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Huma Qureshi and Deepa Mehta on their dystopian show Leila, set to stream on Netflix from June 14

Huma and Deepa on the relevance of a show set in the distant future to the present and what worked for their collaboration

  • Published 13.06.19, 2:51 PM
  • Updated 13.06.19, 2:51 PM
  • 9 mins read
Leila, a six-part series that streams on Netflix from June 14, has the two collaborating, with Huma (in picture) playing the central character of Shalini and Deepa — the maker of films like Fire, Earth and Water — part-directing as well as creative producing the show (Still from the series 'Leila')

Actor Huma Qureshi and filmmaker Deepa Mehta — both sporting white T-shirts with the words ‘The future is female’ printed on them —were ensconced in a sea-facing room on the 23rd floor of Taj Lands End in Bandra in Mumbai when t2 dropped in to meet them last weekend. Leila, a six-part series that streams on Netflix from June 14, has the two collaborating, with Huma playing the central character of Shalini and Deepa — the maker of films like Fire, Earth and Water — part-directing as well as creative producing the show.

Based on Prayaag Akbar’s eponymous 2017 novel, Leila focuses on a dystopian future where citizens of a fictional dictatorship called Aryavarth are segregated in gated communities on the basis of caste, religion and income, water is considered to be currency and children of mixed parentage are dismissed as ‘impure’. The series, also starring Rahul Khanna and Rang De Basanti actor Siddharth, has Huma’s Shalini embarking on a perilous journey to trace her missing daughter Leila.

Having watched the first three episodes of Leila, t2 chatted with Huma and Deepa on the relevance of a show set in the distant future to the present and what worked for their collaboration.

Leila is set in a dystopian world, but the events of the future as shown in the series mirror what’s pretty much happening in the present in the country. Did that strike you when you read the book and when you filmed the show?

Huma Qureshi: I first met Deepa… I actually had no idea what the book was about. I knew that Netflix had commissioned this show based on the book and that Deepa was directing it. Right after I met her, I was excited to read the book and I did so immediately. As soon as I read the bible (a reference document used by screenwriters for information on a television series’ characters, settings and other elements) by Urmi Juvekar (the show’s writer and creator), I felt exactly what you just said. It’s an imagined future, it’s dystopia, but it still feels relevant; it feels like things we need to discuss. It ticked all the boxes in my head as an artiste… I just felt I needed to be a part of this.

Deepa Mehta: I had read the book before I knew about the bible. There’s a sparsity in Prayaag’s prose which is very interesting and makes it very accessible. Like you said, there’s something about it that seems very familiar and yet it’s not. It feels like a cautionary tale. Like when we read Hansel and Gretel as kids, we all knew that they shouldn’t go into that house, but it was inevitable that they would end up going there. I felt that way when I read Leila. And then Netflix offered me the project, they first asked me to do the pilot and the second episode and then they asked me to direct all six episodes....

Huma: (Looks at Deepa and frowns) And now you tell me this?! (Laughs)

Deepa: I really didn’t have the time. In retrospect, I wish I had made the time because ‘Funny Boy’ (the film Deepa was supposed to direct) didn’t happen. But even though I didn’t direct all the episodes, I was involved as creative producer and very committed to the project.

When I read Urmi’s bible, I realised how much you can build on a slim book. Leila has been reimagined for a television series. It’s not a feature film, it’s six one-hour episodes and it was tough to imagine how every episode would play out to end on a high point. We had to pay special attention to the progress of the story and think of what kind of a narrative arc we wanted for Shalini. I found that whole journey very fascinating. I loved the fact that both the book and the script weren’t over-written. Being the show’s creative producer, I had the liberty — along with Netflix, of course — to choose the cast.

Huma: And now you are stuck with me! (Laughs)

Deepa: Yes, I am stuck with her now. Kahaan phas gaye!

Deepa, what made you choose Huma for the kind of role that we haven’t really seen her play before?

Deepa: I had seen two very different films of Huma’s — one was Jolly LLB 2 in which she was very funny and the other was Gangs of Wasseypur in which I thought her part had a lot of edge and attitude. I felt that this kid can do something as irreverent as LLB and then be a part of something as serious as Wasseypur and bring something to it which was so unique. I had never seen a performance by an Indian actor the way I had seen this kid do it in Wasseypur….

But honestly, I didn’t know if she could pull off this show. We had a great chat… we spoke about movies and food and friends. And for me, that’s an audition. I knew that she’s a skilled actor, but for me, directing is all about communicating with my actors. She then did an audition, which I absolutely hated! (Both Huma and Deepa laugh). But because we were so good at communicating, I could tell her what I wanted and she got it immediately. And then she gave another audition that blew me away. And the rest is history, or Leila, as they say!

Huma at the premiere of Leila in Mumbai last Friday
Huma at the premiere of Leila in Mumbai last Friday (Wikimedia Commons)

Did she surprise you on set?

Deepa: Of course!

Huma: Okay, I think I will step out. This will be embarrassing!

Deepa: Why? Just be quiet and listen to what I have to say.

Huma: Okay, I will put my head down!

Deepa: Unless actors can bring in a magical moment that’s inherently theirs, then it becomes very flat for a director. The worst thing for a director is if an actor says in the middle of a scene, ‘Why am I doing this? What’s my motivation?’ When that happens, that will be the day I retire. Huma is an instinctive actor and if she reacts to an environment or a feeling organically, it’s fantastic. As a director, I may or may not agree with it, but we can always have a conversation about it, and if that happens between an actor and a director, then that’s half the battle won.

It’s very rare to have a talented actor who’s also intelligent, and Huma’s that. That makes my job 100 per cent easier because it gives me room to focus on what’s instinctive as opposed to what’s planned. Planning is fine, but without instinct it’s boring. Huma is in every frame of Leila and if she wasn’t bright, I would have had a tough time.

Huma, from the emotional stress to the physical demands, this has probably been your most challenging role. Moreover, the camera is almost always on your face in this show, and you had to go largely make-up less to play Shalini. Were there any dark days playing her?

Huma: It was definitely tough and you can’t really prepare to play a character like this. I went in with an open mind and we always kept the communication going. There were 100 people on set and Deepa would either come up and praise me or say that a certain shot was terrible, but I wouldn’t ever take it personally. And similarly, I could tell her when I felt something wasn’t going right. It was very collaborative.

Deepa: It’s all about trust.

Huma: Yes it is. Playing Shalini has invested a new kind of strength in me. When you play a character, it leaves a certain residue in you and because I went through so much as Shalini — humiliation, fear, being subjugated and yet trying to keep it together even when she’s vulnerable — I feel that I am a different person today. I am far more confident as an actor today.

I really didn’t have dark days, in that sense. I am not the kind of actor who says, ‘Oh, I did this very disturbing scene today and so I won’t be able to sleep at night’. During Leila, there were a couple of scenes where I couldn’t hold back my tears and I needed time to compose myself. But there was nothing that happened on set that disturbed me so much that I suddenly couldn’t communicate with my family. I don’t like people who say that. I find that a bit too indulgent, and I don’t allow myself that kind of indulgence. I just remain true to the moment and I treat acting like any other job.

Deepa: When an actor says that they can’t shake off a character, I call it ‘bad performance!’ Don’t take your work home. When you are on set, focus and when I say ‘Cut’ then relax. That’s what I tell my actors.

Huma: But yes, I was a little thrown off one day because there is a little girl on the show that my character bonds with and we suddenly get separated. Even in the middle of a busy street and with the camera on me, I felt completely lost. I sat down on the pavement with a flag in my hand and it was the loneliest I had felt in my life. I was like that for

15 minutes and it was strange for me because I had rarely experienced that kind of feeling before. I completely submitted to being Shalini and I enjoyed playing her, but it hasn’t affected me psychologically and I am not scarred by it.

Deepa: What really helped keeping things normal, so to speak, was that in the series we keep doing all those flashbacks when Shalini had a really happy life. We touched upon all that is bright and irreverent and I loved that scene where Shalini, when she’s getting married, says ‘Qubool hai’ and then she winks. You get to know Shalini’s character through that.

Huma: I remembered I walked out of the van that day in this sharara with full jewellery and make-up and everyone wanted a picture with me. And I was like, ‘You losers, I have been here sitting every day and just because I have been dressed in rags, you guys never wanted a picture with me?!’

Deepa: She looked so pretty… I was really shocked! (Winks at Huma and they both laugh)

Huma: It lasted for exactly 15 minutes and then I was back in my rags! But yes, those happy scenes bring out the starkness in Leila — the feeling of what you have and what happens when it gets taken away from you one day. Also, there were some scenes that I didn’t believe in as a person, but I had to do them because Shalini believes in them. I have such strong opinions against untouchability and segregation and I had to do all of that on the show even though I knew it was wrong. But we all know people who do that and because Leila is a cautionary tale, we have to call out all those who are complicit in this, maybe even without knowing it. When Shalini eventually becomes this person who nobody wants to touch, then all that she’s done to other people comes back to her.

Deepa: Shalini was someone who berated her maid for not having a bath and then touching her daughter, and then she arrives at a scenario where she herself has to have a bath in putrid water that almost the whole town has been using. We should all be very aware about how we behave in life….

Huma: And how we treat people. It’s very important. We all think we are nice people but in our daily lives, we often talk badly to people who serve us.

"There’s something about Leila that seems very familiar and yet it’s not. It feels like a cautionary tale. Like when we read Hansel and Gretel as kids, we all knew that they shouldn’t go into that house, but it was inevitable that they would end up going there. I felt that way when I read Leila"- Deepa Mehta (Wikimedia Commons)

The trailer was slammed by certain sections and labelled ‘anti-Hindu’. Are you apprehensive of any backlash when it streams on June 14?

Deepa: I can only think of Sanjay Leela Bhansali who was harassed because people felt Padmaavat was anti-Hindu. And then it released and became the biggest hit of last year because everyone loved it. So, kya pata? Some people may love Leila, some may hate it.

With Fire meeting with protests and Water being banned in India, Deepa you are not new to something like this…

Deepa: Yes, I know it all. It’s like telling someone, ‘You’ve broken your leg, so you know what it feels like!’ (Laughs)

Huma: People must be telling you, ‘Aapko toh pata hai. Aap toh puraney khiladi ho!’ (Laughs)

Deepa: India is a country I was born and brought up in. I left it and now I am a proud Indo-Canadian, but what India has given me is a sense of humour and the strength to deal with ‘Aapko toh pata hai’ instances. India makes you resilient. It’s about survival here. Theek hai, it’s water off a duck’s back. Chalta hai….

Is Leila the start of more projects from the two of you together?

Deepa: Huma just hired me this morning! I am going to be her manager! (Both laugh)

Huma: No, I have sacked you already. I can’t afford you.

Deepa: She says I will be terrible at managing her because I will pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m sorry she’s not available’ and then bang the phone down.

Huma: Or she will say, ‘Excuse me… who are you?!’ And then I will get no work. But I want to force Deepa to sign a contract where she’s only allowed to work with me. But as a manager, no.

Deepa: I will give you a discount!

Huma: Not at all! I will give you money not to be my manager!

We don’t think Huma has the time though, considering she’s everywhere now — Cannes red carpet to Hollywood….

Deepa: I know! We are losing her to Hollywood. But the good thing is that we are losing her to Zack Snyder (who’s directed films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), which is the way to go. Because if you have to go, then koi ainvayi shainvayi nahin hona chahiye!

Huma: As soon as I finish this, I head to that project (Army of the Dead, co-starring Dave Bautista). I think it’s God’s way of making amends for all the keechad and mitti I’ve had to put up with during Leila. So now God is saying, ‘Let’s reward her, let’s take her to America! She deserves it!’ It’s weird karma! (Laughs)

Huma, has this transition happened organically or as part of a larger plan?

Huma: No ya, no plan. I wish I was so smart. I think you just have to keep at it and turn up every day and do your work. Work on yourself and work with good people who inspire you. Deepa’s inspired me so much. In the middle, I started writing a little and I would discuss some ideas with her and she would encourage me so much. When a director like that decides to mentor you, even if it is to humour you, then your confidence in yourself increases and it manifests in many ways. Maybe that’s what propelled me to do some readings and that’s how I landed this Holly project. I think the key is to surround yourself with good people.

Deepa: Like me!

Huma: Yes, good people who don’t aspire to be your manager! (Laughs)