UAE-born actor on making it big with ‘Heeramandi’

Abu Dhabi-born actor Taha Shah Badussha on landing a dream role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s hugely popular OTT debut and why co-star Sharmin Segal will only emerge stronger despite the trolling

By Karishma Nandkeolyar

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Published: Tue 11 Jun 2024, 6:57 PM

Former UAE resident, Indian actor Taha Shah Badussha baulks at the thought of his Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar character, Tajdar Baloch, being called chauvinistic even though when we first meet the young Indian royal, he is seen sneering at the women residing in the red-light district, Heeramandi.

The first season of the Netflix series is a period drama set in Lahore between 1920 and 1947 during the time of the independence movement. It follows the lives of tawaifs (or courtesans) as they navigate the politics of the times.

He defends the young freedom fighter, saying: “I think that’s not his character at all. I think he’s principled.” He explains that Tajdar is opposed to the concept of Heeramandi not because of misogyny, but because he has witnessed the turmoil that frequents the households (and wives) of the nawabs who visit the tawaifs. It’s because he believes that women should be respected, and the red light district doesn’t afford them dignity.

It’s a distinction he’s eager to make, he says, because he can empathise with his character on this issue. “I’m a child of a single mother. And I believe I’ve seen the plight of women; I’ve seen [mum] struggle. I’ve seen her do a lot of things and sacrifice a lot of things for me and my brother. So, because of that, I truly understand [how hard it is for a] woman, especially in a patriarchal society,” he explains in an interview with City Times.

A childhood lesson

Another thing the actor, whose credits include Luv Ka The End, Gippi, Barkhaa and Ranchi Diaries, shares with his on-screen counterpart is courtesy. “My mother always said that when you see people [no matter who, the crew, workers or stars], whenever you go anywhere, always greet them. [And I do] But sometimes, they get baffled.

“I think that a little bit of respect takes you a long way. And that’s why the crew really go out of the way for me,” he explains, adding that quite often someone from the crew would give him unsolicited (and welcome) advice on how he could work a certain angle on-screen.

“I get a lot of love from the crew and I really, really want to thank the crew.”

Badussha is acutely aware of the spotlight on him, courtesy filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period drama, especially since his was to be a short appearance that later bloomed into a full-fledged role. “I literally got a three-day role and I was very happy. Then, he increased my role to [that of Balraj]. And then he increased it to Tajdar’s role.”

The actor calls it a “shocking development”, especially because it meant working with “the greatest director in India”.

“Who wouldn’t want to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali?” he asks. The director has a slew of hits under his belt, from Padmaavat to Gangubai Kathiawadi and classics such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

Badussha, who grew up in the UAE and attended The International School of Choueifat in Sharjah and was briefly with American University of Sharjah, plays the love interest of Alamzeb, the daughter of a tawaif or courtesan. And since the eight-episode series is a bilingual adventure, with mostly Urdu dialogues, it required some tongue-twisting dialogues. “I have always worked on my dialect, my diction, whether it be Hindi or Urdu. So I had good training… because of all of that, the flow and this was much easier for me to kind of adapt,” he says. “And then, of course, we had, we had a teacher on set, who would always correct us [when we got an inflection or word wrong]. But I have been working for a long time.”

It has taken the actor more than a decade to land this dream role. “I've always wanted to do something on stage. I never knew the art of acting until I joined New York Film Academy and then did all my courses. But yeah, somewhere down there [that dream] has always been there.”

The Sharmin Segal trolling saga

Being part of an industry for over a decade means that he has seen his share of ups and downs, and he’s quick to advocate being brave in the face of negativity. “I am no one to tell the audience how they should and should not feel. I also know what hatred feels like, I have been through it,” he explains.

Yet, he can’t help but hope the audience gives his co-star Sharmin Segal, who has been trolled mercilessly for her performance as Alamzeb since the debut of the Netflix saga, a break. “She is a very smart, intelligent woman, a woman that has been on set through and through. And I know that she has put her best foot forward. Nobody’s perfect, and I just believe that she’s very young in this industry; this is her second project. And, you know, she’s there to grow. And I can see that in her eyes, that she wants to grow. And she will.”

As for his own reception by watchers and critics, it’s been rather warm. People have begun comparing him to other stars, the OG Bhansali heroes, he says. “I never thought I’d be a romantic hero. I mean, I love romance; I’ve always been a romantic boy. But I never thought that this would happen. The comparison to this man [Shah Rukh Khan] I know, is truly humbling. I am truly just so honoured.”

He recalls small Easter eggs that the director has littered his latest project with. “Like the introduction of Tajdar and Devdas,” he says. “If you’re a true fan of Bollywood, you can actually see it.”

As for what’s next, Badussha concedes that Heeramandi will be a tough act to follow, but remains excited about his prospects. “There are so many projects I’ve been in talks for, but I am still deciding which one I want to do first. And actually for the first time in my life, I get the choice. I think by the end of this month, I should have a clearer picture of which direction I’m going to move towards.”

For now, though, the serious gent – “I generally only travel for work,” he says – is in the UAE on business.

UAE connect

As he travels to Abu Dhabi on day two of a four-day promotional tour, Badussha recalls spending many fun years in the city. In fact, he had just had dinner with some school friends the previous night. And he says he’d love to do more here. “I would love to do skydiving, you know, I would like to do a lot of those kinds of sports, but I feel that this trip would be very short for that. I’ll be coming back again,” he says, explaining that now that he’s got a Golden Visa, he plans to visit UAE more often.

Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar has been renewed for a second season on Netflix. Monika Shergill, VP, content of Netflix India, was quoted as saying by Variety: “Sanjay Leela Bhansali has intricately woven magic to bring Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar to life. Watching audiences everywhere fall in love with this series — making it truly their own as a cultural phenomenon — has been hugely energising and it thrills me to share that we will be back with Season 2.”

Too beautiful for the big screen?

Is there such a thing as too good-looking? Apparently. Taha Shah Badussha, who plays the leading role of Tajdar in the Netflix show Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar has often been told he’s too good-looking for certain roles. He explains that people tend to perceive those who have “model looks” can’t act. His own looks then pigeon-holed him and often, the roles he performs are that of a player. “Plus,” he laughs, “It’s another way of letting you down gently — telling you that you are too good-looking for the role.”

The first season is available for streaming in the UAE on Netflix now.


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