Fringe benefits

‘If I am fighting for women to be represented in a certain way in our movies, I know it’s not going to happen in my lifetime’ — Richa Chadha

By Priyanka Roy
  • Published 12.09.18
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Richa Chadha

Richa Chadha was a happy girl when t2 dialled her last week. It was the day Section 377 — which criminalised homosexuality in India — was scrapped. “I am so happy. At least some good things are happening in the country,” laughed Richa. This Friday, the 

31-year-old actress returns with yet another powerhouse act — as sex worker Madhuri in Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia, which also stars Rajkummar Rao, Freida Pinto, Manoj Bajpayee and newcomer Mrunal Thakur. t2 chatted with Richa on being Madhuri, handling trolls on social media and being a woman with a voice.   

‘I play the most bizarre person in @lovesoniamovie. It’s the coolest graph I have ever experienced, like Joker almost. Yet such a royal mindf**k!’ you posted on Instagram recently. What was it like being Madhuri in Love Sonia? 

It’s true! She’s the craziest person I’ve played and yet there’s such a sensitive side to her. She’s a sex worker who becomes part of the system that exploits other women for the sake of her own survival. And what is this survival? For someone, it could be something as small as an open window or a room to yourself in the brothel; it could be having a large nose pin or even just the luxury of choosing a client. Just for something as little as that, you are willing to do to another human being what has already happened with you and which ruined you forever. That’s what’s bizarre about this character. There are a lot of shades to her.

Everyone is like, ‘Mujhe lead role karna hai’, but when I saw the script, I found my graph to be the most interesting in the film. I’ve milked it and how! I’ve really had fun with this character. 

A lot of people who like to put me in a box all the time have called and said, ‘This is your space. So happy to see you back in your space’. I wonder then, are they referring to a brothel?! (Laughs) Are they trying to tell me that Fukrey is not my space because it’s a comedy and a commercial film and that they want me to be depressed? I don’t really listen to people anymore.   

She’s (Madhuri in Love Sonia) the craziest person I’ve played. Everyone is like, ‘Mujhe lead role karna hai’, but when I saw the script, I found my graph to be the most interesting in the film

Even after doing such diverse roles, do you still struggle with stereotyping?

Oh ya! After Gangs (of Wasseypur), jitne bhi gareeb, langde, circumstances ke shikaar… jitne bhi dukh waale roles thhe, they would always be in my kitty. Then after Fukrey, female cops, investigators, bodybuilders… all those roles came to me. Sometimes I would feel that they’ve just changed the name of the characters. After Masaan, it went back to being depressed, small-town, rural characters…. 

Honestly, the alternative side of cinema is also a prisoner of its image. When I was starting out, I was asked why I wore a gown or a short dress off screen. And my answer would be, ‘That’s my rebellion. I don’t want to be seen as a 50-year-old mother of Nawaz (the role Richa played in Gangs of Wasseypur)!’ I would be told, ‘Tumhein Fabindia ke kurte pehen ne chahiye… Javed Akhtar ke saath chai peeni chahiye (laughs). If I am wearing jeans and a crop top, I’m doing so because that’s me. The problem is that everyone on the alternative side of cinema is perceived to be Nandita Das. Nandita is who she is authentically, and I am who I have to be authentically. This kind of identity crisis will go on for the rest of my career. 

The new thing now is that people have a problem that I have an opinion. We are told that Bollywood actors should just stick to talking about films. That’s fine… then we will not pay taxes either.       

Has it been easy to say ‘no’ to lucrative offers?

Somehow I am not driven much by money, so it’s easy for me to say ‘no’. Sometimes I’ve said no to things that have later turned out to be good. I don’t regret those decisions, but genuinely, without boasting, I feel that I would have played those roles better. That’s my confidence in my skill.    

Do you try and find something of yourself in your characters, or do you gravitate more towards people who are completely unlike you?

I want to believe that everything is you and not you. In my characters, it’s me and not me. It’s my body, my voice, my brain… and then it’s not me, because when I am another character, I could just surprise myself with the actions I do or the dialect that I have.  I actually do a lot of my work beforehand, and then I just let my subconscious come alive. That’s because sometimes I just don’t have a reference point for a character. In Gangs, I was just 24… I had no idea how to behave like a rural, uneducated housewife with four kids. On the first day, Anurag (Kashyap, the film’s director) told me, ‘Tumhein raakh se bartan dhone hain’. And I was like, ‘Who uses ash to clean utensils?!’ I didn’t know anything because I had had my privileged, upper middle-class upbringing. So then you have to read and research and find a connection… and so it’s you and not you. 

Even in Love Sonia, there’s no part of Madhuri that’s me. I’m vegan, I’m vocal about injustice and there are some things that I will just not tolerate. But Madhuri is a survivor who’s made peace with destiny and now has no qualms about inflicting the same kind of pain on other people as long as her pain is temporarily taken care of.

The last time we spoke, you had mentioned how social media is no longer fun for you because of the trolling. Has it got better or worse?

I think it’s got better because people have realised they can’t mess with me beyond a point. The only time I respond to these trolls is when I am waiting in my vanity van or I am stuck in traffic. Jab mere paas mazaa lene ka time hota hai then I take on these people and make them an example for the others. I have thousands of blocked contacts… thousands!     

I have woken up with messages that say, ‘Hey you piece of shit, you look so ugly today’. But I can’t take it seriously because first, these are nameless and faceless bots and second, how pathetic their lives must be where they set out to be engineers and now have to troll people as members of the IT cell of some political party. They are eggheads with no identity… tumhara gussa bhi nakli hai, tum dus rupay ke liye tweet kar rahein ho. I feel really sorry for them. On the upside, if I may be sarcastic, we can safely say that the job market in India hasn’t collapsed, because clearly these people are being hired. 

Given that you are a woman with a voice, is there any kind of fear?

I think there was a sense of fear at a point, but I don’t want to be scared anymore. Liberal-minded people in this country have to be optimistic and keep the hope going, irrespective of what happens. The war today — the quashing of Section 377 — was won after many small battles. Educating people about homosexuality through mass media, popular culture and literature has happened after striving for decades and that’s how things will be in every sphere. If I am fighting for women to be represented in a certain way in our movies, I know it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. The same goes for nepotism. It’s not going to change immediately. There has to be an institutional change. But as long as you are walking towards your destination, it’s okay; maybe someone will come and give you a ride, but you have to walk in the first place. 

The best thing is that we are both on the fringes of Bollywood…  . I can’t imagine what it must be like for people like Deepika (Padukone) and Ranveer (Singh) or any other A-list star who’s trying to have a relationship in the public eye. What’s really helped is that Ali (Fazal) and I are open about it…  we don’t say that we are just ‘good friends’ 

You recently posted a picture of you and Ali Fazal Facetiming while getting ready for your respective shoots and captioned it as, ‘Love in the time of career’. That was cute! 

(Laughs) I was trying to be funny, with a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. We hardly get time with each other, but we still try and find some time. The best thing is that we are both on the fringes of Bollywood… we are commercial yet arty actors and the attention we get is limited to bikers chasing me in Bandra when I go and visit him. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people like Deepika (Padukone) and Ranveer (Singh) or any other A-list star who’s trying to have a relationship in the public eye. What’s really helped is that Ali and I are open about it… we don’t say that we are just ‘good friends’ (laughs). But what gets to me is morons on social media trying to irk me by writing ‘love jihad’ and stuff like that.  

In an industry where many don’t talk about their relationships, it must be liberating to do so...  

It’s liberating for me, I don’t know about others. Some people have set this notion that an actress has to appear single and available. I just want to ask, ‘For whom and for what?!’ Why do I care? I don’t!