In an interview with G20, the actress spoke about Shakeela, which is set for a Christmas release, the hypocrisy of people partaking in ‘bold’ content, and how the industry is moving slowly towards being a better place for women.

 

Across her life on screen and off it, Richa Chadha has created a niche for herself as a woman who speaks her mind. As she declares in her new film, a biopic of Southern ‘soft porn’ star Shakeela: ‘Maine joh bhi kia, khule aam kiya, purdeh ke saamne, kisi ko dhokha nahin dia.’ Excerpts from the interview:

Q. What was the most exciting part of preparing for the role?

A. There was not much preparation to do. I did get to eat all the food I usually don’t to gain weight for the role. I got to speak to Shakeela and study her as a person. She is damn cool and her life has been so cinematic. So much has happened to her, things which are really interesting and which no one else knew about.

Q. Do you worry whether you would be able to do her story justice on screen?

A. I don’t, but there is definitely a sense of responsibility. We owe her the honesty and transparency. She should be able to move around in her circles without any embarrassment.

The film’s trailer begins with news of Silk Smitha’s death. Both Silk and Shakeela rose from financial difficulties to become ‘soft porn’ legends in the South. Do you worry about comparisons with The Dirty Picture? Both the films seem to have a similar aesthetic too.

The aesthetic of the two movies seem similar because they are set in the same time frame, more or less. But I don’t think the two films have anything in common – even the two people have nothing in common. I would say Shakeela’s success came because of Silk’s untimely death because she is who eventually replaced her. She became the go-to person only in the absence of Silk Smitha, which is why the trailer starts with that. But Shakeela continued to do what she had been doing, while Silk had also done other films.

Q. Are there apprehensions that you will be compared to Vidya Balan?

A. I don’t care if there are comparisons – that is inevitable – even though that film came out about ten years ago. Thankfully, at least this time, I would be compared to someone I like and respect.

There is a double standard when it comes to “bold” content, where it is heavily consumed in society and simultaneously censored. The same goes for the performer, especially when it is an actress.

It is always the case. The people who watch these films, who know of these films, are the first ones to judge and shame someone for them. You can see it in the trailer when Pankaj Tripathi tells the actress that she can’t show (bra) straps because “it’s a family film”, but in the next shot, he tells her, ‘we are going for an outdoor shot, don’t bring your mother’. But this hypocrisy will be tackled directly in this film, with no beating around the bush.

The film industry has always had a history of being unsafe and exploitative for actresses. But that side has been spoken about more in recent times. Has it led to a change? Would you say an actress feels more respected now?

I don’t know about anywhere else, but here, things have definitely changed across the spectrum. There was the time when “Sexy Sexy Mujhe Log Bole” created a hue and cry across the country. And now we have an actress from the porn industry and she carries herself with great dignity and continues to do her work and people are fond of her. Plus, with so many women writers, directors and producers, there has been a big change. And that is what we have to reinforce. I just hope the change goes beyond Bollywood and cinema and penetrates society because we really need that.

Q. Given the male gaze and norms of beauty, how can an actress today strike a balance between feeling objectified or pressured to live to certain standards and empowered or body-positive?

A. That comes down to the individual—how much they let it affect them, how much they want to alter their appearance. I don’t say this in judgement of anyone. Even Jane Fonda spoke of how getting a facelift extended her career by ten years. This entire debate about objectification depends entirely on the gaze, but that gaze has been around, further than Renaissance paintings. So a shift cannot be sudden. But it is happening gradually, even on the Indian scene. If you look at content on OTT platforms, even commercial productions like Mirzapur, you will find characters who are allowed to be diverse.

Q. What is the best way to deal with public criticism online?

A. I don’t deal with anything. I welcome all kinds of opinions. People spend time watching something, and if they hate it, they have the right to criticise it. I am completely okay with it, it is my job.

Q. You were a part of Unpaused which came out on Amazon Prime, and now Shakeela is going to be one of the first major releases after theatres were allowed to function. Are you looking forward to theatres reviving post-Covid? Or are you excited about the rise of digital platforms?

A. The collective cinema experience is something we all cherish and hold close to our hearts, and it can’t be changed at all. I remember watching Lagaan in the hall with a hundred other people, all of them cheering for that match. That can’t happen with a small screen. OTT is great but I will be very happy when cinemas are revived and people go back to watching their favourite actors on the big screen.

Q. What projects are you currently working on?

A. I am doing a series, which will be shot partly here and partly in Uttarakhand. And I’ll be seen in the theatre next for Madam Chief Minister. Then there’s Fukrey 3. So, there’s a busy line-up ahead.