How Huma Qureshi brought Tarla Dalal to life

Dalal's daughter said Qureshi nailed her part


When Huma Qureshi was asked if she would like to helm a biopic on India’s culinary legend and Padma Shri awardee Tarla Dalal, ahead of the latter’s tenth death anniversary, she was thrilled and nostalgic. The one person who came to her mind was Meryl Streep (she created an uncanny version of Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and with a spot-on accent). Both the film and Streep have been Qureshi’s “forever favourites”.

So, while there was no question of declining the opportunity, Qureshi knew she would have to work hard to convincingly look the part; to come close to looking like the legendary chef whom an entire generation grew up watching. But the odds were stacked against her—Qureshi is a hardcore non-vegetarian as against Dalal who was the exact opposite. Neither was non-vegetarian fare ever cooked in the Dalal household nor was anything ordered from outside. In fact, Dalal converted her non-vegetarian husband [Nalin Dalal] into a vegetarian after she saw him having meat with his colleague. Next was the issue of height; while Qureshi stands tall at five feet five inches, Dalal was petite at five feet two inches. The latter’s dainty personality remains as much in public memory as her recipes—so it was important to get that right. Also, Qureshi, with her longish face and a sharp bone structure, looked nothing like Dalal, whose wide jawline held that peculiar toothy grin that was so popular.

“I was conscious of the fact that I don’t look like Tarlaji,” Qureshi told THE WEEK. “But, for me, it was very important to capture and come close to the essence of the person whose biopic I am playing. And since we could not do anything about the height and chose to forget about it, we toyed with the idea of using prosthetics, but that was not feasible since we were shooting in peak summer. So, then, we decided to play with the jaw. Given my face is longer, we did a piece to make [my] jaw broader, added two teeth, which are slightly bigger than mine to mimic her toothy smile, which we wanted to capture, then the glasses, the hair; we did multiple rounds of wigs, and all of that. I also tried to get her body language and mannerisms right.” In the 120-minute film that one aspect Qureshi has nailed perfectly, and which makes her so relatable to Dalal, is the nervous energy, which Dalal, a mother of three, was known for. She was a multi-tasker, and perfect at time management. Dalal was known for fixing multiple dishes at the same time, doling out instructions, and ensuring everything is taken care of as she juggled multiple things at the same time.

Gifted genes: Post Tarla Dalal’s passing, her daughter Renu Dalal (in pic) became a full fledged cook | Amey Mansabdar Gifted genes: Post Tarla Dalal’s passing, her daughter Renu Dalal (in pic) became a full fledged cook | Amey Mansabdar

“When we were told that Huma was playing our mother on screen, we knew she would nail it,” said Renu Dalal, Dalal’s daughter, “Also, one crucial aspect which kind of brings her very close to my mother is her belief in being a gracious and generous host. Both our parents believed that hosting guests well was extremely important. Each time a guest left, I saw my father make a list of what we had served them because it was so important that we don’t repeat the same items for them the next time, and also because we would remember what their feedback to particular dishes was.” Renu is an author of three cookbooks.

The family visited the set when Qureshi was shooting a scene in which Nalin Dalal comes to see her for the very first time in Pune to ask for her hand in marriage. “It was a very cute scene and I was wearing Tarlaji’s own blue sari that Renuji had sent us. I came out to meet them wearing it and it was an emotional moment for all,” said Qureshi.

After six releases last year, with each one vastly different from the other but only a few remarkable and noteworthy, Tarla was just the role that Qureshi needed to boast about her acting chops. With an array of upcoming projects, including Maharani Season 3, Pooja Meri Jaan and Single Salma, Qureshi is looking forward to much more. “Each time I go out and play out a character, I don’t want to repeat myself. I want to approach my work with a fresh set of ideas,” she said.

With just over a decade as an established actor in Bollywood, Qureshi achieved instant fame in her debut film, Anurag Kashyap’s critically acclaimed Gangs of Wasseypur, in which she starred as Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s lover. In Tarla, too, Qureshi has her moments. Like the one when she conducts her very first class at home, one instantly feels her pain, her anxiety and nervousness and wants to cheer for her. Her dialogue delivery is unforced and the screenplay does not meander—it is crisp and fast. There are occasional dips, but one does not mind that in the face of an upbeat story that centres around ambition and support.

Said Renu, ”My mother had her kitchen rules always laid out: no leaving the platform messy, arranging everything you need in advance before starting, and no misplacing things. We never ever ordered food at home, it was either that we went out to dine or ate homemade food. My mother knew how to delegate and make the most of the helps she had in the kitchen. I think that is an art unto itself. And, most importantly, she never put pressure on me to get married or to learn cooking, unlike other mothers who always wanted their daughters to learn how to cook so that they find themselves a good spouse.” Post her mother’s passing, Renu became a full fledged cook and has established an identity of her own. “I am still hunting for the Baked Alaska recipe of hers, a dessert with layered ice cream cake covered with merangue, which is then baked. This is one of my favourites and I am not going to stop until I find it. I think my mother’s cheese corn balls were the most popular,” she said.