PHOTOS ASHISH CHAWLA ❖ STYLING ABHILASHA DEVNANI ❖ ASSISTANT TO THE STYLIST ANOKHI MEHTA ❖HAIR & MAKE-UP HARRY RAJPUT ❖ASSISTANT TO THE MAKE-UP ARTIST SANJAY SINGH ❖ASSISTANT TO THE HAIR STYLIST SHIVI TEXT NIVEDITA JAYARAM PAWAR LOCATION TOAST, T24, ANDHERI, MUMBAI
It’s a cliché, but when you meet her, you really do think you know Richa Chadda from the troubled characters she plays. You’ve seen her play a 42-year-old firebrand (when she was barely 23) in Gangs Of Wasseypur, a petty criminal in Tamanchey, hurl abuses with ease in Fukrey and tug at heartstrings in Masaan. Then you meet her in person, and she gushes and bubbles with enthusiasm. The 30-year-old actor has just come from the swimsuit shoot, which she raves about not only because she loves working with photographer Ashish Chawla (I like his aesthetic sense), but also because it involved a pool (Did you see how happy I was just splashing about in the water?)
Richa likes to talk. She answers questions directly and substantively. At times forcefully. Always affably. If she doesn’t understand what you’re getting at, she will give you the side-eye, but it comes off as genuine, not derisive. “I don’t take bullshit anymore. I don’t even entertain it,” she says about the deep-rooted insecurity of most actors. It’s close to her heart and bubbles under the surface, particularly as it showed it’s ugly face recently. “Only yesterday, I caught a fellow actor giggling during an intense scene. He was trying to make me forget my lines. I called him out. I said, you can find other ways to express your insecurity. I am not going to budge. I may probably do the scene a little better. So you might want to back off.”
I expected her to have a voice that you could hear over a jet engine, but it isn’t. Her voice is almost meek. It cracks. It’s a kind voice. Possibly a little tired. Until she gets going. Talking to Richa is pretty straightforward and she is unfailingly polite, courteous, engaged and charming.
It’s been a busy career so far for Richa Chadda, but its trajectory is perhaps not unusual for a talented actor who has received a couple of awards and a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. What is unusual is the story of her life before her debut film Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! A history graduate from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Richa landed in Mumbai to be an actor. While theatre and TV commercials kept the kitchen fires burning, she auditioned for movie parts. Incidentally, she tried for Dev D, a part that eventually went to Kalki Koechlin. Unfortunately for Richa, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! released to a concoction of ill luck and bad timing. The film, which was Dibakar Banerjee’s much-awaited follow-up to his critically acclaimed and commercially successful debut, Khosla Ka Ghosla, could possibly have become one of Hindi cinema’s best, had it not hit the screens just two days after the 26/11 attacks on 28 November 2008. It took several years for Richa to bag her second film Gangs of Wasseypur, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Although the film earned her rave reviews, it led to a string of similar roles—middle-aged, angst-ridden woman. Until Mrighdeep Singh Lamba’s comedy Fukrey, where Richa startled everyone with her performance as a crazy, foulmouthed and manipulative don.
Life took a gritty turn with a meaty role in Masaan. “People advised me not to do it as it was yet another de-glam role with no songs. They were only looking at the commercials of it. But I know a good script.” Disappointments (read Tamanchey, Ramleela and Sarbjit) haven’t deterred her from pursuing weirder, wilder and more interesting independent releases like Love Sonya, a film on sex trafficking where she shares screen space with Demi Moore and Frieda Pinto. That film affected the actor so much that she is now involved in rescuing and helping girls caught in the flesh trade. She even helped some girls lease a bungalow.
If you really want to see her face light up, ask about her future plans. “I want a full life,” she says. “I also want to set up a business which will be self sustaining. I can’t help people if I am broke. I don’t want to be an Ambani. Money for me is a unit of not working and surviving.” Richa also harbours ambitions of turning a producer. Not the gold chain-wearing, fat, hairy producer, but one who can put a good script and great talent together. Given her eye for staging, costuming, scripting and characterisation, it would be no surprise if she were to helm a great film on her first outing.
On the personal front, Richa is private. It is her job to invite attention, but she is not always happy with the consequences. She doesn’t mind being in the limelight for her films. For the rest of the time, she has defences up as high as castle walls. “I have no time to socialise,” she says. “On a day off, I vegetate, watch TV, meet family, relax with friends... I don’t see the point in being in the news all the time. Making a film is a lot of work—script readings, set making, look tests, fitness… where does that time come from? It comes from the time you save socialising with idiots.”
She likes her boundaries and disagrees with the paparazzi culture. “I was travelling for a family emergency to Delhi,” she says. “Some photographer clicked a few pictures and the caption said ‘nailed the airport look.’ My aunt was shocked that I had all the time to dress up when there was a calamity at home. I had to convince her that there are always photographers at airports these days. I know it comes with the territory. But we don’t have to become like America.”
She is becoming more spiritual these days. A far cry from the gullible pushover from her initial years in the industry. “I was young and flippant,” she says. “Mad in the pursuit of some dream. I am a better person and a better friend now.” It shows. She is constantly checking on her staff to see if they are comfortable and have eaten.
Richa Chadda has long had a reputation for being uninhibited and brutally honest. She gets away with telling the truth, which is rather unusual in an industry where even the top actors play it safe. “I don’t want to play that game or be among a bunch of loonies in a room,” she says. “I don’t care about their approval and I don’t want to be them. I don’t think they want to be themselves either (laughs). I don’t think playing the game helps either. Only your work, capability and skill helps.” The last of which she has in abundance.
The industry is making and dismantling stars too fast she believes. “The toast of the town today is gone within two months,” she says. “Actors these days are like porn stars who have the shortest shelf life.” She is referring to the concept of success in the Hindi film industry. Pretence is another thing that gets her goat. Especially at film screenings. “No one is going to tell the director that he made a shitty film. Or that he needs to spend more money to fix it,” she says. Richa realises that this stems from a sense of insecurity. She, however, is neither jaded nor cynical. Quite the contrary. She even admits to being able to better read people. This, after losing projects, money and reputation in the early years of career.
Apart from loads of chutzpah and talent, Richa is beautiful, even unprimped. Some actors look surprisingly androgynous off screen, gangly and without curves. With baseball caps and badges, they could be scouts. Richa is different. She looks like a woman. She exudes feminity. No wonder she oozes oomph in her next release, Cabaret, where she plays a bold dancer. The film is rumoured to be based on the life of Bollywood’s cabaret dancer Helen. “Cabaret is in a different school of cinema and a different style of filmmaking. It’s the story of a girl on the run and it needed a strong actor,” she says.
Richa is optimistic that the movie business is going to change. Better content will rule, she believes. “Big studios are going to run out of patience and money in dealing with the fraudulent Indian producer-studio nexus,” she says. “It’s going to come back to the single producers like Dharma and Excel. In 2013, Aamir Khan did Dhoom 3 and in 2016 he did Dangal. I am happy to be a part of the change. The risks that I took with films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Masaan are finally paying off.”
Richa, who was in a fleeting relationship last year, is currently single. This die-hard romantic wouldn’t mind wooing a man. “True liberation is when you stop expecting someone else to go down on their knees,” she says. “I feel really bad for men. They have to buy diamonds, make the story special and are burdened with the belief that they have to make money.” This vegan and animal lover is looking for an intelligent and liberal man. Money or looks don’t matter. Companionship, friendship and some amount of care do. “I can’t stand selfish men with huge egos,” she says. “Or those who don’t read and are unaware of what’s happening in the world. I dated one such man and it was a nightmare. He never read a single book in his life, but had an opinion on everything.”