In the wake of growing violence, gender discrimination, and myriad forms of oppression against woman, actors like Richa Chadha have not let the oppressor’s voice cow them down. Instead, she has swam against the tide while demanding and voicing what woman wants. And even more she has urged society to think right on such issues.
This exactly is the reason why she took up the lead role in the upcoming Bollywood biopic, which is based on the life of South Indian film Shakeela. who has portrayed lead roles in adult films that sustained her as well as the Malayalam box office for a while.
Onmanorama caught up with the actress who was in Kerala for a vacation.
Read excerpts from the interview where Richa Chadha spoke about her career, life and other goals and more importantly about Shakeela.
What do you have to say about the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and woman-oriented developments in the film industry?
I have been following very closely what happened in the actress-attack case. We have to set a good example. Kerala is secular, produces India's best scientists, leaders and many more. I strongly urge AMMA (the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) to be with it. I wish the AMMA helped the WCC, which is not demanding anything wrong. It's not wrong to demand self-respect at work or to demand punishment against somebody who harassed you. I am waiting to get inspired by the support that AMMA will give the WCC. AMMA ought to support it.
There are people who support women or advocate their cause; however they despise being called a feminist? Who according to you is a true feminist?
If you like writing, write in a newspaper and you study journalism, you are a journalist even if you like the term or not. Sometimes women shy away from the label of feminism because they want to be a boy, or want to show that they are cool. Feminism is mostly still a stuck-up idea in most minds. Many think feminists are a group of people who would shout out slogans, who are unhappy in life, hate marriage or even hate having kids. That is not the case. These are purely misconceptions. An even a term like 'woman– oriented' has to go as we never really call a project man-oriented. But well, it takes time to hit that normalcy. Feminism in its true sense is empowering and beautiful.
What prompted you to take up the bold role in 'Shakeela'?
This is a common question to me, especially from people from the south who are familiar with her and the kind of work she did. I'm trying to study her as a phenomenon. Somebody from a marginalised segment doing adult films, and what made her become a threat to male superstars. Also I'm delving into what made her to take up the challenge, how she challenged the status quo in the film industry, and her personal life. What she went through with her family, her parents, how she supported her entire family and what happened to her later. Nobody took care of her nor did anybody support her. Even in difficult times everybody took her money and left her. I'm basically asking how the family treated her was any different from how society treated her.
Society treated her as a banished woman and made a star of her. Her family also treated her just like a woman who is bringing the bread. But beyond that no one bothered to nurture her as person and at least emotionally support her. That is the story of Shakeela. A lot of hypocrisy is here. We sort of exploit women and then we condemn them. Why should it be? The men are making the film and the men are watching them the most. They then call them bad names, disrespect them and it goes on.
Was the role challenging? How did you prepare for it?
The challenge for me was to depict her in the most dignified way possible and I have tried my maximum to do that keeping her faith and personality in mind. My goal is to tell the story behind the personality that she became. Her stardom is a phenomenon to be me. Being a North Indian it was unfathomable for me. When I was a child, 'India Today' had done a cover story on Shakeela. It was unbelievable to me then that a woman who looked very different commanded this kind of stardom and had amazing confidence.
I met her, I spoke to her and tried to get her point of view and to my surprise she is a very spiritual person. I asked her if she was afraid as she would never take names of people who hurt her or say anything negative about anybody. So I asked on the fear of losing a job or the society questioning her. She said that job is given by god, and not men. I find her courage to be an inspiration. I really don't know if she had evolved this way after she finished her career and after seeing life so much.
What do you think of people who speak up against an oppressor, but fail to 'name and shame them'?
There is one fact which all of us should believe in: an accused person is not a convicted person. We are still lacking a structure in Bollywood where sexual harassment can be dealt in an effective way. But I would like to inform that the actors' guild -- the CINTA (Cine Artists and Televison Artists Association) -- is working to create that structure. But sadly it’s true that the repercussions are real and livelihood is lost if you open up on any issue. Those who speak up won’t get work again and someone somewhere makes sure that the artist’s life is spoiled. It is easy to tell someone that you are brave enough and you should openly name and shame. But unless you are willing to take responsibility of their livelihood and providing for their family, I don't think anybody should be shaming the victim. The legal as well as the media ecosystem has to be structured.
Do you think a celebrity opening up on a mental issue or a health issue can inspire people to come up, talk and seek help in life?
People should speak up problems that affect mental health, any sort of abuse or even a physical discomfort. Now there are channels, helplines, and the government also does a lot. I feel anybody talking about it gives other people strength, and it’s not just celebrities who should be an inspiration. For instance when I understood that I had a condition called bulimia (where eating makes you throw up), I spoke to my dad and sought treatment at the earliest.
Sometimes celebrities do not follow any 'model' code of conduct, so it’s not totally right to follow them always. I think we need more role models from normal walks of life too.
What is your life mantra?
The biggest thing I would advise is to not be afraid, to keep faith, and to constantly work on one's talent and craft so that you become so good that people can't ignore you. Also it’s important to be kind to other people and to yourself.
What is your Kerala connect?
Kerala is one place which is very close to my heart. I have strong artistic connections with this place. I have been here before in relation to theatre and was also fortunate to have associated with Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattam. I have also learned to play the ‘kutti’ instrument used in Koodiyattam performances. This time I’m on a vacation and I have enjoyed the beauty of Kochi and Kumarakom. Varkala, Munnar and other hilly destinations are always charming for me.
Coming to cuisine, I also love Kerala 'appams', stew and 'puttu' which satisfy the vegan in me. Even though it is a fun trip this time, I have been here before for some serious work. Even though the first schedule of ‘Shakeela' was planned here, it could not happen due to floods.
Can we expect to see you in Mollywood?
Yes, of course. I would love to. I have seen ‘Angamaly Diaries’, 'Sudani from Nigeria 'and other films. Parvathy Thiruvoth is a great friend. I think some amazing progressive cinema is made here. As of now I have not been approached by anybody with a good script. If I'm offered a good part I will do a god job with acting and will also learn the language. Even though I attempted learning Malayalam for 'Shakeela', it was challenging. However it is a beautiful language and I love its rhythm.
Your next projects?
Ajay Bahl's 'Section 375', Anubhav Sinha's 'Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai' and Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's 'Panga', a film on Kabaddi, are my upcoming works. I also have a series 'Inside Edge' which gets dubbed into Malayalam too.