huma qureshi interview© Instagram

Huma Qureshi On The Inspiration Behind Writing Her Debut Novel

HELLO India Logo
Sonal Nerurkar

We’re warming up to a discussion about Huma Qureshi’s aspirations as a writer when she apologises and says she has to run—quite literally. The actress is currently on the set of her own production, and between takes of an intense action sequence. We can’t help but draw attention to the irony of her describing the kick-ass protagonist in her new book, Zeba: An Accidental Superhero, while actually kicking ass for a shot. “As they say, if this is the hustle, bring it on!” she exclaims with a laugh. “A thousand and one tasks before we call it a day—shooting an action sequence while chatting about my superhero book. This is living my best life.”

It does appear the age of Huma has arrived; a decade since her impactful debut in the gritty Gangs of Wasseypur — Part 1, the versatile actress now wears many hats, including that of an author. She openly acknowledges feeling apprehensive about this new venture. “Starting the journey of writing felt like navigating uncharted waters,” she confesses, adding, “like I was making my debut all over again.” Contrary to her move into films, which naturally followed her involvement in theatre in her hometown of New Delhi, her venture into writing began at an early stage. “I’ve always been a doodler and a writer. I’ve been journalling for 20 years, capturing my thoughts and my day. You can call it self-help, therapy or just vomiting your day out—scheduling, manifesting, planning,” she says.

The idea of a superhero tale, which eventually became Zeba, was a product of the pandemic—an outcome of one of Huma’s more fruitful journalling sessions. Initially conceived as a 10-page script, she found herself pondering the substantial budget required for a film adaptation. When the lockdown happened, she made a pivot. “I decided to do something way cooler, which is making it a book.”

An Entertaining Story That Simply Had To Be Shared

Zeba unfolds in a fantasy world, narrating the story of a daughter born to the despotic king, The Great Khan. Sentenced to die at birth, she miraculously survives. Unaware of her origin story, she is discovered by her father’s liberal brother and raised by her uncle’s family in exile. Eventually, Zeba and family return to their homeland, where discontent against the king is brewing. Zeba has a brief entanglement with a charming but narcissistic superstar, reunites with her saviour and discovers her superpower. The narrative hurtles towards an epic clash between Zeba and Khan.

At its core, the book operates as a “you are my father” narrative, reminiscent of Harry Potter or Star Wars. Readers have the option to explore further, uncovering a feminist perspective in Zeba’s badass character, discerning a cultural commentary in her choice of a burkha as a cape, or identifying a political statement in the notion of challenging a despotic regime through a group of dissenters. While recognising that readers may draw different meanings from the book, Huma confesses that she didn’t have any of these ideas in mind when she wrote it. “I just felt it was a really entertaining story that needed to be shared,” she explains. “It’s about a misfit becoming a chosen superhero to save us all. She doesn’t have to have it all together; she may need therapy like the rest of us. That’s the story I wanted to tell—whatever people choose to infer from it.”

For the narrative technique of stories within stories, she credits the books she grew up on—Arabian Nights and the Panchatantra—while the characters inhabit a little piece of her.

“Not just Zeba; I see myself in Kherun, Umar, Ayesha, even Khan.” What could an outspoken feminist like her possibly have in common with a cruel tyrant? She ponders for a moment. “His fondness for food?” she ventures.

Wit That Serves As A Commentary On The World

If we had to establish a connection for Huma, it would be with Zeba’s irreverent humour. One of the actress’s clever quips about the book describes it as “more Deadpool than Marvel.” She chuckles at the notion but is quick to highlight that, unlike Zeba, whose “rich wit equals zero friends,” people enjoy her banter. “My wit has brought me more friends than I can handle. They love the fact that I’m the entertainer when we’re hanging out. Unlike Zeba, my wit is not self-sabotaging; it’s more about fun and games, a commentary on the world. My friends appreciate that I have an interesting way of describing life. I think I have a way of looking at the mundane aspects with irony and self-deprecation, and they find it enjoyable.” The actress, with a tight-knit circle of family and friends from school, Gargi College, and the industry, asserts that her ability to accomplish so much is due to this strong support network. In her book, she expresses gratitude to individuals such as filmmaker Deepa Mehta, Twinkle Khanna, Bilal Siddiqi and others whom she regards as beacons of light on her solitary writer’s journey. The best advice, however, came from her mom. “‘Don’t overthink it, just write,’ she said to me,” the actress recalls. In school, she penned poetry appreciated by teachers for its departure from typical teen rhymes with its distinctive “street style.” Despite this, she never felt confident with words. “I’ve always found it a very intimate and vulnerable position to be in, and my mom knows that I’m a shy writer, so she’s always encouraged me,” says the actress emotionally.

Her parents, Saleem and Ameena, have always been supportive of her choices, though her mom is partial to her career as a writer. “It’s the more respectable thing, right?” Huma says, laughing. “It makes them feel like all the money they spent on my education was well worth it—stems from that rather than my genuine artistic ability or literary talent. ‘Padhaya likhaya, kahi to kaam aa raha hain’ they probably think; ‘See, my daughter wrote a book, how intelligent she must be’ is a sure thing to tell relatives,” she chuckles.

Being Born Into A Certain Family Can Only Take You So Far

The Qureshis are extending their renowned Mughlai restaurant, Saleem’s, beyond Kailash Colony. Saleem, who started by serving kebabs in a small outlet beside the butcher shop inherited from his father in 1977, embodies a true entrepreneurial spirit. This trait is evident in Huma, who has recently announced her venture into production with Elemen3 Entertainment, co-founded with her brother, actor Saqib Saleem (’83, Race 3).

The company has two or three projects in the pipeline, one of which Huma is currently shooting for. Working with her younger sibling has been a joy, providing comfort and support, but it’s also frustrating because maintaining professional boundaries with a sibling is impossible. At this time of widespread outcry against nepotism, did she have any reservations about her brother entering the industry?

“Nepotism does exist; there’s always an advantage if your family is in the business. However, that’s the case with any industry. That being said, I do think it ultimately boils down to talent and hard work. Being born into a certain family can only take you so far,” she argues. If there was any subconscious thread running through her writing of Zeba, it was probably her frustration at not getting opportunities as an actor. “I could either sit and crib about it, give interviews, and sound like a broken record, saying it’s unfair, or I could go out there and create my own opportunities,” she states.

Speaking of opportunities, the ambitious performer has much to anticipate. There’s Single Salma with Shreyas Talpade and Sunny Singh, a film she’s also producing. Additionally, there’s Maddock Film’s Pooja Meri Jaan with Mrunal Thakur and Vijay Raaz. Then there is the third season of her hit streaming series Maharanion Sony LIV, a show she has described as life changing. Set in Bihar and loosely based on Rabri Devi’s sudden elevation to chief minister, Huma’s portrayal as the homemaker-turned-political heir earned high praise. “I’m truly grateful to [director] Subhash Kapoor for giving me this opportunity. It made people take notice of my acting and see me in a different light, that I can carry an entire series on my shoulders. It was a big risk, but one that paid off,” she expresses.

The role is quite unglamorous, and at this point in Huma’s career and age, playing a mother to three children could have gone terribly wrong. However, she was praised for her fearlessness instead. She observes a shift in the industry, where women are now crafting their own narratives, and authenticity is genuinely appreciated. “We’ve had enough,” she says, pointedly. “We’re tired of people putting us in boxes, treating us like we’re ornamental, expected to look and behave a certain way, and always be pleasing. It’s really frustrating to be only acknowledged for your beauty and then found replaceable. That’s very unfair and very patriarchal. Every single time I see a female colleague starting a production company or taking on a strong role, I feel happy because it will create an ecosystem with more opportunities for everyone else.”

The Movie Business Makes For A Dull Book.. Unless..

When she isn’t contributing her talent to this ecosystem, Huma enjoys travelling or simply curling up on the couch in old, tattered T-shirts, hair up in a bun, no make-up, simply faffing around, lying in a vegetative state or catching up on her reading or shows. She recommends Kohrra for its top-class performances and credits The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron as a book that helped her find her own writing style. Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar and Open by Andre Agassi were also hot favourites. Can we anticipate another book from her soon, perhaps something autobiographical this time? “I have the most boring life ever; working in the movie business is mundane,” she says, matter-of-factly, adding with a chuckle, “If I had to write the juicy bits, I’d get killed!” However, she admits her mom has been encouraging her to write more. “I say, ‘Yes, mom, I have to figure out a time and way to do this because …” …there’s no money in publishing, a reality she alluded to in Zeba, we point out. She laughs loudly now. “Well, there isn’t! I can’t even buy a Birkin, so like what’s the point of it? I’d rather stick to acting.” Bags over books; can’t argue with that.

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s January 2024 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!