IN A TRAILER WITH leopard print upholstery on the ceiling and a sluggish air-conditioner, I watch Richa Chadha talk to a colleague about an ageing villain’s dated acting style. “He is still dying in slow motion”, she says, her enunciation characteristically precise and her delivery deadpan. “It’s like, he is still falling to bullets fired in the 1980s,” she adds, before breaking into her trademark chuckle. Chadha is in the middle of shooting at a studio on the edge of Mumbai. The day we meet is the release of Sarbjit, with Randeep Hooda playing the eponymous hero and Aishwarya Rai, his sister. Chadha’s role, though small, is getting positive reviews. But she knows this only second hand. “I never read reviews or my own interviews,” she tells me. Soon, a member of her management team calls to tell her that she is trending on Twitter. On instruction, Chadha shoots a quick video (“Thank you, thank you, thank you”) and struggles to find a spot where her phone will be able to send it through, before a knock sounds on her door. “Hotness,” says an assistant director, “On set please.”
As she disappears inside a room, I try to watch her on the monitor. But the crush of people and the heat of the lights push me to the back of the room, from where I can only hear her. In the silence after the director calls for action, I hear her deliver her lines. Then I hear her once again, after the shot is done. “Can I do one more?”
Chadha grew up in what she calls a “normal Delhi family”—her mother taught at Delhi University, and her father left an academic career to run a management consultancy from which he is now “semi-retired”. Growing up in a joint family, she spent her time playing with cousins and dancing to the popular show Hum Paanch. When she was three, she watched the 1991 hit Saudagar on a VHS tape and recognised the world she wanted to occupy. “There was simply nothing else I wanted to do,” she says. “Since that age, I was sure I had to be an actress, or a performer.” Besides watching movies like Aatank hi Aatank on a “daily basis”, she also joined her mother in watching the work of Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and other luminaries of parallel cinema.
Chadha’s ambitions remained unchanged even as she went on to study History at the prestigious St Stephen’s College, but the drama clubs there refused to have anything to do with her. “I don’t know why,” she says, before adding, “It was all a bit cliquish.” But with her don’t-care attitude firmly in place, she joined a National School of Drama production helmed by a friend’s mother. “I was an extra in a play called Aur Kitne Tukde, and I thought, ‘This is my big break’,” she laughs. She left for Mumbai right after graduating, joining a year-long course in mass media. To her, it seemed the ideal take-off point. “I picked it because it was short, I would have a place to stay and my parents would be happy that I was studying,” she says. A stint in theatre with noted director-actor Barry John led to her break with the 2008 dark comedy Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. Directed by Dibakar Banerjee, the film had Chadha playing a dancer named Dolly in a small, but significant role. Once again, she dreamt of an overnight transformation, the kind seen in movies. “I thought the film would release, I’d move straight into a bungalow in Juhu and have a string of suitors and boyfriends.” The movie opened on the weekend after the terror attacks in Mumbai. Though it went on to become a sleeper hit, the experience left Chadha feeling unmoored, “like a deer caught in the headlights”.
She was 21, and an outsider. As she remembers it, the time between her first release and second offer stretched interminably. “It was hard to get good work then,” she recalls. So she set about joining every workshop, training and acting class she could find, and did several short films and plays. “I studied Kalari and took part in a beauty pageant,” she says. In part, this came from a certain naïve confidence. “I thought, ‘Let me learn [all this] now as I won’t have time later, I’m going to make it big’,” she adds. But it was also rooted in self-doubt, pushed by her awareness that she lacked any formal training as an actor. Her next notable appearance was in Anurag Kashyap’s sprawling two-part saga, Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Kashyap had first met Chadha when she auditioned for DevD (2008) “wearing a pair of high heels she was very uncomfortable in”, he laughs. Though he didn’t cast her for that film, her audition left him impressed. In GOW, he offered her the part of Nagma Khatoon, a gangster’s feisty wife. A key concern was that the character aged on-screen from a young woman to a matriarch. Kashyap had first offered the role to another actress who turned it down. “I asked him if it was just me or was everyone getting older,” says Chadha “When I realised the arc of the entire movie was over 50 years, I was fine with it.” This decision would define her as a risk-taker in Bollywood’s image-obsessed world. “A lot of managers tell me, ‘If we were handling you, we would not have allowed you to do GOW’,” Chadha says while talking about her unusual choices. “They filled my head with so much fear about playing Nawaz’s (co-actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s) mummy. I said, ‘I’m glad you’re not handling me, because then I wouldn’t have had a career.”
BEING AN ACTRESS IS LIKE PREPARING FOR THE OLYMPICS. YOU TRAIN AND TRAIN AND GET 11 SECONDS TO RUN
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GOW got critical acclaim, and Chadha stood out for her portrait of a wife and mother in a testosterone-heavy zone. Soon after, came a comic outing as the foul-mouthed local don, Bholi Punjaban in Fukrey (2013). The same year, she also ventured into a Sanjay Leela Bhansali extravaganza, with a role in Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram Leela. But the second landmark, by her own and most industry-watchers’ reckoning, came with Masaan (2015). The film, shot on a modest budget, opened at the Cannes Film Festival, bagging major awards. This was followed by a release in India, where too, it got rave reviews. Masaan’s debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan, who had worked as an assistant on GOW, cast Chadha because “she was the right mix of everyday realism and charisma for the role”.
Ghaywan saw Chadha transform as she got into the skin of Devi, a young woman targeted in a sex scandal. “The second day in, she realised this was not an easy character to inhabit.” Chadha managed to embody Devi’s intelligence as well as her indecisiveness, he says. “For a woman with issues like these, it’s not about being in a constant state of sullenness, but being full of highs and lows.”
Chadha’s memory of Masaan’s shoot is similarly coloured. “I don’t do method [acting], but I do a lot of work on my characters, especially their body language, trying to understand their impulses. I don’t know if anyone can even see it. But maybe they can,” she says. Following the success of Masaan, Chadha emerged as a prominent face in Indian independent cinema. She marked the moment with a characteristically outré gesture. Tweeting a picture of her middle finger, she wrote, ‘To all those who said I shouldn’t work in ‘low budget arty films’’. Which is why her move into the unabashedly commercial world of her upcoming release Cabaret, has left many flummoxed.
Despite its name, the film is a contemporary drama set around a dancer’s life and tribulations in the big city. Its trailer features Chadha astride a red horse and jiving in a bodysuit. Her transformation is, in fact, one of the talking points of the movie. Producer Pooja Bhatt has been quoted in news reports as saying, “Those who’ve dismissed Richa Chadha as ‘un-glamorous’ will eat their words.” For Ghaywan, the choice is in keeping with Chadha’s constant need to be challenged. “It would have been easier for her to stick to doing similar roles after Masaan, but as an actor, she can’t be bracketed. She likes doing extreme parts—from Bholi Punjaban to Nagma Khatoon.” Even as a director, he adds, he would be worried about following up a Masaan with a starkly commercial film. “But she wants to do everything, and I think it shows how comfortable she is in her own skin.”
Chadha herself is unequivocal about her choices. “People should stop telling me what to do,” she says emphatically. “If I listened to everyone who had an opinion, I would just sit at home. I should be able to experiment, to ride a red horse or get old.” While she has done smaller roles in mainstream productions earlier, Cabaret will see her play the lead. “I don’t really think that way, about solo leads or big films. But the struggle with small parts in larger films is that often, your character can get lost,” she says candidly. While the industry itself has matured, she adds, “the media is quick to label you something dumb, like a ‘side heroine’.”
IF I LISTENED TO EVERYONE WHO HAD AN OPINION, I WOULD JUST SIT AT HOME. I SHOULD BE ABLE TO EXPERIMENT
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IN MANY WAYS, Chadha is part of a new generation of actresses, along with the likes of Kalki Koechlin and Radhika Apte, who are pushing the boundaries of female stardom. On a recent talk show, Chadha acknowledged this when she spoke of the need to “promote the category, not the product”. Among her upcoming releases is Jia Aur Jia, a saga of two women on a road trip together. “It’s a story of female friendship, that you don’t encounter too often,” she says. Koechlin, her co- star in the film, acknowledges the advantage of having a contemporary like Chadha. “There is power in numbers. The more actors there are [who do] unusual movies, the more such films will be written,” she says. While they are both working in a similar space, she adds, “each of us has something very different to offer. She can’t be me, and I can’t be her, so [we] are never a threat to each other.”
Kashyap points out that a key part of Chadha’s appeal is that “she is well-read and a very intelligent woman, which helps in an industry that shuns intelligence in actors. This is what has helped her stay relevant while others have vanished”. Like Apte and Koechlin, he points out, “she speaks her mind on a lot of issues and is fearless. This is what gets them respect .” While these are positive trends, there are also familiar roadblocks. “Invariably, we are called ‘unconventional looking’ heroines,” says Chadha. “But how does that work when most people will look more like me than a well put together star?” she demands.
Chadha is also known for her gutsy public persona: a rule breaker unafraid to speak her mind. And while she says social media as self-promotion bores her, she likes to use it to talk about “other issues”— like in 2015, when she criticised the beef ban in Maharashtra on Twitter and faced a backlash on the platform. Unlike some other celebrities, however, she refused to back down. “I give it back to people when I have time,” she tells me, scrolling through her phone. “I don’t think people should take shit.”
Despite her image of being outspoken, Chadha feels she is not particularly vocal. “Everyone is talking now, like Deepika (Padukone) on depression, or Anushka (Sharma, on cosmetic surgery). People are being honest, maybe women more than men.” As she sees it, she prefers to bend the rules rather than break them. “I’m trying to go with the flow. I am really just trying to find a place to do my own thing.”
At 29, Chadha is on her second wind. In the coming months, she will be seen in several avatars, including Dasdev, an adaptation of Devdas directed by Sudhir Mishra and Three Stories by debutant Arjun Mukherjee. Soon after we meet, she is to leave for Los Angeles, where she will shoot for Love Sonia, an Indo-US production on human trafficking. I ask her why despite her undeniable timing and impish sense of humour, her portfolio is short on comic roles. “That’s because people are myopic and only want to see you as they have seen you before,” she says. “I love comedy and am sure I will nail it in Fukrey 2”. Despite this, she continues to have the restlessness of someone who is just getting started. “I think I’m a hungry actress,” she says, “I still don’t think I’ve made it, I’m still pushing myself.” Being an actress, she says, is like preparing for the Olympics. “You train and train and train and train and then you get 11 seconds to run.”
By late afternoon, I watch her prepare for what turns out to be her last shot of the day. As she dresses, her colleague chides her assistant for making a mistake in her costume. Chadha herself responds in a lighter vein. “Maybe I should act like a diva for a day,” she says, turning to her assistant with her hands on her hips, before breaking into laughter. Waiting for her to be called on the set, we talk of the books in her bag, including a Deepak Chopra title her father gave her, and her idols. “I admire Kailash Satyarthi for his work with children,” she says. “Maya Angelou. And Beyonce. I love Beyonce. But some people dislike her also.” A pause, and then she shrugs. “You can’t please everyone.” A few minutes later, we walk onto the set, and this time I watch on the monitor as she delivers her lines, as the director calls cut and smiles his approval, and as Chadha turns to him and says, “Can I do that once again?”