Over the last decade, the landscape of Hindi cinema has been in perpetual flux. Whether it's the rise of streaming and long-form entertainment, the arrival of the mid-budget star, the struggles of prestige film-making or the death of the old-school love story, there has not been a year in which mainstream Bollywood has – for better or worse – stayed the same. During this transition, perhaps the two most striking triumphs have been the casting revolution and the emergence of the small-town North Indian dramedy. Both are inextricably linked to each other. The small-town film has been spearheaded by the likes of younger actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao. But it's often the ensemble – the supporting characters, the parents, the extended families and friends – that define the genre. Social relevance aside, these stories have changed the way we look at actors. Veterans like Sanjay Mishra, Seema Pahwa, Manoj Pahwa, Neena Gupta, Brijendra Kala and Gajraj Rao – who were once nameless fillers in a crowded scene – are now the crowd themselves. They lend a sense of character to space and time.
The genre is bookended by two specific Hindi titles. Something shifted when Dum Laga Ke Haisha released in 2015. That something then came of age in Badhaai Do (2022). In both, Sheeba Chaddha – one of the foremost names in this space today – steals the show. By the end of both films, her presence transcends her relationship to the protagonists – as an aunt, as a mother – and becomes its own entity. The actress has the rare ability to eschew the limitations of screen-time and reveal an Indian woman navigating her own parallel narrative. She has always been around, excelling on stage and in popular television soaps. But mainstream Hindi cinema has been a late bloomer in terms of recognizing – and channeling – her distinct talent. She is still pigeonholed as the middle-aged mother or aunt of protagonists in a crowded household, and is yet to be offered an author-backed role. But it's a matter of time; there is now a sense of identity to her Hindi film legacy that was largely anonymous till 2015. That her rise has coincided with the blooming of a genre designed to reward the cream of the crop is only fitting.
Back in 2014, I remember walking out of an Ankhon Dekhi screening, a little gem that similarly visibilised the peripheral genius of Sanjay Mishra. The great actor – who was known to moviegoers more by face and brand (remember Apple Singh?) than name until that film – stood outside the hall, head down and hands folded, humbly accepting praise that was decades in the making. The significance of his gesture still feels moving, after nearly a decade. I've imagined many long-time performers and artists of his stature doing the same when we belatedly "notice" them in character-driven dramas. It is undoubtedly the best time to be an actor in Hindi cinema today; there is no dearth of opportunity. But it's an even better time to be a seasoned actor; stories have started to deserve them. Those like Sheeba Chaddha, especially, own that thin line between standing out and blending into a setting, making them indispensable to the moral and cultural fabric of a film.
Perhaps the only way to describe Sheeba Chaddha's slow-burning omniscience is to dive deeper into her moments on screen. Here are some of my favourites:
It's only fair to start with the role that pried our eyes open. The character arc of Naintara Tiwari – the "single" aunt in the male protagonist's Haridwar-dwelling family – ties into Sheeba Chaddha's own career arc. Naintara starts off as the typically nosy bua in the narrative: a colour-giving shade at best, and a cultural afterthought that most of us aren't conditioned to invest in. But as the film progresses, Naintara morphs into an actual person, with a tragic past, and with insecurities and wisdom that transform the fate of the lead couple. She is no longer a background character, blindsiding the viewer as well as the story with a history that bitchy-aunt-stereotypes aren't afforded in commercial Hindi cinema. The moment when she receives a phone call about her estranged husband's death, at some level, reveals the lead-actor vulnerability hidden under the guise of supporting-turn quirks. In that moment, both actor and character went from a preconceived notion to a flesh-and-blood reality. The transformation echoes Sheeba Chaddha's own arrival into the limelight. In 2015, she happened to us while we were busy making other plans.
Ideally, Sheeba Chaddha's Dum Laga Ke Haisha moment should have happened six years earlier, in Zoya Akhtar's charming directorial debut. At the peak of her TV acting career, Chaddha was cast against (hostile) type in Luck By Chance, where she appeared as the human manifestation of the film's title. As the timid and well-meaning wife who turns a not-so-blind eye to the dealings of her small-time Bollywood-producer husband, Chaddha delivers a remarkably nuanced performance. Despite having only a handful of scenes, she paints an intimate portrait of her character's life – a woman who reluctantly networks for her husband while aspiring to the lifestyle her successful friends boast of – without distracting from the heart of the film-industry film. The moment when she shyly asks the Rommy Rolly gang for credit for slipping in the audition photographs of their new hero says everything about the actress, who uses her expressive face to subvert our reading of – and humanize – every inconspicuous woman she plays.
If there were ever a living, breathing embodiment of the timeless line, "What is grief but love persevering?," it would be the combined role of Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chaddha as grieving parents at odds with the procedural nature of mourning in a Lucknow household. While Rana received plaudits for his portrayal of a pained patriarch, it was Chaddha's turn as a wounded but empathetic mother-in-law that shaped the core of the story about a young widow struggling to "feel" the way she is supposed to. A mother perpetually on the verge of breaking down but holding it together with frail dignity – and a face that reveals the agony of speaking at a time of numbing loss – is a complex character to play. But the actress speaks volumes as a ghost of the woman's former self. While watching her drowning in the memories – and mistakes – of her beloved son, my heart sank every time she appeared on screen. The moment when she discusses a financial debt with her husband is one for the ages. She is not so much asking questions as wallowing in the final shreds of self-pity, wondering where it all went wrong but also composing the strength to confront a life without light. She is, somehow, torn between being disappointed and shattered.
Sheeba Chaddha was the standout performer in this wistfully messy long-form ode to pre-Tinder love. She manages to inculcate years of marginalization and courage into Mumtaz, a Muslim sex-worker-turned-vegetable-vendor who lives with a Hindu college-medalist-turned-tailor. In a way, Mumtaz is struggling to live up to the legacy of her name, while also carving out her own rooted anti-fairytale, at a time when lofty love stories are underpinned by adult resentment. Chaddha thrives on the duality, tender and spunky at once, resisting the stereotypical overtures of feminism to become the moral core of a multifaceted narrative. She is much better than the writing and film-making, occasionally elevating Taj Mahal 1989 into the series it wanted to be, with as little as a smile and furrowing of her brow in the face of crisis. The scene where Mumtaz bashfully blushes when her partner Sudhakar shows her the humble abode he's named "Mumtaz Mahal" – followed by her teary face when he applies a 'teeka' on her wounded forehead – is testament to Chaddha's supreme control over the relationship between the said and the unsaid, between silence and emotion. Even as she's overwhelmed, Mumtaz manages to convey a world of trauma and gratitude with a simple turn of her head and quivering of her lips.
The story of Mohini, a woman sacrificed at the altar of self-important men and their music, is the most poignant thread of this disjointed web series. Sheeba Chaddha does a Dum Laga Ke Haisha of sorts here. Mohini spends most of the series as a mother, wife, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law in the shadows. Only in the final few episodes does she emerge as an artist whose career – and love – was once cut short by the fragile masculinity of her surroundings. Chaddha beautifully calibrates the stillness of her subservience across the episodes, filtering into scenes she's barely present in. The moment when her humbled father-in-law asks for her forgiveness is the finest of the ten-episode show; Mohini breaks down as he folds his hands, but her tears start even as the man – played by the inimitable Naseeruddin Shah – confesses to his sons in a jittery voice. The very next scene, where she is asked to join the men for dinner on the table – instead of just serving them – is just as moving. Chaddha turns the seemingly simple act of eating from a plate into a physical statement of redemption and closure.
Playing a West Delhi kitty party enthusiast might sound flimsy to those in the know of the actress' superb face-acting. But Sheeba Chaddha is disarming as the playfully posh homemaker responsible for bringing the protagonist Sharmaji into the live-cooking business. The film hinges on a rare script that defies the narrative and social bias against the aged and the agency-less, which makes Chaddha's breezy performance a joy to watch. Her wide, infectious grin is on full display here, as is her ability to turn intellectually ignorant characters into emotionally wise ones. The climactic "set piece" at a police station, where the women barge into a police station determined to free their male friend, features Chaddha flexing her comic muscles. She is perfectly awkward as the privileged lady stuck in a chaotic environment she's only ever seen in the movies.
As a closeted cop's widowed mother – and the meek member in an overbearing Thakur family – Sheeba Chaddha is the beating heart of a small-town dramedy that thrives on a sociological clash between generations. Across Badhaai Ho and its spiritual sequel, Chaddha's journey as a movie mom comes full circle – the snooty but smart single mother in the former morphs into the mild-mannered but stoic single mother in the latter. Her Mrs. Thakur is a delightfully strange on-screen parent: a socially awkward oddity of sorts, who's so much of an outsider in her own household that she secretly sympathizes with her son who's shacked by the norms of Indian society. She, too, is under pressure to behave a certain way and flaunt a sense of matriarchal authority over her son. But she is inherently incapable of doing so, evident from scenes where she bombs as the stern "saas" in front of her puzzled daughter-in-law. Two of the three best moments of this fine film have Chaddha in them. First, the scene where she walks in on her daughter-in-law with her girlfriend – a study of the chasm between shock and envy, between shame and admiration. We never really see the actual moment, with Chaddha's post-discovery face telling its own backstory. The second scene features the woman – in stark contrast to her family's shaming – embracing her son seconds after he comes clean about his life. He is a cauldron of feelings on the terrace, and the way she first gently touches his chest before hugging him signifies their kindred-soul bond as well as her curiosity about whether his heart still beats the same as hers. It's not just a crowd-pleasing gesture but a logical one. It depicts acceptance as much as joyous celebration – of two misfits in the same boat, of speaking the same language, and of joining forces in the face of denial and small-mindedness.