The actress on living the life of an ‘art house pin-up’ and being slotted as a ‘Nandita Das type’
Anupama Chopra (AC): So the first thing you need to know about Richa Chadha is that she always speaks her mind. Remember this?
AC: This is the photo she put out on Twitter right after Masaan won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival last year and the tweet read “For all those who advised me not to do low-budget arty films”. I saw an interview of you Richa where you said, “I’d rather be provocative than boring.” Is that like a life mantra for you?
Richa Chadha (RC): I find that especially here people are always trying to place you somewhere just to make their own lives simpler. She’s Nandita Das type, Smita Patil type or even off-late Anu Agarwal type. I find that very annoying and I do not want to be somebody who is predictable. I guess that’s what I meant.
AC: My sense is that you’ve never had a problem being provocative. I think it comes naturally so look what we dug up.
RC: Oh my God! This is my Dev D audition (see iSAn video below). How did you get your hands on it? How did you find it? I’ve never seen it myself.
AC: We dug. It was really interesting because what amazed me is that even in the beginning you were not at all invested in this image of that wholesome Hindi film heroine. I mean you were happy to do this, you’re really convincing. You ended up not doing Dev D and getting Gangs of Wasseypur and Kalki (Koechlin) did this role. So for you that was never a thing? Dancing around trees?
RC: She got the part, I didn’t get it. She must’ve been better in her audition. I guess everybody grows up wanting to do that filmy sort of dancing around trees which no one really does anymore. Firstly, there are no trees left. And cinema is changing. But I wouldn’t say I didn’t grow up wanting that. But I think the first film I watched it was a Shyam Benegal film. I forget the name, but it was really hardcore. So I had both kinds of exposure. When I was growing up, I figured out that I would not do ‘either or’. And now, I’m trying to do everything but it’s mostly leaning towards not the wholesome Hindi film heroine.
AC: Yes. Wholesome is not a word we would associate with Richa Chadha.
RC: I think it’s time to be actually wholesome in the true sense of the word and not be some kind of manufactured kind of entity – put together, assembled nicely with restrictions of sexuality and brain. I don’t want to be like that.
AC: I understand what you’re saying but were you ever worried about an image or what’s the right way to enter?
RC: You know, I was not at all afraid when I started but I do have fears now.
RC: Because it’s ridiculous. When I did Gangs of Wasseypur, at that time, I was much younger and right after the film released, all the parts I got were the same. If it wasn’t a UP housewife it would be a Bihari housewife, and going between 45-50 years of age which at the time was twice my age. That’s when the fear came into my mind. I got a random call from a random casting director who hadn’t even seen Gangs when we were still shooting. He knew what I looked like but they called me to play something really ridiculous – Hrithik Roshan’s mother in Agneepath.
AC: No way.
RC: Yes and I said, “Do you know what I look like? I’m just going to take a photo and send it to you. Don’t do this to me.” And they were like, “nahi nahi par humne suna hain aap Nawaz ki mummy ka role..”. So that’s when the fear came into me a little bit. Now I’m conscious. I’m experimenting again in Sarbjit. I have to age through the part. But then it’s not just me, the story is going forward. I’m trying to get as much fear out of my body as I can but it’s when you take a risk and you see the repercussions repeatedly, it gets really tough to fight again and again and try to convince people that, hey, I’m not just this – I’m more.
AC: In May you’re showing us that you’re more by doing something like Sarbjit and then doing something like Cabaret. I found Cabaret very intriguing. Tell me what is the allure of a film like that for an actor like you? Is it a chance to just dress up and have a good time? Is it the solo lead? What is it?
RC: No it wasn’t all that, at all. It wasn’t the solo lead part or the dress up part. In fact, I think it was the daunting fear of having to do something so commercial that made me do it. Because it’s a big risk. So many people called me saying, “Why are you doing it? There’s going to be kissing.” And I said, “But there’s kissing in Masaan.”
AC: Did you say there’s a song on a red horse?
RC: Pooja Bhatt is the producer of the film and she’s also the production designer and she wants to leave an impact so she has me swinging from a big disco ball that she got constructed or just chilling in a glass bowl full of water and this red horse and several other crazy things like that.
AC: As somebody who’s been very outspoken about these things, is a film like Cabaret empowering or is it just titillation?
RC: I would think it’s taking a hold of my sexuality because when I had to shoot the first song I was really nervous. I’ve been in photo shoots where I’ve been sent out by the photographer to go hear a good song and come back because I’ve been so afraid. And this has actually happened even when we were shooting the first song. They were like, “You know you’re getting lost, the backup dancers are overpowering you.”
AC: You’ve said somewhere that like Devi from Masaan you would also take on the horrible misogynistic system, the establishment that there is. But just to apply that quote to Bollywood, can you really take on the system and still get work or are things changing?
RC: A. I think things are changing. And B, I believe if you can’t break the rules, just circumnavigate them and find your own way.
AC: What do you mean?
RC: It’s fairly misogynistic to tell somebody at 24, when Gangs came out, that your career is done.
AC: They told you that?
RC: Yes and I really believed it for a good 6 months I was petrified. Whoever watched the film and said, “You were very good!” I used to only ask them, “How old am I looking?” and then Anurag (Kashyap) told me they had to age me more because I was standing next to Nawaz and computer graphics would cost him an extra Rs 8 lakhs. I’m just saying that I really did believe that my career is going to end after Gangs.
AC: You’re the mom now.
RC: Not just the mom, the grand mom in the first friggin big break sort of thing. And lots of people said, “What is this? No make-up? And do choti and gaali and Bihari? Why not something fun like the Alps?” I really did believe for a long time that it was not going to happen but then I thought and I consistently tried to keep changing what I did and I still try. So I’m saying that’s my way, if I can’t break in or break the rule, I’ll have to manage around it.
AC: Is it sort of frustrating on a daily level?
RC: I mean I’m used to it now but it used to be very frustrating on a daily level. I’ve actually written a short film about it called The Life of an Arthouse Pin-up which I hope to make someday.
AC: That’s a great title.
RC: Because for a while, before Fukrey released, any script to do with depressed, handicapped, amputated leg, brain haemorrhage, aborted fetus, feticide, molestation, rape victim – anything to do with these dark depressing, completely crazy things came my way. I was like, “Hey I’m not this twisted person and I’m actually a really happy, sorted girl” People would come up to me and say “isme bahut gaaliyaan hain, aapko bahut mazza aayega.” These kind of things happened to me very routinely so that was very frustrating.
AC: They thought you were just somebody who likes to give gaalis.
RC: Yes. Somebody who likes to give gaalis, somebody who doesn’t care how she looks, somebody who’s ‘bindaas’ or another word I hate – bold. So it’s very funny for me. Because essentially they’re saying you’re doing what is not expected of a woman on screen. And I don’t buy that.
AC: You also talked about people who were technically your competition and I was looking at your Twitter feed and what I found very interesting was also how genuinely supportive you were of Radhika Apte’s winning a prize at Tribeca or Kalki’s new trailer for her film Waiting. Is there a genuine camaraderie among all of you?
RC: Definitely. I can speak between Radhika and Kalki not just because they’re in the same bracket but because they’re friends. Also, I can genuinely say that there is definite camaraderie and we don’t see each other as competition even though we are often competing for the same parts. We all have fingerprints on the script when it’s passed on to each other and I’m okay with that. But I truly believe that it’s a very scarcity mentality thing to do – to keep pulling somebody down. And I’ve learnt the hard way that it doesn’t apply to all actresses. But having said that, I feel like you should promote the category and not the product.
AC: What do you mean?
RC: I am a product. Us is a category. So promote the category. It’s good if more of us get more work. It’s good that Swara (Bhaskar) is doing Nil Battey Sannata and playing a mother to a 15 year old. And she’s being appreciated for it. It’s good to promote the category and I feel like I see a lot more camaraderie among the females than with the men. I mean I could be wrong but I don’t think I am.
AC: So personal insecurities don’t come in the way?
RC: Not in this space. Funnily, I’ve had male actors also getting insecure of me sometimes and I find that very difficult.
AC: Really? What do they say?
RC: It’s not what they say.
RC: This is your light and I’ll just slyly try to cut it and I’ll think this one is dumb so she won’t even notice that now there’s a patch of darkness on her face. I don’t look at the monitor. So I had a “well wisher” in the AD team who came and told me, “Maam aap ki toh shakal hi nahi dikh rahi hain. Thoda light toh le lo”. And then I realized that the hero with me was constantly turning me around and saying, ‘accha suno’. I didn’t say anything to him but I just managed to give a great take and at the end of it I emerge in full lightness like the moon.
AC: You’ve always been, again, unwilling to mince your words with that.
RC: Yes, but what do you do?
AC: Have you ever thought, “Yaar nahi bolte hain, matlab kya zarurat hain? I’m just stirring up the hornet’s nest”?
RC: Not really. Because I’m not Shah Rukh Khan. People are not going to find excuses to target me. But what I find really irritating is that anybody on Twitter with an egg for a face can say whatever the hell they want to and get away with it and abuse people, give rape threats out, just be horribly misogynistic and the minute you even say ‘idiot’ you get labeled for being irresponsible.
AC: How do you deal with it? Because with reviews, I get vicious abuse. And at one point, it did get me down. Does that ever happen to you?
RC: I think it does get me down once in a while but I take it in my stride. You have to have the courage to stand up for what you say also. You can’t just say something and then run and hide from it. You know I tried this recently, but you must try it. There’s a person who really abused me on Twitter three days ago about something I don’t even remember, completely inconsequential, has no relevance, nothing. But said he was being really abusive and speaking about body parts and all that. Then I tweeted at him saying, “Hey, keeping it very classy.” And the person ran away and deleted their tweet. So basically these people hurling abuses at you are cowards.
AC: You’re a very vocal vegan, aren’t you?
RC: Ya. But then I took a stance against the beef ban. Oh my God. The problem is not Twitter or Facebook or anything else. The problem is the lack of being able to tolerate any opinion other than yours. There are so many people I follow on Twitter or other places who I do not even like or agree with. But I want to know what they think. I want to know how their brain operates. Because you’ll never find people who agree with you 100% and it shouldn’t be like that. It’s just that lack of ke “Kaise bola tune”
AC: It’s also got to do with being a woman, isn’t it?
RC: I think so. I think it’s more for women but you take on the bullies. I think a strong woman, nothing can stand in her path. I always tell people that I can be Devi also and I can also be Bholi Punjaban- take your pick.
AC: On that happy note, Richa, thank you.