like this in terms of storytelling and production value. I wanted to be a part of this show because, according to me, this will be one of the shows that people will think and talk about for many years to come.
Q: And, how relevant is Leila now?
HQ: What Leila talks about are very real and pressing concerns and issues. It talks about the problems of urban development and planning, water scarcity and global warming. Although it is set 40 years ahead in time, the way it is represented is very immediate. I always see Leila as a cautionary tale that we should look at and think if there is something that I can do today to avoid a future as weak and as morose as shown here.
Q: Leila also seems to be making a very strong stance against religion imposition and climate change.
HQ: What do you mean by religion imposition? You are getting it wrong here. What Leila talks about is purity and segregation. Purity is something that has always seen as something nice and something that should be encouraged. But, what if you take the idea like purity and stretch it to a point where it becomes something ugly and brutal. Leila is actually about people’s obsession with purity and time ahead in the future where water will be scarce, global warming will reach to a level where it would lead to urban development issues and developing a certain part would mean no development or marginalisation of certain parts. It is also a dystopia at the level of technology. We are so connected to our smartphones but in the world of Leila, everybody having access to smart devices and Wi-Fi and suddenly you need a permit or a pass to even make a phone call. Essentially it is about having whatever resources you have at your disposal — natural or man-made — and to keep them in the hands of a selected few. That is the dystopia level that Leila talks about.
Q: Did the character take a toll on you emotionally?
HQ: There were days I would come back and feel very tired. I was living in Delhi during the shoot but I preferred to live in a hotel and not at home with my parents because I wanted that distance and I didn’t want to trouble them with my emotional state of mind. Having said that, I am not one of those actors who would like to obsess about the method or bring work home. I get into the zone and do my scene, but the moment I take my makeup off and change my outfit, I become myself again.
Q: The series is being labelled as ‘Hinduphobic’...
HQ: Oh dear! That’s not our objective. The show is very clearly talking about a future where exists a totalitarian regime that is obsessed with purity and the wealthy and rich controlling all resources, present in any society at any point of time.
Q: How important is it for an actor to be politically and socially vocal?
HQ: It is not important at all. An actor is an actor, not an activist.