Indian actress Huma Qureshi claims her new political web series ‘Maharani’ — in which she plays woman who reluctantly becomes the leader of an Indian state after when her chief minister husband gets shot — isn’t based on real-life figure and former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi.
Political folklore has it that Devi was installed by her husband, Laloo Prasad Yadav, as his successor after he became embroiled in the notorious ‘fodder scam’, so that he could allegedly retain power through her as a figure head.
“‘Maharani’ is not based on anybody living or dead. It’s a completely fictional character set in a fictional period in Bihar. Of course, I can understand why a lot of people may find some commonalities since both of us are chief ministers from a particular state. But it’s really not based on anyone,” said Qureshi over a Zoom call with Gulf News.
In the trailer of ‘Maharani’, premiering on May 28 on streaming platform SonyLiv in the UAE, Qureshi may remind you strongly of Rabri Devi, the sari-clad political leader who famously got transplanted from the kitchen to the corridors of power, but the actress brushes it off as a mere coincidence.
“It’s a coming of age story about Rani Bharti, a woman who lives in her village, never stepped out of it or sat in a plane or gone to Patna … She takes care of her cows and is involved in her household, that’s her world. But suddenly she’s thrown into the whole new political climate and she has to navigate her way through. Does she sink or swim is the real big question,” said Qureshi.
It’s also a series that attempts to smash patriarchy, says the actress. Incidentally, Qureshi says that she’s apolitical in her personal life and believes that art can be political, but artists needn’t be political [‘I have no understanding of politics’].
“The interesting thing about her is that she’s not stupid. She’s smart and a little cheeky — she says what’s on her mind and that’s a bit like who I am … She has enough agency within her to declare that she’s uncomfortable in a room filled with male politicians. It’s been a privilege to play a character like her,” said Qureshi. Playing this role has given her the wisdom to not writing off individuals based on their appearances or their upbringing. Hailing from a rural set-up doesn’t make you a quintessential dim country bumpkin.
“We always look at people who are not educated with a certain lens and feel they are dumber because they can’t speak English. But playing Rani Bharti made me understand that there’s a lot of native wisdom in those who come from that background. For example our grandmothers may not have gone out into the world, but they run households and have such amazing organisational skills. They are almost like the largest workforce of unpaid labour in our country and we never acknowledge that … Rani Bharti is in such a situation before she’s thrust into politics,” said Qureshi.
The actress claims she built her latest character like how she would attempt the game of building blocks. The blocks were pieced together with time, patience and empathy.
“I had to break it down to understand who she is, the way she dresses, and the choices she makes. For example, I didn’t know that married women in Bihar wore five things that signify their married status such as sindoor [vermilion], mangalsutra [black-bead chain bestowed by the husband on their wedding day] or Natt [nose ring] … I learnt that she’s a devout wife who thinks her husband is the most important person in her life … I am a city-bred girl so getting into her mind-space was fun,” said Qureshi.
The year has also proved to be a colourful one for Qureshi. For the first time in her career, the self-made actress made her Hollywood splash with acclaimed director Zack Snyder’s zombie film ‘Army of the Dead’.
“It’s been quite a journey and quite an experience working with Zack Snyder. He’s one of the most successful directors in the world. He’s on every bucket list of any actor, but it was pleasure to know him as a person.
“I walked on his set as his fan-girl, but I came back as his friend. It was a wonderful and personal experience working with Zach and his cast. They were super phenomenal. I am loving the reactions of Indian who are so excited to see me,” said Qureshi, who plays Gita in the zombie apocalypse thriller.
“Streaming platforms have proved that actors are no longer confided to a particular place or territory. Now we are a part of territory-agnostic shows and films. They are changing the landscape completely today. I could be watching ‘Narcos’ or ‘Money Heist’ — shows not in my mother tongue — and eager awaiting their new season,” she said. “As actors, we have this ability to work for an indie [independent] project in India or work on a show for SonyLiv or head to the West for a Hollywood film. The world is now our oyster.”
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‘Maharani’ will stream on SonyLiv on May 28.
“‘Maharani’ doesn’t want to be a controversial show. There’s no explicit scene, there is no gaali galoch [unsavoury language] … There’s nothing in this show that can tie anybody in a twist. We are not trying to make any statement or a point here. This show is a woman’s journey against patriarchy and it’s her journey among men and she’s learning to walk among these giants and chart her own path. I don’t think anybody should have a problem with that … At least, last when I checked,” Qureshi said when asked if her web series is likely to run into any controversy or offend a section of viewers.
In the recent past, series such as ‘Tandav’, ‘Sacred Games’ and more recently ‘The Family Man Season 2’ have run into trouble with calls for its ban as it was deemed offensive to certain communities.