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May 18, 2016

Richa Chadha Doesn’t Want To Fit Into A Mould

Text by Shashi Baliga. Photographed by Aneev Rao. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Assisted by Shweta Navandar. Make-up and hair by Sandhya Shekar. Location courtesy: Waterstones Hotel, Mumbai

The darling of indie cinema talks about breaking out, shedding her inhibitions and walking the red carpet to success

The mid-morning sun slants its way into the hotel room, lights up Richa Chadha’s amber eyes and hots up her bare, naked face. It’s an unforgiving light; one that nothing less than flawless, silken skin could shine through. The actor is blessed with that kind of skin. So are quite a few other actresses. But no actress I have ever met (including some legendary beauties) would let herself be seen by a journalist in that utterly vulnerable state; make-up is as good a defence as any against the prying eyes and ears of the press. And then there’s the need to preserve the illusion — stars will arrive for the make-up marathon that is needed before a photo shoot with oversized sunglasses, whoosh in, say hurried hellos, rush into the make-up room, bolt the door and emerge only when their public face is ready to be seen.

Not Richa Chadha. She parks herself near the sunlit French windows, where the make-up artist has asked her to sit — and submits to her ministrations and my questions. “I can’t see you, but I can hear you…we can talk,” she assures me, her low voice sounding even more soft-spoken as she talks through dabs of foundation and her busy hands. She enjoys photo shoots and says, “I find posing difficult, but I find the whole experience interesting.” She has also learnt to pay more attention to her wardrobe. “When I first started out, I had a casual, everyday approach to it, as if I was dressing for college (St. Stephen’s, Delhi). I wasn’t necessarily the most well-groomed person, but I took chances. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. I’ve worked on it and figured it out.”

Her acid test came in 2012 when she made her first visit to the Cannes Film Festival where designer threads often overshadow the movies. She was new, it was only her third movie (Gangs of Wasseypur — Part 1) and she had put her gown together with some help from a friend who was not a professional designer. “The dress actually turned out to be a little short because it didn’t factor in high heels. But I wore it anyway,” she shrugs.

She’s not as ill-equipped or casual now. At her next (and more triumphant) Cannes outing in May 2015 for the intense Masaan, which won two awards at the festival, she wore a sparkling Sabyasachi sari to the premiere, a pink Gauri and Nainika gown and another abstract-print Giles outfit. The casual dresser, who went through a Goth phase in college, has now travelled the world and acquired a more sophisticated fashion sense.

She still likes to experiment, though. “I don’t want to clone the latest trends or wear something because it’s the colour of the season,” she says. “I don’t read (Bollywood) fashion reviews because a) I think not too many people know what they’re talking about. And b) I think they appreciate sameness in everyone and encourage everybody to be homogenous — in their clothes, their shoes, their look. Bollywood encourages a lot of homogeneity.”

The H-word is one that keeps popping up throughout our conversation. “When I did Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! in 2008, people thought I had a spark, but they did not necessarily think I had a future,” she recalls. That was because she didn’t quite fit the accepted mould for a commercial Hindi film heroine; traditional insiders couldn’t quite see her running through a field of tulips in a chiffon sari, hair blowing in the wind. But she got lucky when an assistant director of Dibakar Banerjee’s spotted her in a play in Mumbai and cast her in Oye Lucky!…. From there on it has been a hard-working climb to Cannes, awards, designer ensembles, and the occasional all-out commercial movie.

She’s still not willing to fit into any mould. Consider her Twitter bio: ‘An egg-white omlette is a fair, pleasant and non-threatening creature of manufactured sexuality. I am a sunny side up. :-D’. When I ask her why and how, she talks of the ‘bland sameness’ that prevails in Bollywood. “We get back to the homogeneity. There’s a certain way one has to be and look — pretty, fair, cute, with straight hair. It’s a look manufactured for another’s gaze. It’s not a celebration of your own sexuality, a certain masti, it’s not you having fun, it’s following certain postures and things that you know will be a hit.” She sees hope, though. “Luckily, we have several exceptions today — Kangana (Ranaut), who’s got a mass of curly unruly hair; Priyanka (Chopra), who’s dusky; and Kalki (Koechlin), to name a few.”

However there are times when an actress has to manufacture a certain kind of sexuality for a role. Chadha has done quite a few scenes that Bollywood likes to call ‘bold’, that have been within the requirements of the narrative. (Interestingly enough in B-town, the word ‘bold’ is never used for a choice of roles, but for roles that show off some skin.) And what about an item number — would the darling of indie cinema be game for one?

“Yeah, and I’d have fun with it! What’s wrong with item numbers?” she counters. “Earlier, they brought in foreign entities to do the sexy scenes because the heroines were all virgins. But leading ladies are now doing sexy dances and item numbers and having fun with them. Why not?”

An item number in Bollywood is a tricky matter. It can be organic or not. Charming or crass. And words like ‘commodification’ and ‘exploitation’ get thrown around. Where does ownership of your body end and exploitation start? “It’s not exploitation when it’s real” is Chadha’s thumb rule. “The nude scene in Bandit Queen or the kiss (and it’s a long one) in Ishqiya is not exploitation.”

Unfortunately, an actress may not always have control over camera angles which can make all the difference between aesthetic and tacky. “Definitely. It happens — you have your female lead lying down and the camera is placed here (she gestures towards her chest) so all you see in the frame are boobs.” It then boils down to the trust between the actress and her director, doesn’t it? “See, I’m now doing a film that’s called Cabaret; it’s riding on the theme of sensuality. But I’m in the hands of a woman who has been an actor herself (producer Pooja Bhatt) and I trust her aesthetics. Look how she picked Sunny Leone for Jism 2 and presented her like a lady. That’s the difference,” she points out.

Cabaret is one of only two full-on commercial films in her career graph (the other being Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela). An unequal balance that is not quite of her making, she says. She likes commercial cinema, she enjoys watching it and can’t figure out why “people don’t seem to think I would be interested in doing commercial films. Even when they offer me one, they’ll check twice with me if I’ll do a song or a particular kind of scene. I’ve shot four songs for Cabaret and they were great fun, so I can’t understand why people think you can either do this, or that. It’s ridiculous, no? Because everyone should be able to do everything”.

Can’t argue with that. She adds that she tested for the role of Rasila in Goliyon… before she did Gangs of Wasseypur. She didn’t get to read the script but always wanted to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, so she said yes. “I figured that you make your own role as you go along,” she says.

That she certainly has. She went from the quiet strength of Rasila to the belligerent, foul-mouthed but deliciously named Bholi Punjaban of Fukrey (“Pehle payment, phir enjoyment” was her best throwaway line in the movie). Was that fun all the way? “No, that was very stressful because I’m not the kind of person who can bully people into doing things,” she replies. Then does a voluntary rethink. “Yes, actually, I think Bholi Punjaban was the most enjoyable character I’ve played. A bit risky, but fun.” I loved the idea of this kick-ass female lead whipping a bunch of ambitious but deluded kids, I remark. “Well, they’re all my age actually,” she shoots back.

Oh no, Bollywood’s gender bias has managed to sneak in again. How does she deal with it? “I’m not in a position to deal with it yet,” she says. “I’ll think about it when I’m 30 or 40. The problem is that the better written roles for females also need to work; they need to bring in money at the box office, or get awards, for the patriarchal exhibitor-distributor nexus in India to take notice and let us tell different stories.”

When there’s talk of gender bias, can patriarchy be far behind? In her experience, has it gotten any better in the film industry in the last few years? No way. “I don’t think the patriarchy has reduced; it’s the women who have got empowered. Women are speaking out, but that doesn’t mean the men have stopped treating them the way they always have,” she says.

There are other forms of discrimination on the sets that bother her, too. “Everyone will not stay in the same hotel, for instance. Why should there be three levels of accommodation for different members of the cast and crew? There are so many levels of hierarchy and clear differentiation in different areas.”

Chadha talks from bitter experience; her worst moment in the film industry was a result of a perceived hierarchy that clearly still rankles. She won’t name the person involved; all she will reveal is that she was “an actor who’s senior to me”. In age or hierarchy? “Both. We were sharing a vanity van and had our allotted timings. One day she came early, found my staff and make-up artiste in the van and threw them out. I felt really bad about it because she threw out their kits and expensive equipment as well. They suffered a substantial financial loss and they weren’t too rich to begin with. It really upset me. I was not there at the time but others were but I don’t think anyone did anything,” she recalls.

Would she do anything about it if it happened today, when she’s tasted some success in the industry? An honest answer: “I don’t think I would have behaved very differently even today. I would make sure the person knew I was upset but I wouldn’t react by throwing their stuff.” What she did do, she recounts, was to reflect about the ill-behaved actress: “Her end is near.” Interesting. Why? “Some people start buying into their persona and stardom more than they ought to. In Sanskrit, it’s called ahankar — thinking no end of your own being. And it doesn’t work.”

Isn’t it ironic that when there were no consequences of your words, you were careful with them; and now that you’re well known, the caution’s gone, I remark. “It was just that I didn’t want to jeopardise my chances. It wasn’t that I was fearful but I was silent; there’s a difference,” she clarifies. “Maybe I didn’t have the confidence to freely express what I felt or thought.”

She certainly does now. Last month, she sounded off on Twitter about a listicle titled ‘Watch Bollywood’s 10 Boldest Sex Scenes’ which included the opening sequence of Masaan, one in which her character, Devi, is arrested by the police when they raid a hotel and find her in bed with a young man. “It was completely illogical, senseless and an inaccurate piece. Thanks for trivialising cinema to write a titillating listicle,” she fumed.

Clearly, there’s no fear and no silence either, now. Just the confidence that two awards at Cannes can give you. Masaan took home the FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics award, and the Promising Future Prize in the Un Certain Regard section. “It was the happiest week of my life,” she says. “To be exposed to cinema from all over the world, to so many different audiences, meet so many film-makers…it was wonderful.”

One side effect of her Cannes trip was much online chatter about her and French actor-director Franck Gastambide, especially after photos of the two holidaying surfaced. Steaming hot pictures of Gastambide’s six-pack added to the buzz. But Chadha dismisses any such talk. “Those are rumours! I even read somewhere that I am to be moving to Paris soon. None of this is true, and I keep my personal life guarded.”

True, she has managed to keep her personal life under the gossip radar. “I don’t think too many people are interested in it and I kind of like it that way,” she says. “The biggest loss, I feel, is that of anonymity. I am one of those people who likes to be recognised only on the red carpet, or at award functions. But not on the road.”

Recognised on the red carpet she is now, both in India and internationally. Masaan has done the festival circuit and so has Chadha. Last stop was the Marrakech Film Festival where she was invited to be on the prestigious jury, headed by legendary film-maker Francis Ford Coppola. She rubbed shoulders with the icon, and told fellow jury member Bill Murray that Ghostbusters was one of her favourite movies as a kid. “I was lucky to be picked; I was the youngest member there,” she grins.

Lucky? You’ve earned it, haven’t you, I tell her. “Yes, but I’m not sure that there aren’t other deserving people in the country. In that sense I think I’m lucky,” she argues. “Several actors could have done my role in Gangs of Wasseypur as well or better than me…actors who are from NSD (National School of Drama), Delhi or FTII (Film & Television Institute of India, Pune) and have gone through serious training. I’m an instinctive, spontaneous performer who just happens to be going to Marrakech. So luck is definitely important.”

And much to be grateful for? “Always,” she says.

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