Smriti Kiran: Everyone has a different metric for success, and for me actor, and now also producer, Richa Chadha is wholesomely successful. She wanted to be an actor since she was four. Not only is she one but she is lauded for her acting prowess. She delivers and looks really good while doing it. She is well-to-do, has a wicked cool partner and no matter what the internal turmoil she speaks up where she feels the need despite the consequences. She fought bulimia early on in her career and spoke about it. She fought slotting, body-shaming, rejection, and the trepidation that comes with unconventional choices, and emerged wiser from them.
Richa has broken many of the pre-set rules a leading lady is expected to follow. She credits her success to this, but breaking away from the norms comes with a price. The hardship is something you don’t desire or aspire to. In an interview, she said, ‘I am not looking for a tough ride. I want an honest ride.’ If the journey was hard for her, she nevertheless marched on, but she would have liked to have learnt things maybe a little less harshly.
Richa, we’re very grateful for your voice. It is really, really tough to withstand trolling, scrutiny, judgement and the establishment coming after you because you have an opinion and your popularity and credibility have enabled that voice. Therefore, it really matters that you express yourself and take a stand.
Richa Chadha: Thank you. You make me sound like a hero.
Smriti Kiran: Richa, you were discovered on stage, so to speak. Kanu Behl saw you in the play Baghdad Ka Ghulam and called you for a screen test for Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! You’ve always wanted to be an actor and being discovered was serendipity. Did you have a plan?
Richa Chadha: I didn’t really have a plan. I really just wanted to do this. I was so certain that it would be easy, and that I would end up doing something with it. I was naive enough to think that after my first film it would be a cakewalk – everyone would call me and they’ll be like, ‘No need to audition. Just go ahead. You’re a star now.’ But it wasn’t like that. I didn’t really have a plan. I did try whatever I thought was the general formula. I thought that I should do auditions, ads, a little bit of print modelling, theatre. I didn’t really do theatre with the intent of doing solely theatre. Otherwise, I would have stayed in Delhi because the Delhi theatre scene is quite cool. But I didn’t want to choose.
“I was doing this play called Kennedy Bridge with Khalid Mohamed, where in a span of two hours I had to go from being an 18-year-old to about a 55-year-old.”
I’m really grateful that I got my break from stage working with my guru, Barry John – that was the last play he directed. Aadar Malik and I were paired opposite each other, where I was playing Benazir and he was playing a Badshah, whom I rescued. I played this silly, cool character who would make her voice deeper and pretend to be a prince, and do all the horse riding and the sword fighting. But in the end, you discovered that she is a woman when she opens her hair. It’s a classical Urdu play. It was great fun.
Incidentally, in 1988, Shah Rukh (Khan) had done the same play with Barry (John). I really thought that it was a lucky play. For me, it was lucky. It got me my first break in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! Kanu actually did the audition with me. He didn’t just shoot it.
Smriti Kiran: I loved Dolly, and so did everybody else. The film was a sleeper hit, but the release was marred by the 26/11 terror attacks. There was a two-year period between that and until you got it and started shooting for Gangs of Wasseypur. You did a lot of theatre, workshops and short films like Vasan Bala’s The Wet Bride. That was one of the pieces of work apart from the audition that you did for Dev.D that Anurag Kashyap saw that helped him cast you for Gangs of Wasseypur. While you were keeping yourself occupied in the pursuit of acting, what was this period like in terms of navigating the industry, understanding the world and wrapping your head around it?
Richa Chadha: Actually, I wasn’t certain. That’s why I always count my beginning to be Gangs because between Oye Lucky and Gangs, I was quite disappointed and – it’d be a bit cocky to say it – almost disdainful. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! They can’t see true talent. Why aren’t producers lining up outside my door to cast me? Will I even make it as an actor?’ So, then I went back to doing theatre. I did a play with Thespo, the contest, and I got a best-supporting actress nomination or award. That was also great fun. We had a theatre group called What If. I really enjoyed the period of struggle.
Now when I look back, I know that I was working really, really hard. I was doing every workshop that was happening in Bombay. I got a chance to work on a play with Khalid Mohamed. And I was so excited because he had made Fiza. I was doing this play called Kennedy Bridge with him, where in a span of two hours I had to go from being an 18-year-old to about a 55-year-old. It prepped me so well for Anurag’s film. In fact, when I met Anurag for the first time, I asked him, ‘Is everyone ageing or is it just me?’ He said, ‘No, everyone’s ageing, but somehow women are saying no to the part.’ I said, ‘Okay, how will I do it?’ He said, ‘But you did it in this play.’ There was a lot of CG there: the wrinkles under the eyes and the mehndi in the hair – kaafi jawline give away kar rahi hai. I think that play really helped me.
I had a huge complex about not being able to go to NSD (National School of Drama) or FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). I cleared the first round of the written exam for FTII to be an actor. Then I went to do a course at Sophia College, which was an SCM (Social Communications Media) course, which is like journalism, mass media, and production. That was the best period of my academic life; I thoroughly enjoyed everything I studied there. It’s kind of made me who I am. I meet a lot of girls from SCM even today. They’re just cut from a different cloth. You don’t find that kind of character or talent.
When my acceptance letter came from FTII, uss saal FTII mein strike ho gayi. I thought it was a sign; but in my heart of hearts, I was like, ‘I’m really enjoying studying. Should I continue studying? Will I become a journalist? What will I do?’ I had great professors like P. Sainath and Smruti Koppikar, and so I was in two minds. But I guess when your true calling is something else, you end up doing just that.
Smriti Kiran: Richa, in your TEDx talk, you said, ‘My confidence evaporated when I came to Mumbai. I think I was a completely different person; I used to feel amazing when I was in Delhi. When I came to Bombay, I was told to gain weight, lose weight, fix my nose, get a boob job, fix my lips, grow my hair, keep squatting for a bigger booty, pout while talking, listen attentively.’
We might’ve become more mindful than before, but body-shaming is rampant. You suffered from bulimia as a result of this. How did you pull yourself out of it, and what advice do you have for the industry and aspiring actors?
Richa Chadha: It’s a lot better today than it was about three-four years ago. When the talk came out, you even had people who were writing about fashion stop discussing clothes and get really personal about it.
This is what it is: the sheer understanding that so many businesses will stop working the day a woman just wakes up and feels perfectly good and perfectly adequate as she is – not just women but everybody. The reason that we have fairness creams for men is because about 60-65% of the market share of the fairness creams for women were brought forth by the men using those fairness creams. That’s why the ad: ‘Arre ladkiyon wale kyun lagate ho?’ It’s very systemic.
About three-four years ago, I really felt like yahan pe sab Perez Hilton, E-News type ka format follow karte the while reporting on how celebrities dress. I found it so ridiculous that after a point I was like, ‘No, it’s not okay. You are some middle-aged bald man, unhappy with yourself, in your midlife crisis t-shirt. You don’t get to talk badly to me about my body.’
It comes from a place of acceptance. Different people have different relationships with their bodies in different phases of their lives. I know some women who’ve been happiest when they’ve been pregnant – when they’ve been their hugest. When I came in, I remember on my first day itself so many people joked about saying, ‘Arre isko thoda booty mein padding de do ya bra mein padding de do.’ I was like, ‘This is not that film – it’s “offbeat”.’ And I was like, ‘Who are these ugly men sitting and talking about my 21-year-old body and saying what it should be like.’ So, when you come to that point of realisation, you realise how full of tatti they are.
Smriti Kiran: I know that it must take a very special muscle to withstand this because we’ve seen very beautiful women, amazing women, go through bulimia – you among them. There are people who’ve even gotten plastic surgeries done. There must be something within the system that pressurises them or convinces them that they have to do it.
“I don’t know if I would never do anything. I certainly don’t want to look like an overnight soaked kismis, for sure.”
Richa Chadha: It’s not just the system now. Everybody’s kind of gotten okay with it. Especially with the platforms, you get to see people’s pores. It’s the idea that your face is being blown up so much and being watched so closely by everyone does things to people. It takes a special kind of talent not to be affected. Tina Fey said it beautifully in her book, Bossypants, ‘I have thus far refused to get any Botox or plastic surgery. (Although I do wear a clear elastic chin strap that I hook around my ears and pin under my day wig.) I can’t be expected to lead the charge on everything. Let me have my Photoshop.’
On the other hand, I don’t even judge it. We’ve had actresses, for example, Jane Fonda who said that getting a facelift at the right age added 10 years to her career. So, I don’t know if I would never do anything – I don’t want to be sanctimonious about it. I certainly don’t want to look like an overnight soaked kismis, for sure. But I’m saying, kabhi ek stage pe Jane Fonda jaisi confident Oscar-winning legend ko lag sakta hai toh kisi ko bhi lag sakta hai. It’s just that these HD cameras, which capture everything, do things to people.
Till the time we come to a place of complete acceptance, it’s going to be very hard. I don’t see us getting there anytime soon because now I see phone cameras having built-in fairness filters and Photoshop: you can make your eyes bigger, your teeth whiter.
Smriti Kiran: At some stage, when you spend four or five or six years in the industry, you realise that you are the keeper of your own construct. You need to figure this out for yourself as to who you want to be, what you want to accept, what you want to work on. What did that look like for you after you’d spent a bunch of years and done a couple of films? What changed in your decision-making? How did you start approaching things?
Richa Chadha: The first realisation – and it’s a very, very key realisation – that I would like to tell all the aspiring actors is: don’t get slotted in your own head. When Gangs was about to release, I remember I had a very good well-wisher friend, who’s a writer-director, meet me for coffee and tell me, ‘You should wear Fabindia kurtas; you should be in kurtas and ethnic clothes.’ I was like, ‘I’m strategically not wearing those things because I want people to know that I am young, otherwise they’ll cast me as a 40-year-old repeatedly. Not that I have a problem with that, but that’s not everything I want to do.’ So, he was from the other side, telling me how I should be more acceptable or malleable to the art house, parallel, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra world. He was like, ‘There is cognitive dissonance if you wear jeans and a Zara top.’ I’m like, ‘Have you seen me? Have you met me? That’s all I’m wearing all day. What’s your problem?’
“You just have to take everything with a pinch of salt. There are a lot of bitter, frustrated men and women around in our business.”
And on the other side, it was also that I was a “real” actress. ‘She’s a real actress. Kuch bhi kardo isko. Iske muh pe gobar laga do. Koi fark nahi padta.’ It was a very confusing time. I was like, ‘Who are these people? I know that they are indirectly paying me a compliment in refusing to believe that I can be a regular girl in her twenties, wearing whatever the hell I want – as much makeup, glitter and nail polish.’ It was just the fact that we are so set in our ways.
One thing we must realise is that it’s a malady that affects people across the spectrum. If you have somebody who’s doing multi-starrer films, comedies, the big-budget London shootings, usme bhi ek set idea hai of how you should look and how you should behave. So, I was like, ‘First of all, I have to pay my bills. I will do what I want – no matter if I do a film that I’m not so proud of every four years to get a bit richer; it’s nobody’s concern. Secondly, if I choose to do only events and take only a pittance as a fee for a film that I really believe in, that’s also nobody’s concern.’
The challenge has not so much been finding work – I’ve always been busy after Gangs, Fukrey (by Mrighdeep Singh Lamba) and all these films – but more finding a team that gets me instead of people trying to make me Vidya Balan. I’ve heard strange things like ‘Aap ke jaw ka shape Kareena Kapoor jaisa hai kyunki aap dono Punjabi ho. Toh you can try that also.’ Opinions and assholes – everybody has one. It’s kind of like that. I guess you just have to find what you need to do, your own balance and also not compete. It’s hard; I won’t say it’s easy. Even well-meaning people can inadvertently put you down. You just have to take everything with a pinch of salt. There are a lot of bitter, frustrated men and women around in our business. If you turn down someone’s film, they can be like, ‘But tumhari toh kahani vaise bhi khatam hai.’ I’m like, ‘Then why are you offering a film to me?’ All of that happens. You just have to get over it and be like, ‘Shut up.’
Smriti Kiran: You had said that the struggle only becomes harder as you go along; the beginning is better, but with the body of work comes slotting, putting into a box and typecasting. How do you break the noise that is around you, which is going to eventually lead to projects? How did you fight your own slotting?
Richa Chadha: I got a lot of scripts right after Fukrey, which were basically for characters that could be called Doli or Goli instead of Bholi – the same character; sometimes it was a cop, and instead of Delhi they’d set her in Haryana; sometimes it was somebody in Punjab. In any entertainment industry – I used to keep saying its only Hindi films, but it’s also in the West that it tends to happen – people do get slotted. But it’s okay. A director once told me, ‘You have to be cast first and then you’ll be typecast.’ So, I don’t really take it to heart.
A lot has changed recently because the platforms have given really stiff and very healthy competition to our very comfortable, complacent, big-budget entertainment industry, and things are really changing. That makes me very happy because it has cleared space for all kinds of faces, all kinds of gender roles, all kinds of body types, age groups. Like, Jaideep Ahlawat was in Gangs of Wasseypur.
I remember when I saw him in that scene, all the female ladies on that film were like, ‘Oh, my God! Look at the coal in his hair and the way he’s fighting!’ It took him so long, but he’s here, and he’s fantastic. That’s the other thing I want to tell people: if you’re talented, it doesn’t matter how long it will take, but it will happen.
Smriti Kiran: You just have to work really hard at it.
Richa Chadha: You don’t even have to work hard, sometimes you just have to work smart.
Smriti Kiran: What do you mean by working smart, Richa?
Richa Chadha: In the last two years, I’m trying to see that if I have something like Inside Edge coming out, which is going to be on a platform – and it’s a big show where I’m playing a leading part; a serious show about scandal, cricket, corruption – I also know that if I have Fukrey lined up to be shot, which may take, say, six months, I can do things to balance it out. That’s one.
The second thing is, young actors today can really control the way the world sees you. You can make dance videos on your Instagram reels, you can sing your heart out; you can have talents no one knows about that you nurture for yourself. The world is so open right now. I know it feels really heavy and repressive in many, many places, but we have to have hope. The battle of self-expression is the essence of it. Everything comes down to freedom of expression. I would go so far as to say that the battle between any kind of authoritarian regime, anywhere in the world, and democracy is a battle of culture. And as artists, we are ambassadors of culture. I have felt really belligerent so many times where I’m like, ‘I’ll create art.’ There’s so much that a song can do to heal the world. There I follow the philosophy of someone like A. R. Rahman. I read an interview of his where he said, ‘When I compose a song, I think of it as a sunnat, a dua going out into the world.’ That’s such a beautiful place to create from.
I try to humanize my characters. In Love Sonia (by Tabrez Noorani), there was a particular scene in which Madhuri, a sex worker, finds out she has a disease. I didn’t get much time to perform that because we were shooting in real locations. I wanted to be so real and so human about it that people realise that when you call somebody a prostitute in Hindi, it’s a cuss word. There’s a humanity to them and also a feeling of helplessness. It’s not like everyone you meet has opted for this career – they’ve either been trafficked or they’ve been desperate or they’ve just been on the verge of selling their babies or selling their organs. My whole intent is to always humanize these characters, whether it’s a don or anybody else. I try to humanize them because even a don in a lungi and kurta having a scotch and kebabs is having a moment for herself. You’re trying to get a window into her own mind and figuring out why she is the way she is – not trying to glorify her in a lower angle, slow-motion shot. We just have to find the humanity in all these characters.
Smriti Kiran: Richa, in the last two-three years, you’ve been picking up on a lot of skills: you went to Kazakhstan to learn dance, and you’ve been writing. Does having interests other than the primary passion that you have also help in some way to take away the anxiety to make the ride a little better?
Richa Chadha: I think it really does. Every kind of art, or every kind of interest, never goes to waste. I learned a bit of photography when I was at SCM. From that, I learned how to compose shots. It may never be of use to me as an actor, because I’m in front of the camera, not behind it, but I at least understand basic composition, I understand lensing, where to stand and what to do. Similarly, if I learn how to write dialogues, I can maybe make mine better. If I learn music, I can play with my voice for my characters – and I have, be it in Ram-Leela or Gangs of Wasseypur. If I know how to dance – I may never do a film with song and dance; I may never be required to shake my booty – I’ll understand rhythm which is also used in comedy. So, anything you learn, whether it’s Math or painting, is going to come in handy. I truly believe that nothing in life that you learn, that you have spent time discovering, whether it’s reading a book or gardening, goes to waste.
I’m generally a curious person. I love learning new things. I love that my job gives me perspective; it gives me a position of privilege. I’m always hanging around people. When I’m shooting in a smaller city, I’ll talk to the person who’s my bouncer to find out things. ‘Arre last week toh yahan rape hua tha. Aur abhi aap log ek ladki ke liye hai, toh uss ladki ka kya?’ Then they’ll tell me their point of view and understanding of what’s going on, and how much of politics is involved. I keep shooting as well. I feel like one day maybe I’ll make a kick-ass documentary just about life.
Smriti Kiran: I wanted to bring up the incredible blog post that you wrote when Sushant (Singh Rajput) passed away. It was one of those rare pieces amongst the vitriol that we were subjected to that came from a place of honesty and analysis. He was a friend, a fellow artist, and you both worked in the industry. What happens to one’s inner world when an artist that you began your journey with takes an extreme step?
Richa Chadha: It’s very hard to say what happened to him because that’s literally what the whole world has been thinking about all this while. Not just me but a whole lot of us were really shaken up, troubled, had sleepless nights trying to figure out what the hell happened.
“If you want to be an actor or artist of any kind, I really recommend that you find someone you can talk to so you can share and be open, otherwise, it can be a really lonely job.”
Firstly, it’s really hard to be an actor. You can do a tough film and move on to the next project thinking that you have three days to spare. But you have to understand that you create those feelings in your body no matter how lazy you are as a performer, you’ve got to smile when you’ve got to smile, you’ve got to cry when you’ve got to cry even if you use glycerine or a tear stick. Those feelings leave a residue in you. It’s not easy to just go from one thing to another.
I recommend therapy whenever it’s needed, and I had to take that especially after a film like Love Sonia, which was really hard-hitting and very challenging. I had a breakdown on the sets of Section 375 (by Ajay Bahl), which had me playing a lawyer defending a victim of alleged rape. It was not easy at all. You’re getting into the skin of those characters. I had to keep my emotions at that stage of boiling rage, where something would trigger the memory of a guy who looked at me funny when I was four years old, and that’s just the human mind. It wasn’t easy considering you shot for about seven-eight hours. Something will pop up that will either make you reflect or you’ll have an epiphany right when you’re standing in front of a camera – in front of a hundred people. Those things are not easy because you’re playing their emotions, and everything is emotions. When you’re angry or stressed, you have palpitations; when you’re happy, you get a good feeling in your tummy. If you want to be an actor or artist of any kind, I really recommend that you find someone you can talk to so you can share and be open, otherwise, it can be a really lonely job. That’s one.
The second thing is, it’s a very tough job because you are constantly trying to recreate from reality. You want to be natural, so you have to be thick-skinned. You can write, ‘I like brown bread sandwich,’ and somebody will be offended by that on social media and say something really terrible about your mother or your sister, so you really need to have a thick skin. But at the same time, you have to be so vulnerable, like a sponge, to keep taking things in from everywhere, juicing and using that. It’s a very tricky space to be in.
There was a death in someone’s family recently, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is how really natural, honest grief feels like.’ For a second in my mind, the actor came on. It’s a very hard space; a difficult way to live. That’s also why I feel like actors should get royalty and actors should get paid well because you’re losing anonymity. Everything you do is in public, whether it’s a marriage or divorce, or childbirth, stretch marks or ageing – you make a trade-off, and it’s not an easy thing. I wish one could have anonymity and be an artist.
Smriti Kiran: In that blog post, you also mentioned ‘subtle sabotage’. What does that mean?
Richa Chadha: Well, you’re constantly dealing with egos – people with huge egos in positions of power. You could decline someone’s script for reasons of your own – not wanting to be slotted or not wanting to be exploited – and they could hold a grudge. Kisi ke nephew ke liye birthday wish banake aapne time pe nahi bheja could also pinch somebody. So, you never know. I think this constantly happens.
I feel like I’ve experienced some bits of subtle sabotage, like bad press immediately after Gangs of Wasseypur, because it was such a strong performance and such an unexpected choice of a role for somebody in my age group at that point in time that it just shocked a lot of people. I wish it hadn’t.
“The battle between any kind of authoritarian regime and democracy is a battle of culture. And as artists, we are ambassadors of culture.”
Now everything is much more open, but I wish that people would just be open about these things. Isn’t it better for everybody if there’s a fresh influx of talented new actors? When you find good new actors, I feel really happy and celebrate everyone. I’m so excited about people like Guneet Monga, Vivek Gomber, Chaitanya Tamhane and Tillotama Shome. This makes me feel happy, and this brings out the desh bhakt to see that India is getting represented in so many ways. When people do well, I feel happy. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been short of money or work because I don’t have that brain where I let envy sit inside for a long time. I’m not saying I’m a saint. But that is an essential quality for any person to have.
Smriti Kiran: You are somebody who doesn’t shy away from expressing her opinion on a multitude of things whenever you feel the need to speak up. Has having an opinion affected you getting work?
Richa Chadha: Only so far as the really regressive, really terrible scripts, where people must have been like, ‘Arre nahi, vo nahi karegi.’ I don’t mind. It’s a great filtering process. They know I’m not going to do it. I’ve had that discussion also, where I’ve gone for meetings and people have been like, ‘There’s this in it, so much money also,’ and I’m like, ‘Guys, let’s just have a cup of tea and chat. It’s good that we met – saamne hi bol dete hai, aur ek dusre ka time bhi nahi waste karte hai.’ Yes, it has been a great filtering process in my life so far, but I don’t think my career has been affected in any serious way. I really hope that the establishment has better things to do.
Smriti Kiran: What are the things that you most regret? What are the things that you would most caution about to those who are just embarking on this journey?
Richa Chadha: Even after doing such strong roles, I remember there was a film that I hadn’t really agreed to. When I was on day 10 of the shooting, I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t really remember saying yes to it but I didn’t say no either, and here I am wearing feathers in a swimming pool. What am I doing with my life?’ Those kinds of things can happen. Everyone can be a pushover; sometimes you are afraid to say no to somebody who’s an established producer or director, and then you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God! My face is stuck there forever.’ ‘This too shall pass’ is the wisest, most sage-like advice I can give to anyone.
I don’t really have any regrets because I’ve juiced my mistakes. When I feel bad, I cry for days, and I sulk, and I stay in that depression. When I feel sad or something, I say terrible things about myself, my body, my work; I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to act; my career is over.’ Then I get over it, you know? I’m like, ‘Oh, khane mein kya bana hai?’ That’s how life is; that’s how life ought to be.
“Grow your brain. Cultivate good relationships; have genuine, honest relationships.”
If anything 2020 has taught me, it is to prioritize my own peace and my own happiness. That’s kind of also why I wanted to write the blog because I wanted to caution other actors who are like, ‘Let’s be papped; let’s be written about or spoken about.’ No one cares. If something happens to me, I’m sure that someone will leak my last video or my last photograph. I can’t say it better than this: ‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai?’
When you say ‘word of caution’ or ‘word of advice’, I just want to help people to be happy. Be happy. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. It doesn’t matter what a stupid casting director tells you. It doesn’t matter if they think you are not pretty. It does not matter. Look at their wife, she’s not pretty. So, stop it. He doesn’t have good taste. It doesn’t matter what the director thinks of your acting abilities or how much shelf life you’ve got left. It does not matter. These people’s opinions do not matter. If anything, they lose themselves in this chaos. In two years, you won’t know where they are. So, just like dinosaurs didn’t know that they were going to be obsolete and extinct, where they looked up and said, ‘Oh, a meteor!’ and then they were dead, similarly, I feel like a lot of people will not know what hit them. You should be happy.
Grow your brain. Cultivate good relationships; have genuine, honest relationships. Don’t be like, ‘Iski film hit ho gayi, iske ghar jaana chahiye.’ Don’t be that guy. I don’t get invited to a terrible amount of parties, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. I have so many interests: I have a kitchen garden; I have two pets. My lovely boyfriend and I have a great time, and we have our own circle of friends; perhaps we don’t invite other people to our parties, and it’s okay. This is not camp-ism. This is you picking who you want to hang out with. Energy matters: invite people with high vibrations into your life. And just stay sorted – meditate, eat, clean, workout, be happy and have other interests. Instagram is not an interest; Twitter is not an interest. Those are just things. Have an interest.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Genesia Alves: You are part of a very small set of this new generation of actors who don’t seem to worry about taking a political or social stance. How do you balance your value system in this industry where you have to work with people who are diametrically opposite to you?
Richa Chadha: I’ve become very Gandhian over the years. I don’t mean that I don’t lose my temper. I’ll take a long time to become a sage or at least a few decades, and maybe I’ll become more peaceful in terms of my temper and other things. In a very spiritual and true sense, both light and darkness are the same things.
We’ve all had our share of fallen heroes in the recent past. We all looked up to people who have then just shocked you with some response. I think it just comes from a place of understanding; I’m not even going to say compassion because there were days when I didn’t feel very compassionate, but I could understand where they were coming from. I could understand insecurity. I could understand the greed to get ahead faster, which is something that everyone constantly reminds you of. They’ll find a way to drill that into her head. You don’t know who’s got what on whom. You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.
I wouldn’t say I would stop judging people, because I judge them; but it’s far more subtle. I can understand what they are thinking. Oftentimes people personalise an experience and make it about a group of people – like in my career, if I’ve been shunted and sabotaged by person B, all of the people who fall in the same category will become my enemies in my head. So, I don’t need power. I need therapy to be able to deal with it.
I mean, why don’t we hate the British? As a culture, we are still very much a part of the Commonwealth. We’re talking in English and feeling very happy looking at royal weddings and things like that. But the truth is, people come into a space and they feel, ‘Dus saal pehle kisi ne mujhe kisi scenario mein hurt kiya tha, abuse kiya tha, so I’ll make it all about that category of people, and weaponise my rage.’ Someone somewhere will take advantage of it, and then before I know it, I would’ve ruined everything good about my life, been fully exploited for my ability to pull TRPs, and then just be dumped.
Priyanka Rehel: How hard is it for film creators to portray female characters on screen without sexualising them? Is there a way to not sexualise them?
Richa Chadha: I believe in empowered sexuality and sensuality like Beyonce. Everything about her owning herself and her agency really is empowering to men, women, LGBTQ+, and I really want that gaze to happen. It’s slowly happening. There’s something gentle about when a woman shoots another woman, even if there’s a lot of sex in discussion. I recently saw Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (by Alankrita Shrivastava). There was so much discussion about virginity, sex and marriage, what is taboo and what’s not, and desire. Both things will happen: there’ll be terrible repression, there’ll be people who will become spokespersons of culture and morality, but the opposite of that kind of thing is only love. The opposite of love is fear. So, any justification for misogyny, patriarchy or keeping caste supremacy alive comes from a place of fear – that the status quo will be disturbed.
If we have to move forward, we have to find ways to lessen that fear. If you do something poetic, beautiful, artistic, it just stays. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (by Céline Sciamma) was so beautiful. It was fascinating to watch. It was beautiful, it was so gentle, so thought-provoking and so forward. I guess you can fight it with that only. Those are the weapons we have. We’re never going to go and pick up arms on anyone. That’s one of the sad things about being a liberal. But then you stay sane and happy.
Abhishek Mahil: What is the importance of the need of behind-the-camera female crew members, especially in decision-making positions such as producers, directors, DPs, editors, sound designers, production designers, etc?
Richa Chadha: Bohot important hai, yaar. Vo toh representation ki baat hoti hai. Main aap ko ek example deti hoon: jisko hum ‘locker-room talk bolte hai, agar chaar launde saath mein baith kar koi joke maare toh chal jaata hai. Ab socho ke hum kisi film ka intimate scene shoot kar rahe hain aur koi female crew hai hi nahi. Ab toh intimacy consultants aate hai jo aap ko batate hai ki aise choreograph karna hai, aise kiss karna hai, aise turn karna hai. In cheezon se bohot fark padta hai. Agar females har department mein hongi na, toh thoda sa natural atmosphere rehta hai, kyunki sach toh ye hai ki duniya bhi toh co-ed hai. Male-dominated society hogi, but aisa toh nahi hai na ki samaaj mein sirf aadmi hai. Har jagah aadmi aur aurat dono hai. Toh mujhe aisa lagta hai ki agar aap ko acchi film ya accha kuch banana hai toh aap ko dono ko saath mein le kar chalna chahiye.
Phir bhi main ye kahungi ki agar main aage kuch produce karne ki soch rahi hoon, usme meri badi tamanna hai ki main all female crew ko rakhu jahan tak ho sake, kyunki main chahti hoon ki ek aisa space create ho jahan jo gender ki importance hai vohi khatam ho jaye, jahan koi kisi se flex na karein, jahan transport wala kisi se chilla ke baat na karein, jahan grips wala khujaye na. Main chahti hi nahi ki gender exist karein. Toh main, as an experiment, ye zaroor karna chahungi.
Main kitne saare sets pe gayi hoon jahan sirf main akeli thi jo ki ek ladki thi. Aur phir, ajeeb-ajeeb baatein jo unko samajh nahi aati, jaise yahan bathroom hi nahi hai. Toh main puchti thi, ‘Aurton ka urine skin se evaporate ho jaata hai? Ya hum paani nahi piyenge?’ Woh saari cheezein samajhna zaroori hai. Aisa koi jaan ke mean nahi hota. Par jab tak hum unke point of view se iss cheez ka abhaas nahi karenge, humein khud ahsaas nahi hoga ki dusre ke dimaag mein, sharir mein, aatma mein kya chal raha hai.
Radhika Chhabra: I am an actor, and I hope that one day I can also choose to do the plethora of roles that you have done. Now, this might sound childish, but I’m very scared of my parents’ judgments on doing something which is considered bold because I hail from a conservative background.
Richa Chadha: I come from a very regular middle-class family. In the beginning, my parents did have apprehensions. My mum is a Gandhian. She’s actually never used make-up in all her life; not even on her wedding day, when she only wore lipstick. So it was very hard for me to explain to her what I am doing and why I’m doing it. But I just had to make her understand that she and I were different – that my desire for self-expression took this form.
I really feel that if you’re convinced about what you want to do with your life and if you really follow it through with conviction, you will get success, and nothing succeeds that success. The same people, your relative family, neighbours who would be like, ‘Kya kar rahi hai?’ will line up and take selfies with you. The trick is not to bother with them at all. They don’t matter. You have to be happy. I would even go so far as to say that nobody else matters. Jaan hai toh jahan hai, boss. Koi fark hi nahi padta koi aur kya sochta hai.
It’s going to be challenging because deep-down the way we are raised and the way our society is, even us as people, the opinion of our parents really matters; even what they feel about us – we want to make them proud. That’s something which is always at the back of my mind. I wanted to make them proud, but in the beginning, I was like, ‘Let me not embarrass them for now and then we’ll see.’ Then things got better. If your skillset is good, if you work on your craft, they will feel proud of you, they will appreciate the artist in you. That’s just what art is: it doesn’t need language, it’s universal. It’s a piece of writing, a piece of acting, a piece of music or painting that cuts through all the barriers. We need more artists. If the world had more artists, we would be in a different space.
Radhika Chhabra: How do you ask for what you are worth since as women we tend to make do with what we are given as a whole? Did you ever have that shame to ask for it, if yes, how did you overcome it?
Richa Chadha: It’s still hard. Initially, I remember, in a project where there were lots of men, I was just told that this is the budget that’s been decided for you. You have to slowly work your way through it. I read somewhere, ‘Know your worth and then add tax.’ Be realistic about it. I’m not saying in the first project that you ever do you’ll be charging crores – that’s not going to happen. This is also something I wrote about in my blog: we all get paid pittance for our first few things because somebody is taking a chance on us. Acting is a very expensive hobby. To take this hobby and make it into a career is very expensive. You’re acting on someone else’s dime – someone’s giving you great lighting, camera, costume, – but there will come a point where you will be like, ‘This is hard work. I’m doing hard work.’ And that point should come sooner than later. Also, a sense that it’s not your hobby anymore, it’s a career, so you can’t be doing charity or films for free. I have done a few but those have just been to preserve relationships or if somebody was in a spot and needed some help.
Sheena Chohan: What do you want your legacy in cinema to leave behind for the future of women being empowered?
Richa Chadha: I don’t think I’ve ever thought of something as leaving a legacy just for women.
Anything that you do with your whole conviction, you bring your entire identity into it – whether as a woman or as an Indian woman or, if I go abroad and work in a Hollywood film, as a woman of colour. If you back your passion with authenticity and work, it’s going to benefit everyone in a way. Men can be inspired by you. Authenticity can be inspiring.
That also means that it’s okay to be vulnerable; you can cry; you can feel terribly sometimes; some years you just feel like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so bored of this job.’ You can feel ungrateful, ‘I’m sick of it. I need to move on and become a director now.’ Whatever it is, I think that the whole journey in life has to be looked at like a journey. We tend to look at it in our own head as a screenplay: this is my break, this is my award, this is my marriage, this is my first success, this is when I made my first crore – those kinds of things tend to bog us down, including an identity.
Of late, I’ve been wondering what about me gives off the impression that I’m so feisty. Maybe in a year from now, I’ll get bored with this word. That’s what I think evolution is. That kind of journey, because you’re an actor, will be in the public domain. So, I go for authenticity, and really being my truest self.
Just be happy. It’s only you and your life. Last month we were on a shoot. I remember I would shoot from, or wake up at, seven o’clock, or do a night shoot, go to bed at six o’clock; my lawyer would call me at 10:00 am before the hearing. I was doing an interview with Barkha Dutt, where I broke down. I wasn’t sad, but I wasn’t afraid to cry. I wasn’t afraid to cry thinking, ‘Oh mera feisty cred damage ho jayega,’ because it’s really silly to think that people are not vulnerable or powerless or they are not affected in their personal space or personal life. Something affects you; something touches you; something moves you; you are bound to react. That’s really important.
Again, the more you express it, the more you react, the happier you’ll be. It’s really all about being happy. Do not forget that if you want to be an actor, you’re doing it to be happy. So, let nothing come in the way of your happiness.
Pratik Kumar: Can you share your experience of auditions?
Richa Chadha: Auditions, by and large, are a heart-breaking process. They are, honestly, terrible. But if you feel confident, secure and honest, that says it. If you are well-prepared, it shows. Do your prep, learn your lines. Don’t go there flexing your muscles. It’s not going to help. Try a different diction, dialogue, dialect change, or a different hairstyle, but when we watch something new and honest, it hits you. Suddenly you’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God! Why is there a tear in my eye?’ That’s because something in a moment of honesty has happened. So, identify that and work towards that.
That’s what’s worked for me. I only owe my career to auditions. Kanu wasn’t even a casting director, he was an AD on the film. Vasan Bala was an AD on a film. Gautam Kischandani was a casting director for Dev.D. Four years after that audition I got Gangs of Wasseypur. I don’t think anything ever goes to waste. So, just keep auditioning, keep the faith, but remember to be honest and remember to feel confident. You’re putting yourself on tape. If you’re feeling under-confident, under-prepared, the camera will catch everything, including the hidden sadness in your eyes.
Divesh Mirchandani: As an actor, how do you deal with this inner voice that tells you that you’re getting slotted into a particular role or you have an image which might be because of some previous role that you have done?
Richa Chadha: I consciously try not to repeat myself too much. It’s not always possible – there will be a common grain in what is happening across characters that you portray. As far as possible, I try to not repeat myself too much. Even in films where I know that I’m not going to get a huge amount of critics’ ratings or box office, I feel like I have to do a good job. Your own idea of yourself has to be broken enough times for anything to actually occur, whether it’s somebody else’s recommendation or an idea that they have in mind for you – and this could be very hard to do – like your manager, your PR person could be like, ‘But this is a Richa Chadha type of role.’ Then you’re like, ‘No, mera koi type nahi hai.’ You have to constantly do that.
Swaratmika Mishra: How do you prepare for your roles? How do you go about giving that dimension even when the camera or the lensing is far away, yet every action or nuance speaks, whether it’s in Fukrey, where I see you as Bholi Punjaban, or in Gangs of Wasseypur, where everything is out of control, or Inside Edge, in the sense that you have to walk from one room, where you’ve just made a hard decision, to another, where everything is falling apart and that needs your attention? How do you transition, and what do you bring to the table apart from the character sketch given to you?
Richa Chadha: I try to do a lot of other work. There’s a way to read a line. When you meet someone, when you’re walking on the road, you can take a look at somebody, anybody, and imbibe the way they are walking, talking, what they’re wearing, the way they are scratching their head, or the way they’re sniffing, or the way they sneeze without covering their mouth – these are very tell-tale signs of who they are. I try to find those signs, and very crucial things, which sometimes are in the script and sometimes they aren’t, like socio-economic backgrounds. Main English medium school mein gayi thi ki Hindi medium school mein? Main lawyer bani hoon toh kya main acche grade se bani hoon ya kisi ke sifarish se bani hoon ya main quota se bani hoon? All those things are very important for me to figure out. That will reflect in how I talk, whether the English has polish or finesse or whether it’s more Indian English, where the Ts are harder, without trying to make fun of how somebody speaks. Those things are very crucial to me. Even the upbringing of the character: what kind of a household she grew up in? Was it patriarchal? Did she have freedom? Because that character is not me. I can’t bring my St. Stephen’s education and approach a character like Dolly. I have to look at her from new eyes and try to understand what she thinks and how she wants to get out of this class by marrying an NRI. I try to look at everything.
Usually, most of the material is in the script and in the choice of words. This is a great Meisner exercise: what other characters say about you in your absence is something that helps you know who you are. I do a lot of my work like that.
The difference between a great actor and a good actor is the freedom they have in choices. Most actors go into a scene thinking ki main agar ye expression dunga toh director cut kar dega. Arre cut karne do na usko. Cut karna uska kaam hai, tumhara kaam hai try karna. If people don’t have the freedom to try new things, then the scene will fall flat. The scenes which have magic often are where people are trying new things, are experimenting, whether it’s with improvising after a joke or trying to do something new – that’s what creates the excitement. For everyone to have that comfort, you have to be nice and open. In any theatre improv class, the first thing they say is, if I say that we are on the surface of the moon in astronaut costumes, the first thing you will say is, ‘Yes, please,’ and then you’ll build from there. You’ll first agree to be in the astronaut costume on the surface of the moon and walk funny before you can build on that scene. So, we can’t build on something unless everyone’s on the same wavelength. And I’m not saying it’s easy – you find very cocky and self-important people also. With them I’ve learned not to be so open. I don’t want to burn my fingers. But more often than not, you’ll find that I’m a good co-actor, and this is something that theatre has taught me.
Riti Kumar: Which has been your most challenging role and what went behind it? How did you prepare for that character?
Richa Chadha: My most challenging part until now I used to think was Masaan (by Neeraj Ghaywan). But last year I did a film called Madam Chief Minister (by Subhash Kapoor). That’s been my most challenging part. From the way I look in that film – almost unrecognizable – to the skills I had to learn for it to the kind of reading I had to do in order to get an idea of what a person in that situation goes through to try to understand this demon called caste in our country, which I didn’t understand. (I didn’t understand it because it didn’t affect me; I’m a privileged person.) The prep that went into it, the execution, how hard my director made me work made it my toughest part. I really hope that it does something. If I can do something to people’s psyche and humanize that character and make people understand a certain socio-economic reality of our lives, which is outside of this internet world, it’ll really make me happy if that little bit hits home and touches somebody. I would have done my job. I’m looking forward to the release of that; eagerly and very nervously because I know that it’ll create a lot of questions, people will have a thousand opinions, I might get trolled for how I look, but it’s all going to so irrelevant as compared to the experience of working on that project and what I learned from it and what I’ve given of myself to it. So, I’m really looking forward to that.
Angad Bhatia: Does each character in some way consume you? Does a part of your life belong to them while portraying them? And if you have learned any lessons from them do you apply that in real life as well?
Richa Chadha: Not all characters consume me, like a Bholi Punjaban won’t consume me – she’ll entertain me, she’ll keep me in good spirits; I love playing that character – she’s high status, she’s badass, she’s telling people to do things and she’s thoroughly corrupt inside. She’s like, ‘Tune mera loan nahi diya toh main teri ek kidney le lungi. Tere paas toh do hai.’ So, it’s just in good humour.
While not every character may consume you, from the ones that matter, you can take away things from each of those. The last part that I was talking about, it’s taught me so much about our country and how the caste system works in our country. From working in a film like Love Sonia taught me so much about how something that is a cuss word – what we call commercial sex workers – is their reality, their everyday life. When you go into a brothel in, say, Kamathipura, you will forget about notions of good and bad, heaven and hell, because you will realise that this dark, dingy, badly lit space is perhaps what hell actually looks like – you don’t have to go too far. Everything exists on this planet, at this time, as we are experiencing it, as we are going through it. So, every character, the ones that come from things like this really teach you something. Even Inside Edge—a glamorous, well-made big series—taught me so much about the insecurities of being an actress, which I personally may not feel. I may be very happy with my female co-stars and have a great time, but my character’s forever so insecure about a younger or prettier actress, and feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s going to sleep her way to the top.’
When I do these parts, the things that they teach me are invaluable to me in the sense that I get interesting perspectives. That’s how I want to continue to work and find something – not in common with – and discover something different. Just trying to work on different characters from different classes will eventually make me a better person.
Omkar Thakkar: Now that you are working constantly, how do you find time to consume content, and process and reflect upon your craft? How do you face the fear of burning out?
Richa Chadha: It is a time-consuming thing. Sometimes, I have to pick between watching a new series or working out or doing a class online. I invariably will pick a class because I feel like whatever I need to watch I can watch at any point. To this whole pressure to binge on something or to consume content, I’m like, ‘Mujhe consume nahi karna hai. Mujhe dekhna hai.’ I don’t like that we are using the terminology of the people who are making the content. Why should we consume content? Why should we binge something? I mean, some things are binge-worthy and you go after them and finish them all in one go.
It’s not like I never plan. I make a detailed to-do list. Sometimes, my mind is very scattered, then I will make an hourly timetable for myself. I just try to fit in things, even those that give me joy, whether it’s watching something or just relaxing, listening to music or doing something really therapeutic like decluttering or getting rid of half of my wardrobe. I try to find time to do those things, and that keeps me happy and grounded, and gives me time to also learn new things. My time is very important to me. If you don’t find time for yourself, then as an actor you’ll be in a very bad space, because you’ll feel very burned out.
You must remember that it’s not easy. When you go on set, koi muh chhu raha hoga, usi time pe koi baal chhu raha hoga, usi time pe koi kapda chhu raha hoga, usi time pe mic wala bolega ki battery chali gayi toh koi paon chhu raha hoga battery change karne ke liye, usi time pe ek AD aake baat karega ki ye wale dialogue mein, ye line mein, teen dot ke jagah do dot aur ek comma lagega aur usi time producer aake bolega ‘Location sirf do baje tak hai.’ Remember that it’s a very public job. So, I do take time out to unwind. I don’t go to sleep instantly after a shoot. I come back home and take a bit of—what my dad calls—transition time: being on a set with so many people and then being solo and doing things alone. My cats will bring me back to reality in 30 seconds. ‘Aa gayi?’ ‘Haan, main aa gayi.’
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Richa Chadha in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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