Girl boss: Pernia Qureshi


Girl boss: Pernia Qureshi

Fashion favourite and Bollywood fresher, Qureshi can be both worker bee and Queen

By Vatsala Chhibber  September 4th, 2015

I'm pretty certain my handbag is causing Pernia Qureshi some anguish. I’m sitting on a high-backed sofa, and out the 12th-storey windows, the sun is winding up for the day. Qureshi has only just walked into her sea-facing Mumbai pad, and immediately grimaced at the sight of an out-of-place vase. Polite, uniformed Tia duly fixes the eyesore. My handbag lies slumped over the edge of a chair, and I feel Qureshi’s razor-sharp senses picking up on the seabed of loose change inside. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.  

“I’m always on time,” she tells me after a brisk but sufficiently warm greeting, when I ask how she’s managed to fly in from another city and make an entrance at the exact minute of our scheduled meeting. I can see the social media notifications crowding her screen every time her phone lights up, but Qureshi never gives in — I have her full attention. Anyone walking through the door is cast away with a cursory hello, including her parents, who’re visiting from Delhi. It’s only the inconsistencies that jolt Qureshi out of her organised manner: malfunctioning light bulbs, stray strands on her couch, nettling delays (“Hi, you’re late as usual,” signals the entry of her manager).

Right now, Qureshi, 26, is straddling two cities, a virtual chain of careers (stylist-designer-dancer-entrepreneur-author-actor) and conflicting paradigms. In the fashion business, she wields considerable influence: after a string of magazine internships in New York and styling gigs in India (including dressing buddy Sonam Kapoor for Aisha), she founded leading luxury e-store Pernia’s Pop Up Shop in 2012 and authored the fashion handbook Be Stylish With Pernia Qureshi the following year. Being endorsed by Qureshi, or featured in her monthly e-magazine, is always good for business; local designers are grateful for the access to her large overseas customer base. And the fashion FROW consists, in swathes, of her friends and friends of friends. And yet, Qureshi doesn’t appear to cede to any one tribe, pursuing instead a progression of hyphens, even as each one brings new, and in her case ever more public, challenges. “I keep putting myself in unfamiliar, uncomfortable territories,” she says. Sounds scary. “No, it’s not scary, but it is tough. In fashion, there’s a sense of belonging, but in film [circles], I haven’t been accepted with open arms yet. You can’t have an ego about these things, you have to take the brunt of being a newcomer.”

I’m meeting Qureshi a week after the release of her debut film, the pretty-looking Jaanisaar, by Umrao Jaan director Muzaffar Ali. We already know by now that it didn’t do well. Reviews apportioned most of the blame to a doddery narrative, but her portrayal of a revolutionary courtesan in 1857 Awadh found little applause. A particularly scathing critique accused her of “having as many expressions as a newsreader on Doordarshan.” I don’t know if she’s found time to keep up with the reviews; just the evening before, she performed for Suneet Verma at India Bridal Fashion Week in Delhi (with a splinter in her foot and blood in her shoes, no less). “I’ve read every review,” she says with a smile. “Everyone from the industry told me not to, but I thought, it’s my first film, I should experience everything.”

Qureshi is taking it all with good game and commendable objectivity. I’m impressed with how she separates the useful from the chaff, like that one review likening her dancing to someone being electrocuted. She rolls her eyes. “I can’t take that seriously. Anything unfair, offhanded or unqualified, I ignore. I know what I need to work on; I have a good head on my shoulders.”

I believe that. There are moments when she catches me off guard with uncommon sense. Like when she sides with detractors who rush to put her entrepreneurial success down to privilege — her father, meat exporter Moin Qureshi, is an investor in the company. “They’re right. It is easier,” she agrees. “I’m extremely hard-working, more than the average person I’d think, but there might be people with better ideas who don’t have access to seed money.” But a foot in the door, she makes clear, is no guarantee for success. Everyone has to do the work, rich kids and not-so-rich kids. “I’m in a tough position right now, too,” she explains. “We run a very lean operation, and I want to see it explode. We need the right investor for that.” As she shops around, work continues unabated. Qureshi doesn’t believe in weekends (“which is bad for anyone who works for me”), and while she says her team is efficient, she isn’t leaving out the baby monitors. “I get all customer care emails on my phone. I want to know what’s going on. If I don’t, things will never be to the standard that I want.”

I’m not sure what Pernia Qureshi does for fun. She says her friendship with Sonam Kapoor is mostly about unattractive food binges at home. Her tweets only offer clinical work updates, and make-up and styling references outnumber selfies on her camera roll. Gruelling Kuchipudi lessons — she began with her sister and mother as a child, but ended up being the only one going pro — will always take precedence over drinks with friends. “It’s very easy to chill and just go about life, especially when you’re young. But I feel like I need to live a life of purpose,” says Qureshi. And she’s just about closing in on it. “I’m not fully financially independent yet, and I’d like to be. I’ve been given all this backing, the least I can do is stand on my own feet. Eating a meal that you have earned, driving a car you have bought — any earning girl will know that feels amazing.”

Qureshi’s brand of young person is unfamiliar, and cool. (Incidentally, talk about Pernia ‘the brand’, and she’ll recoil in horror — “The moment you believe that, you’re over.”) She’s discerning, super-realistic, and what she doesn’t like (an errant vase, for instance) she fixes. But somehow, in her colour-coded, hyper-organised existence, there’s one thing she leaves out: a concrete life plan. All she knows is she doesn’t want to stay still. “I want to reach far ahead, in every way. I don’t want to be where I am now.” To fewer weekends, then.

On the elevator ride down, under the influence of all that single-minded ambition, I ask Qureshi’s manager what she’s like to work for, and wonder how I might fare under that regime. “You have to be five steps ahead, always,” she says. Seconds later, I’m making my way back up for the Dictaphone I left abandoned on her sofa. 

This interview was featured in the September issue of ELLE. Download the digital edition here 

Photographs: Farrokh Chothia; Styling: Malini Banerji; Creative Director: Prashish More; Make-Up and Hair: Daniel Bauer; Assisted By: Devika Wahal (Styling), Simone Chakravarthy (Make-Up and Hair); Location Courtesy: Suján Rajmahal Palace, Jaipur

 

I'm pretty certain my handbag is causing Pernia Qureshi some anguish. I’m sitting on a high-backed sofa, and out the 12th-storey windows, the sun is winding up for the day. Qureshi has only just walked into her sea-facing Mumbai pad, and immediately grimaced at the sight of an out-of-place vase. Polite, uniformed Tia duly fixes the eyesore. My handbag lies slumped over the edge of a chair, and I feel Qureshi’s razor-sharp senses picking up on the seabed of loose change inside. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.  

“I’m always on time,” she tells me after a brisk but sufficiently warm greeting, when I ask how she’s managed to fly in from another city and make an entrance at the exact minute of our scheduled meeting. I can see the social media notifications crowding her screen every time her phone lights up, but Qureshi never gives in — I have her full attention. Anyone walking through the door is cast away with a cursory hello, including her parents, who’re visiting from Delhi. It’s only the inconsistencies that jolt Qureshi out of her organised manner: malfunctioning light bulbs, stray strands on her couch, nettling delays (“Hi, you’re late as usual,” signals the entry of her manager).

Right now, Qureshi, 26, is straddling two cities, a virtual chain of careers (stylist-designer-dancer-entrepreneur-author-actor) and conflicting paradigms. In the fashion business, she wields considerable influence: after a string of magazine internships in New York and styling gigs in India (including dressing buddy Sonam Kapoor for Aisha), she founded leading luxury e-store Pernia’s Pop Up Shop in 2012 and authored the fashion handbook Be Stylish With Pernia Qureshi the following year. Being endorsed by Qureshi, or featured in her monthly e-magazine, is always good for business; local designers are grateful for the access to her large overseas customer base. And the fashion FROW consists, in swathes, of her friends and friends of friends. And yet, Qureshi doesn’t appear to cede to any one tribe, pursuing instead a progression of hyphens, even as each one brings new, and in her case ever more public, challenges. “I keep putting myself in unfamiliar, uncomfortable territories,” she says. Sounds scary. “No, it’s not scary, but it is tough. In fashion, there’s a sense of belonging, but in film [circles], I haven’t been accepted with open arms yet. You can’t have an ego about these things, you have to take the brunt of being a newcomer.”

I’m meeting Qureshi a week after the release of her debut film, the pretty-looking Jaanisaar, by Umrao Jaan director Muzaffar Ali. We already know by now that it didn’t do well. Reviews apportioned most of the blame to a doddery narrative, but her portrayal of a revolutionary courtesan in 1857 Awadh found little applause. A particularly scathing critique accused her of “having as many expressions as a newsreader on Doordarshan.” I don’t know if she’s found time to keep up with the reviews; just the evening before, she performed for Suneet Verma at India Bridal Fashion Week in Delhi (with a splinter in her foot and blood in her shoes, no less). “I’ve read every review,” she says with a smile. “Everyone from the industry told me not to, but I thought, it’s my first film, I should experience everything.”

Qureshi is taking it all with good game and commendable objectivity. I’m impressed with how she separates the useful from the chaff, like that one review likening her dancing to someone being electrocuted. She rolls her eyes. “I can’t take that seriously. Anything unfair, offhanded or unqualified, I ignore. I know what I need to work on; I have a good head on my shoulders.”

I believe that. There are moments when she catches me off guard with uncommon sense. Like when she sides with detractors who rush to put her entrepreneurial success down to privilege — her father, meat exporter Moin Qureshi, is an investor in the company. “They’re right. It is easier,” she agrees. “I’m extremely hard-working, more than the average person I’d think, but there might be people with better ideas who don’t have access to seed money.” But a foot in the door, she makes clear, is no guarantee for success. Everyone has to do the work, rich kids and not-so-rich kids. “I’m in a tough position right now, too,” she explains. “We run a very lean operation, and I want to see it explode. We need the right investor for that.” As she shops around, work continues unabated. Qureshi doesn’t believe in weekends (“which is bad for anyone who works for me”), and while she says her team is efficient, she isn’t leaving out the baby monitors. “I get all customer care emails on my phone. I want to know what’s going on. If I don’t, things will never be to the standard that I want.”

I’m not sure what Pernia Qureshi does for fun. She says her friendship with Sonam Kapoor is mostly about unattractive food binges at home. Her tweets only offer clinical work updates, and make-up and styling references outnumber selfies on her camera roll. Gruelling Kuchipudi lessons — she began with her sister and mother as a child, but ended up being the only one going pro — will always take precedence over drinks with friends. “It’s very easy to chill and just go about life, especially when you’re young. But I feel like I need to live a life of purpose,” says Qureshi. And she’s just about closing in on it. “I’m not fully financially independent yet, and I’d like to be. I’ve been given all this backing, the least I can do is stand on my own feet. Eating a meal that you have earned, driving a car you have bought — any earning girl will know that feels amazing.”

Qureshi’s brand of young person is unfamiliar, and cool. (Incidentally, talk about Pernia ‘the brand’, and she’ll recoil in horror — “The moment you believe that, you’re over.”) She’s discerning, super-realistic, and what she doesn’t like (an errant vase, for instance) she fixes. But somehow, in her colour-coded, hyper-organised existence, there’s one thing she leaves out: a concrete life plan. All she knows is she doesn’t want to stay still. “I want to reach far ahead, in every way. I don’t want to be where I am now.” To fewer weekends, then.

On the elevator ride down, under the influence of all that single-minded ambition, I ask Qureshi’s manager what she’s like to work for, and wonder how I might fare under that regime. “You have to be five steps ahead, always,” she says. Seconds later, I’m making my way back up for the Dictaphone I left abandoned on her sofa. 

This interview was featured in the September issue of ELLE. Download the digital edition here 

Photographs: Farrokh Chothia; Styling: Malini Banerji; Creative Director: Prashish More; Make-Up and Hair: Daniel Bauer; Assisted By: Devika Wahal (Styling), Simone Chakravarthy (Make-Up and Hair); Location Courtesy: Suján Rajmahal Palace, Jaipur