A grainy mobile phone video, shot inside a theatre during the Cannes Film Festival, went viral on May 20 in India. It shows a theatre full of people breaking into spontaneous applause at the end of Masaan’s screening. Overwhelmed by the reaction, Richa Chadda — one of the actors in the film who was present there along with other members of the cast and crew — couldn’t hold back her tears. The Neeraj Ghaywan-directed film picked up the FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
“People didn’t know the language and nuances and yet were laughing at the jokes. This made me realise that the film is so universal,” says Chadda. In a festival that has traditionally made news in Indian media for actress’ sartorial choices on the red carpet, Chadda made a mark because of cinematic merit. In Masaan, that releases in theatres across India on July 24, Chadda plays Devi Pathak, a small-town girl who gets into trouble when the police raids the hotel where she rents a room to have sex with her boyfriend.
A risque role by Hindi cinema standards, Chadda recalls she almost ended up not doing the film. “Many people told me not to do a small film, that arty actresses don’t get invited for ribbon-cutting events or paid for dance performances. But I followed my instincts. Having spent a substantial time in the industry, I can now tell a real friend from insecure people who want to misguide you,” says the 26-year-old.
Since her brief but memorable appearance as a desperate starlet in a music troupe in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008), Chadda has acted in only five released films till date. Her most notable role is that of the spitfire wife of a gangster-turned-matriarch in Anurag Kashyap’s crime saga Gangs of Wasseypur I and II. “The film gave me a career,” says Chadda. She followed it up with the role of a Haryanvi gangster in Fukrey (2013) and sprung a surprise in an important role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram Leela.
It’s fair to say that Chadda is currently going through the best phase of her career. She has a mixed bag of films lined-up for this year. In Main Aur Charles, she plays a law student who becomes an accomplice to the notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Aur Devdas, Sudhir Mishra’s reimagination of the classic, will see her slip into the role of an empowered Paro in the backdrop of a politically-charged Haryana.
She plays a cabaret queen in the more commercial outing, Cabaret, directed by Pooja Bhatt.
Chadda agrees there has been a turnaround in her career. “None of my films, except Tamanchey, has failed. I believe a shift has happened inside and it is showing in everything I do: the way I feel good about my body and myself. I’ve come of age now,” says Chadda, who takes vocal lessons in Hindustani classical music. She has reconnected with her old dance troupe to prepare for her role in Cabaret. She also blogs when she gets time. “I have to do these things to be sane in this crazy film world,” she says.
Masaan director Ghaywan, who has worked with Chadda in two films — he was an assistant director in GoW — describes her as “intelligent, comfortable with herself, humorous and above all a great actor”. She approached her complex character in Masaan with dogged dedication and sensitivity in representing the pathos of women from small cities,” says he.
Chadda owes her unconventional approach as an actor to her formative years in Delhi. The academic environment of St Stephen’s College, where she studied history, shaped her world view. She discovered her love for acting early in life, when she used to mimic her parents to entertain people. She started doing plays in school and continued to do so till she came to Mumbai in 2004. “Although I was into theatre from my childhood, I always wanted to be in the movies,” says she.