On the sets of Shakeela, Richa Chadha talks about her role as adult actor

The biopic is based on Malayalam adult film star Shakeela, who starred in over 100 films in the ’90s

  • Published 22.11.18, 12:36 AM
  • Updated 22.11.18, 12:36 AM
  • 5 mins read
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Draped in a white-and-gold Kerala cotton, Richa Chadha slipped into the role of Shakeela at Tamarind Tree in Bangalore. Gold jewellery, white flowers in her hair and a sandalwood tilak completed her look. Image: Agencies

I’m usually not so confident about some of my films, but Shakeela is turning out to be a good one,” Richa Chadha, dressed in a sheer black sari, told t2 when we caught up with her on the sets of her film in Bangalore recently.

The biopic on Malayalam adult film star Shakeela, who starred in over 100 films in the ’90s, is directed by Indrajit Lankesh and has grabbed attention from the day it was announced. On that balmy evening, Tamarind Tree — a wedding venue in Bangalore — had been converted to resemble a marriage mandap in Kerala with Richa, as Shakeela, canning a few shots, before she joined t2 for a chat.

Shoot over, it was time for Richa to unveil the logo of the film
Shoot over, it was time for Richa to unveil the logo of the film Agency picture

What is it about Shakeela that made you want to sign on?

At first I thought I would said ‘no’ because I knew of Shakeela and like the rest of the world, I thought she was kind of some south (Indian) pinup, really overweight Amazon woman… I didn’t really understand why she was considered erotic and sexy. When these guys came to narrate the film, I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to say ‘yes’. I even had a message saved in my draft where I had written ‘Really loved meeting you, but we should look for another opportunity to work together’, and I was set to send it to them the minute they left.

But when they started talking about Shakeela and the dramatic shift that happened in her life, I was like ‘Is this for real? This can’t be true’. As they kept talking about her life, my mind was blown. I kept wondering that how come no one had made a film on her so far… abhi toh aisa haal hai ki sadak pe patthar pada hai aur uspe bhi biopic bann raha hai!’

Some recent biopics have been accused of whitewashing the person on whom they are based. When it comes to a controversial figure like Shakeela, how much of a tightrope did you have to walk?

I don’t think anyone can accuse this film of being dishonest. There’s extreme vulnerability here and yet you will see things that will make people judge her even more. You’ll see her smoking, you’ll see her buying cheap liquor from a disgusting theka; you’ll see her waiting in a queue for her wages as a character artiste, you’ll see her losing her shit often… there’s no sugar-coating here. Shakeela is still alive and we can’t lie about her life. This film is not a PR exercise unlike some other biopics.

Actually, I feel it will be redemptive in some ways because there are so many things about her that no one knows about. She’s not a porn star, she never did porn in her life and yet, she’s the subject of all these unsavoury WhatsApp forwards. People only want to see her in one way and I want them to see the hypocrisy in that… how you use somebody and then condemn them.

She’s (Shakeela) not a porn star, she never did porn in her life. She’s seen the worst face of humanity and yet she’s so happy and hopeful. For me, her personality is an enigma I don’t understand yet
She’s (Shakeela) not a porn star, she never did porn in her life. She’s seen the worst face of humanity and yet she’s so happy and hopeful. For me, her personality is an enigma I don’t understand yet Images: Agencies

What’s been the most interesting bit about being Shakeela?

What’s fascinating for me is her stardom. Just recently, she was going somewhere in a car in Kerala. News spread she was around and some people who were travelling in a bus, leaned on one side to watch her car speed by… and the bus toppled! (Laughs) It’s unfathomable, and yet she lives on rent in a small one-bedroom house and is in hand-to-mouth circumstances. She’s seen the worst face of humanity and yet she’s so happy and hopeful. For me, her personality is an enigma I don’t understand yet. She’s not let her pain overpower her, she’s a true survivor.

When we started the film, #MeToo was nowhere in the horizon and yet so many of the issues we talk in the film now resonate with the movement. Our film is about the price a woman has to pay for saying ‘No’. I think for her to do so in the circumstances she worked in was pretty ballsy, and that too in the ’90s, in the Malayalam film industry. Very courageous.

The fall that Shakeela has experienced in her life and career is a bitter truth of the film industry. Does that scare you in some way?

I don’t think so. I am educated, I have other interests and I never wanted to do films in the first place. This is my calling, and I try and do it to the best of my ability. But tomorrow, if I have to run a business, I know I will be able to do even that successfully. Shakeela’s compulsions were very different from mine — I don’t come from a rural family with four other sisters to feed and a house to run. But yes, I identify with her in the sense that I believe I am a survivor too.

This mindset that I have today, I didn’t come with it when I started working in films. It’s evolved over the last two-three years. I was jittery, nervous, under-confident and always insecure about my place in the world, about being in Bollywood. I knew this was the direction I wanted to take, but it’s not easy… you will invariably end up losing a film to the girl who goes on a date with the producer. But now I am different. After 30, thoda dimaag evolve hua hai… I’ve turned wise (laughs). Some things have stopped mattering to me. There’s something called product life cycle in business also. You evolve, you learn.

But it’s not like I have stopped giving a damn altogether. My flops affect me, bad reviews affect me… I am human. But how long I stay with that emotion has changed. Earlier, I would probably spend days howling, now it’s three hours. That’s progress.

Female empowerment dekhna hai toh Inside Edge dekho. I still remember when I was offered the show. It was December 2015 and was stunned that someone had thought of a show headlined by a woman who owns a cricket team. How cool is that?
Female empowerment dekhna hai toh Inside Edge dekho. I still remember when I was offered the show. It was December 2015 and was stunned that someone had thought of a show headlined by a woman who owns a cricket team. How cool is that? Image: Agencies

In a recent interview with t2, your boyfriend Ali Fazal had said that he’s not going to wait for filmmakers to realise he’s capable of doing diverse roles, he’s going to create his own content. Is that a thought you share too?

For sure. I feel more capable today than I did before. I feel stronger in terms of my space in the world. I now feel my name means something; I am not talking in terms of box office, but in terms of respect and credibility. I know where Ali is coming from… men have it much tougher. Women still get cast because most of the time, they are not expected to shoulder a film. For men, it’s always about delivering box office.

Ali is not a star kid, neither am I… so what do we do? We just go and do what we want to do. We have no choice but to create our own content because look at what’s happening… star kids are being launched straight from the ultrasound now!

Alongside Shakeela, you’ve been shooting for the second season of the Amazon Prime original Inside Edge. How’s that going?

It’s going really well. It’s many notches above the first season. Female empowerment dekhna hai toh Inside Edge dekho. I still remember when I was offered the show. It was December 2015 and was stunned that someone had thought of a show headlined by a woman who owns a cricket team. How cool is that? I am proud of the fact that Inside Edge is India’s first original and I get to be a part of it. I always celebrate my achievements, however small, because people are anyway around to pull you down.

You’ve been a big advocate of the #MeToo movement. But do you think it’s dying down now?

I feel it’s just starting. I think people who have had multiple victims coming out against them are finished. I don’t think it’s a small thing for a reality show (Indian Idol) to replace a judge (Anu Malik) who’s been with them from the beginning. I think we’ve just scratched the surface of this movement. We have to be careful that we don’t dilute this movement now. A bad date is not #MeToo; women have to pick their battles and causes carefully.