She isn’t your typical, dainty heroine but chances are that if you’ve seen her on screen, you will remember her. Richa Chadha, 29, is all of eight years and a handful of films old in the industry but has worked with some of the most established names, from Dibakar Banerjee to Anurag Kashyap and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But Masaan brought her recognition for her portrayal of a small-town girl who wants to break societal norms and explore her sexuality. Now, Chadda is keen to combine indie with commercial cinema, as she gets set for the release of Sarbjit and Cabaret this month. Excerpts from an interview:
One doesn’t expect to see Richa Chadha as a Bhatt girl but your next lead role is Pooja Bhatt’s Cabaret. How did that work out?
I am young and now is the time to experiment, to find out what all I am capable of. I just love to dance and Cabaret seemed like an opportunity where I could explore that. I wanted to take a chance and see if people will accept me in this kind of role, if what is expected of other women is expected of me. Or maybe it’s for shock value.
Is it an experiment with yourself, or in terms of genre?
Well, the genre is broadly the same — commercial, like Gangs of Wasseypur or Fukrey, but I wanted to explore what else I can do. Sarbjit is a biopic with mainstream actors. Cabaret has allowed me to explore myself on screen in terms of sexuality. The dancing is exotic, sort of burlesque, and the character I portray is sexually empowered, not someone being exploited. I’ll say it’s a commercial film not completely bereft of logic. That said, it wasn’t easy for me.
In what way?
The Bhatts are a different world from what I have so far worked in. They have their own idea of things. But they are responsible for discovering some of the finest talent in the industry, be it Kangana Ranaut or a lot of the Pakistani musicians. They have an instinct about these things and that’s what I am going with. A lot of people who saw the first look didn’t recognise me — permed hair, long eyelashes, a little of the ’90s.
Is the film set in a particular period then, going by the name?
That’s a liberty the makers have taken with the title. The film is set in the present. I play an erotic dancer, but not of cabaret. It’s a romantic thriller, where my character is constantly on the run. She falls in love and it’s an unlikely affair. She then meets another guy, who is a kind of a mentor (a character they are introducing ex-cricketer Sreesanth with). My character has to disguise herself by changing her look and identity constantly.
That’s something you have proved adept at so far, as an actor, with Masaan, Fukrey and now Sarbjit and Cabaret.
Every actor can do that; it’s about what opportunities come by. In real life, however, I’m quite fashionable. I dress casually, but never badly. In college, St Stephen’s in Delhi, the guys in the canteen used to call me “heroine”.
The college has a strong theatre culture. Did that shape you as an actor?
Not at all. They didn’t take me for many plays and I didn’t care because I was born to act. Not casting me was their loss. Most of my experience in theatre while I lived in Delhi was outside of college. The city has a vibrant scene, with Mandi House and NSD, etc. But it was fun to belong to the intellectual environment of St Stephen’s and then do this for a living, where I get asked idiotic questions like, ‘Aap bohot bold scenes karti hain. Aapko kaisa lagta hai?’ or ‘Ab kya hum aapko grooving and running around trees karte dekhenge?’ I want to tell them, ‘Aajkal trees hain kahan bhai jo unke aage peeche koi bhaage.’
You say you’re born to act. When did you realise that?
As early as the age of three or four. I was imitating my father and some other family members. I saw how much joy it brought those around me. Mostly, kids want approval and attention, but it gave me a sense of power and happiness. I hate the bullshit around my job — PR, controversy, parties — but I love what
Given the Kangana Ranaut-Hrithik Roshan row, one would believe it isn’t easy being an outsider in this industry, and definitely not a woman.
I won’t comment on the issue but I believe as a woman, it is easier to be an outsider. Most young male actors today are from film families. That said, it’s an inherently sexist society and business. I have been able to negotiate my space by being sure of what I want and by sticking to it. I was lucky that filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee placed their faith in me. That I enjoy my parents’ support keeps me grounded. If one is okay with a middle-class life, there is very little fear of failure.
Then you aren’t chasing the dream…
I do have an Audi but I am not lusting after it. I understood very early on how fickle the industry is. I came of age after the release of Wasseypur, which went to the Cannes. There was so much limelight and I was nervous, trying to be someone else. Now, I know I don’t need to take the industry too seriously, or behave like the camera is on me all the time. I connect with the current, younger lot, who are more aware, disciplined, people like Masaan’s director Neeraj Ghaywan, a film I am extremely proud of.
So is Masaan closest to your heart?
I love Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! also. It was my first film and I was so clueless at the time, I didn’t even read the script before taking it up and gave it my all. But Masaan is very close to my heart for several reasons. Neeraj and I met on the sets of Wasseypur, where we were both in a way starting out — he was an assistant director. It’s a beautiful film that is optimistic even though it projects the harsh realities of life. I learnt a lot while filming Masaan, it made me acutely aware of my weaknesses.
I have watched the film several times to realise that sometimes, I know my lines and mouth them perfectly but I am not in the moment, I am just trying to perform. I need to do my homework but not overdo it and let spontaneity make magic on the screen.