When we spoke to actor Sheeba Chadha, she hadn’t seen her latest release Phone Bhoot (2022) and had snuck out time for us in the middle of a shoot. Phone Bhoot is Chadha’s sixth feature film release this year. Yet the actor will have you know she wishes she was more hardworking. “I’m lazy, so my practice is very lazy,” she told Film Companion. Her filmography for this year would beg to differ. Whether as a Tinder-savvy single mother in Doctor G (2022) or as a Bengali chudail (banshee) who is sick of the “freelance” life in Phone Bhoot, the actor has been a scene-stealer in practically every film. With her impeccable comic timing and empathetic portrayals of older women who are mostly sidelined by society, Chadha has established herself as one of those rare actors who doesn’t need a swathe of screen-time to make an impact. She can enrich a film with a single scene.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
What was acting in Phone Bhoot like?
Phone Bhoot is a crazy, mad film. I have not seen it yet, I’m going to see it the day after! I am very, very fond of the director. He’s the director of Mirzapur also. He’s just a special human being. His name is Gurmmeet Singh. I was very happy that he was directing it. I interacted very little with my co-stars, it’s such a small role in the film. Ishaan (Khattar) is just amazing, he’s a marvellous actor. Siddhant (Chaturvedi), of course, is lovely as well. I had only one or two scenes with Katrina (Kaif). There was a scene by the lake, and just to banter with her, it was really nice. I never shot with Jackie (Shroff) sir. For certain reasons, our dates didn’t match. I would have loved to be in a scene with him. Phone Bhoot is written by a dear friend, Ravi (Shankaran). It was great to be a part of this crazy ride. That’s about it.
We took classes to give our accents a Bhopali touch!
Do you have a process as an actor?
It’s a little bit badtameez (shameless) that I genuinely don’t think I have a process. I keep saying this, I’m not a hardworking actor. I’m somebody who does not like too much hard work. And I don’t like to overthink… too much discussion about a role, I don’t enjoy that. If I have doubts, I’d like to have a discussion with the director but in general, I prefer to not get into the details. Actors have their bag of tricks. Unknowingly, we get used to working from that easy, safe space. To push that a little bit more…the other thing is to try and be as present as possible at that moment. It’s not easy to do all the time, to keep it close to the immediacy of that moment is something I would like to constantly work on.
You started out as a theatre actor. What did you enjoy most about it?
It was my in into this entire world of what is my work now. One, it’s the immersion with art, engaging with art. You see a play but it has got a history to it, it's got a present moment to it, it has got aesthetic, objects that we touch and feel. It is a spacial experience, how you interact with light, and of course, the audience! It’s an osmotic event, a circuit of energy. And the process at that time…how you see it come together, how you start with a script which draws you. The more you rehearse it, the more it unfolds and the more it becomes yours. Also, you might have rehearsed it for three months but what will happen on the day of the show, there’s no way of knowing. That’s what I love about theatre and cinema both. It’s all of that and a thousand other things.
Do you feel you can perfect a reality when you’re acting?
I always shy away from the words, ‘perfect’ or ‘perfection’. It’s not my zone, it doesn't sit well with me. For me, it’s immersion. How it talks to you and how you talk back to it, that’s the dialogue between you and that art form. It’s the same with cinema, now that I’m doing more and more of it. The word ‘aukaat’ keeps coming to me very strongly because these art forms are so humongous, so monumental. It’s like being a part of the cosmos, you’re such a speck in the face of it. Jitna bhi samajh aata hai apni aukaat main, you work with it (You understand as per your abilities, and you work with it).
Which role is the closest to your heart?
Badhaai Do has been a real favourite. I really loved that role and I must say, it was tough. I felt it was quite a razor’s edge to walk on. She must not look like an imbecile. For me, the interesting thing is that the director (Harshavardhan Kulkarni) said that she is lazy and reluctant to do things. It’s unusual for a mother to be characterised like that, to be written like that. Normally, mothers are very on top of it. I loved the reluctant quality of this single mother.
From your characters, which mother do you resemble in real life?
I must be a mixture of all of them. My daughter calls me a helicopter mom. I’m a single mother, which is why I think I overcompensate a lot. Even though she’s 16 now, I would like to believe that she and I are very close. Interestingly, the other day she said that when she was younger, she was not so close to me. The time when normally teenagers grow distant is when she felt closer to me than ever before. That’s quite fab.
Is there a particular scene from Badhaai Do that was a joy to perform?
The scene where she is reading out the stuff that she has taken notes of and telling the daughter-in-law what to do. It’s an over-the-top situation, it’s ridiculous and dramatic. Pulling it off was tough and I really loved doing it.
Do you have a favourite co-actor?
Yeh toh badha mushkil hai (That’s a tough question to answer). They’re all so amazing to work with. Be it Rajkummar (Rao), Bhumi (Pednekar) or Ayushmann (Khurrana), they’re so giving and wonderful. In Mirzapur too, an amazing bunch. I work with such good actors, what to say about which. They’re all cutting-edge, mazedaar (fun) people. Too many to name.
What are you currently reading and watching?
Reading has become rubbish, horrible. I did pick up Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang. It’s a collection of short stories, I’ve recently read two. That’s really nice. And I have a guru, a book of his has come out called The Friend. I’m reading these two right now, but slowly. I’ve always been a very avid reader and it’s pathetic how less I read now. It’s shit, and that makes me damn sad. I will always be carrying two books with me to a shoot but earlier, ek shoot pe aaram se khatam ho jaati thi, par ab do-tin projects ke through chalti rehti hai woh kitaab (I would easily finish reading a book in the duration of a shoot. But now, a book lasts through two to three projects). Shooting used to be my reading time because sometimes you get a lot of free time on set. It’s just this bloody phone, it has ruined us.
You mentioned that you have a guru. Are you a spiritual person?
I find that word very reductionist. I don’t know what to say to that, I don’t have an answer to that question. Yes - let me just say that, it’s easy.
We can call it belief.
(laughs) Haan okay…belief.
Does it help with work?
I think it helps with everything. But like I said, I’m lazy, so my practice is very lazy. I wish I was the most hardworking in that practice. So, it helps, it’s like a check, it’s many things. Can’t even say it helps, I can’t imagine it not being there in my life anymore.
What do you feel about the appreciation you’re receiving?
Appreciation like that brings you joy, which is a wonderful place as long as one can enjoy that. In our line of work, we never know. Today, it’s there, tomorrow, pata nahi (we don’t know). It just depends on your last two projects. But whilst it’s there, it’s lovely.
What kind of role are you aspiring to do soon?
Something that pushes the nuance and surprises in its writing, where there’s a lot of layering - that would be lovely to do.