For her role as Mohini Rathod, a daughter-in-law of a musical family of Jodhpur in the web-series Bandish Bandits (streaming on Amazon Prime Video), Sheeba Chaddha had to briefly play the tanpura. It was a little challenging, a little nostalgic. As a child, she had taken some lessons in playing the sitar. The show’s story, says the Mumbai-based actor, is not an “earth-shattering” one, “it has familiar tones, it worked because of the writing and the added twists and turns”. She doesn’t have very many dialogues, but her eyes and gait speak of her pain and acceptance of her constraints. The twist comes towards the end when her ghoonghat-clad character emerges from within the strict patriarchal world she inhabits – with silence and gravitas. “That, for me, was the most interesting part. And there is a rare sweetness to the show which we don’t see nowadays,” says Chaddha.
The heroine’s cousin in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), the modest producer’s wife in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance (2009) – the character actor brings more to her roles than what’s written. In a career spanning two decades, she’s cemented her reputation as a “dependable actor”. At a young age, theatre drew Chaddha, who grew up in Delhi’s New Rajinder Nagar. “I was pretty active in inter-school theatre competitions. I got admission in Hansraj College (in Delhi University) through the dramatics quota. I was always a backbencher and not interested in academics. Hansraj had a pretty established theatre scene and we mounted full-fledged productions,” says Chaddha, 47, who was later associated with Delhi’s Chingari theatre group.
Following her marriage and two-year stay in the US, she returned and headed to Mumbai to try her luck in screen acting. Her first acting gig was Bhansali’s film, though Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se… (1998) released a year earlier. It was, however, on television, and later, web-series, where she would carve her niche. “By the time I came back, it was the early Nineties and there was a big revolution in the TV space. In Delhi, you could only do theatre and it wasn’t sufficient to survive,” says Chaddha, who then moved to Mumbai and acted in TV shows like Shri Krishna and Hip Hip Hurray in the ’90s, and Hitler Didi and Pavitra Rishta around the 2010s. “I’m glad that I was able to be a part of some good television shows,” she says.
“When I started, it was very formulaic. Films centred around the hero and heroine, everything was one-dimensional. With the daily-soap boom, TV was ruined. The content was pathetic, but it paid your bills. After that, I only went on a TV set to make money. I hope TV is revived, because, as a medium, it’s still relevant. Sadly, the women characters – the movers and shakers of the TV enterprise – are either shown as the sari-sindoor-clad sweet bahu or the overtly made-up vamp,” she adds.
Even in her piecemeal roles as a mother or wife, she’s been making noteworthy swerves. As the mother who shields Shah Rukh Khan from being beaten by his angry father in Zero (2018), and the mother who slaps Alia Bhatt in Gully Boy (2019). Or, the “cool” mom in Permanent Roommates (2014), India’s first-ever web show that made her a household name among millennials. And later, in her comic sketches by short-audiovisual-content-creator Filter Copy.
She’s one of the first actors to successfully make the transition to the OTT space. “TVF (media producer The Viral Fever) came to me. I liked the character that was written – cool and progressive. Actors can only shine if they have good writing to work with,” she says.
A “big jump” was needed, she adds, “in the way we were writing and portraying our women characters. Shouldn’t detailed, well-fleshed, relatable characters be the norm? Why do we look at good content through the lens of ‘women characters’? Even the OTT platforms have not taken cognisance of the fact that they actually have the space which allows for this type of exploratory writing, to create immersive stories. We still keep binding it into the same systems, of a famous name and big studio. I hope it doesn’t fall into the same trap.”
For now, Chaddha is happy playing Vasudha in the web-show Mirzapur, whose Season 2 will stream in October and a comedy Pagglait is in the works. But she’s most excited about playing Kabir’s mother in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy, which streams in September. “I’m there only for a scene and a half,” she says, “but it’s a lovely scene.”
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