Exclusive interview with author, actor , director activist Richa Chadda

Yogesh Pawar: While others were showing off their gowns on the red carpet at the Cannes film fest, Richa Chadda was getting feted inside for her film Masaan. The actor, just back from France, speaks to Yogesh Pawar about her journey in Bollywood, her film choices and her pet peeves. Excerpts:

Exclusive interview with author, actor , director activist Richa Chadda

Are you still feeling on top of the world with the two awards your film Masaan got at the 68th Cannes?
Of course! I’m very happy. I’ve just got back from Paris where we stayed back for some promotion work related to Masaan. Now when I’ve got back to Mumbai, got back to shooting, many of my co-actors and others at the shoot keep coming up to congratulate me and its begun to all sink in.

Did it make it more special that while others got attention for their gowns and hair, you were the one being spoken about for your film?
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s strange that those things seem to matter more to some people than the awards. Masaan received a good five-minute long standing ovation at the end of the screening. This honour of two awards hasn’t come the way of Indian cinema since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. You know I too got asked often what I was wearing. It seems so frivolous that this is done. I wish people put more effort in finding out that the festival at Cannes is not about fashion or cosmetics. Those are the sidelights of the festival which is essentially about cinema.

You once said in an interview that you felt like the pin-up girl for art house cinema. Do you still feel that way?
I still do sometimes (Laughs). You know, it got to me to the point that I even did a short film on this. It’s almost like anyone east or north of Bandra who had this dark, sad story had to come to me with those projects. I have really not ever understood this business of slotting people or actors into categories.

You’ve trained with Barry John and also done theatre. Was that helpful when you came to work in the movies?
When I was doing theatre I knew I wanted to do films but there was no plan or calendar. The two-three plays I have done have given me all my roots in acting. I haven’t been to FTII or NSD or any formal school to learn about acting. Even with Barry Sir, I did a three-month course. But I did learn a lot from him informally. I was only 16 when I was first cast as an extra in a play where I was working with really senior NSD actors. We travelled a lot with that play and even came to Bombay. I remember it was the first time I’d ever come to this city.
I had a really bit part. My work would be organising tea/coffee for everyone. Just getting to see their craft at such close quarters was a tremendous learning experience.

Both critics and masses liked you from your debut in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! itself. Was it then easy to go deglam as Nagma Khatoon in Gangs Of Wasseypur and its sequel?
Look, I wasn’t doing the main role in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! And given that I did not have any filmy background or a godfather it was not like was getting many mainstream lead parts. When I look back I think it was a stroke of luck that I got to play Nagma Khatoon in Gangs Of Wasseypur. Much later, I heard that several very established names wanted to do that part.

Name them?

No… I can’t and I won’t. What’s the point? It’s all in the past now. But I can see where they are coming from. Everyone wants to do meaty roles which will showcase their acting chops and set them up as serious actors. It’s the thing all women in the industry seem to be chasing now. Whether it’s Priyanka, Deepika, Kangana, Anushka or even Alia Bhatt, who is starting off in her career, everyone wants to do meaty performance-oriented roles.

But all these actors you named have done this mid-career.
Yeah, people do glamour, glamour, glamour and then look for something serious to do. I realised very early on that glamour is just a function of things that people put on you whereas a serious character has longer stay. I was playing Nawazuddin’s mother, with grey hair and dark lips and wrinkles. And the character required all that. There was nothing cute and endearing about her.

Whether it’s Devi Pathak, who battles guilt after being framed in a “sex scandal” by corrupt police officials in Masaan, or Nagma Khatoon in GOW, what are your cues? How do you arrive at these characters?
Talking about Devi will give away the plot so I’m going to wait for when the film releases here. As for Nagma Khatoon, GOW was a very basic script. It was like A and B go to a coffee shop. They fight. It was like that. As a cosmopolitan, liberal girl in real life I’m completely removed from Khatoon. So it was a bit of struggle to find her voice, they way she draped her sari, getting the gait of someone so old who has had so many children. I did reference the character’s diction, accent and mannerisms on my grandmother who is from Bihar and has a bit of that in the way she speaks.

And it was that much more difficult because though the sequel released subsequently, we were shooting all of it together. Often, I would be playing a 35-year-old in the morning and by evening I would be playing a 50-year-old and then again I would be playing a 20-year-old in the same day.

Was the decision to then do Fukrey, Ram-Leela and Tamanchey a way of proving that you can do mainstream cinema as well?
Fukrey was good fun and at the same time meaty too. She is the only female bajaoing the guys. So it was fun part to play. Plus I wanted to work with Excel. They are a great production house and take really good care of their actors. I did Ram-Leela because I wanted to work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali and be part of big-budget commercial cinema and see what that feels like. At the script level, Tamanchey felt great, but you know, films have their own destinies.

When is Main Aur Charles (MAC), based on Charles Sobhraj’s life expected to release?
The final cut for MAC is ready. I have also shot a promotional song for them last month. It should be out before October this year. I’m very excited for the film because it’s quite slick and sexy and also replete with a lot of nuanced layering.

What was it like working with Randeep Hooda in MAC?

Randeep is a fabulous actor. I’m really happy he’s getting his due and is being recognised and feted for his work. With films like Highway, he’s proven that he’s deserving of all this and much more. By the way, MAC also has Adil Hussain in it. He’s also a really gifted actor. So I’ve had a lot of fun working on MAC.

You’re reprising Paro in Sudhir Mishra’s Aur Devdas. How tough or easy is it to get into the skin of a character done by everyone, from Jamuna Barua (1936), Suchitra Sen (1955), Aishwarya Rai (2002) and Mahi Gill (2009), before?
When the role first came to me, I had the same fears. I spoke to Barry Sir (Barry John) and said, ‘I’m being asked to play a Delhi girl. What should I do?’ Pat came his reply, ‘How many girls live in Delhi?’ And just like that, I had my answers. While all these actresses have played Paro before me, I’m going to bring something of my own to the role. And you shouldn’t forget what a genius filmmaker Sudhir Mishra is. In what is his signature different spin, he has interpreted Paro as a very empowered, modern, thinking woman. This Paro is not crying and goes and marries someone else in anger on the rebound. The twist in that film will make it stand out and be remembered.

What are your other films coming up?

MAC, Jia Aur Jia and Aur Devdas are ready. I will finish Pooja Bhatt’s Cabaret by October. Masaan should also be releasing soon. I am also in talks for two international projects which I hope to do. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Let’s see…

You are quite close to filmmaker Mira Nair.
I’ve had the privilege of working with her on Words With God on one of the films which is part of the eight-film anthology. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2014 and has been touring the festival circuit since. I play this elite south Bombay girl who marries Rajkumar Rao’s character and tries to fit into her new life as a married woman. After my desi woman in Gangs Of Wasseypur, when this was offered I grabbed it since it meant playing a young, urbane character. To say I’m close to someone as illustrious as Mira Nair would look like name dropping… Typically, like it’s fashionable in Bollywood. People just say, ‘So and so’s my friend.’ (Laughs)

You’ve been in the PETA campaign on vegetarianism yet you had spoken up against make of the vigilante vegetarianism during the recent beef ban?

I am vegetarian since childhood and avoid carrying leather bags and wearing leather shoes or jackets. So the PETA campaign was an extension of who I am. Having said that, it’s very irritating to see people confusing my personal views with my political ones. I firmly believe man has no right to enslave, torture or slaughter animals because this planet belongs to them as much as us. But look at what the government is doing with the beef ban. Its selectively chosen one animal which the majority religion holds sacred and banned its slaughter. If they want to, why just beef, they should ban slaughter of all animals. I find the intent behind the ban divisive and that’s what’s led me to speak out against it. We’ve experienced so much suffering and misery because of divisions in the name of caste, class and religion. Why’d we want to extend that further by bringing in what people eat or don’t?