Versatile actress Richa Chadha has shown her immense range by taking on challenging roles that have won her plenty of praise.
From critically acclaimed independent dramas to high-profile Bollywood releases, Richa has played an array of characters in successful films including Gangs of Wasseypur, Fukrey, Masaan and Sarbjit.
She has a number of interesting films on the way, including star-studded international project Love Sonia, the Fukrey sequel and Cabaret.
Eastern Eye caught up with the talented actress to talk about cinema, some of her impressive roles, forthcoming films, charity and connecting to a higher power while acting.
All your characters have been very different. Do you consciously look for variety?
I really like to do roles which are challenging and different. I have always believed more Indian actors should approach their craft the way actors in the west work. They work in all kinds of mediums, on Netflix, in the movies, do sitcoms, TV serials and all kinds of things. I feel like here it is easy to label actors. I have consciously always wanted to do work that is different and interesting for me.
My favourite among the roles you have played is gangster Bholi Punjaban in Fukrey, but which one do you like most?
(Laughs) Well, Bholi Punjaban was fun for me to do because it was a comedy. You will get to see her again in Fukrey 2, which we are resuming in a few months.
My favourite role, though, was the one in Masaan because it was really difficult for me to do a performance that had no words, to keep it all within. I am really happy with the response the film got all over the world.
So the amazing response that Masaan received globally surprised you?
For a film of that size, we definitely made the money back, which in itself is an achievement, particularly with not much promotion. I was delighted and it’s a memorable film I will always be proud of. I was really happy to get that role. It was like a relief for me, in a sense, because my friend had written that film for me a few years ago when we were both starting out. Then we waited a few years for the funding to fall in place. I was kinda written into the role and had a really good time doing it. I became a better actor and a better person after that film.
Are you happier doing small independent films or bigger ones like Gangs Of Wasseypur?
Well, Gangs was a relatively small film given the Bollywood standard. I haven’t really experimented as such with the larger films except for Ram Leela, where I had a tiny part. Fukrey 2 will be bigger than it was the last time and it’s a commercial film. You know, what is happening now is that the lines are pretty much blurring, at least in the mind of the audiences. People are watching all kinds of movies. Also, in the industry, people need to believe this is not just an independent or realistic film; slowly that change is coming in the mindset of the industry. So I am quite happy and optimistic. That’s usually just me, happy and optimistic.
You are one of the most gifted actresses working in India today. What is the secret of a good performance?
I don’t know. I’m glad you say that, but I don’t think I’m acting when I do work I really enjoy. Something just happens, I can connect to a higher intelligence, I believe. I have experienced that on several occasions. During Gangs, during Masaan and during an upcoming film I have done, called Love Sonia.
What do you mean?
What happens is when the camera rolls and the director says action, my brain just works differently and my body starts to follow. I do a lot of spontaneous work. Then something will happen that will reaffirm my faith in the part and that I was may be born to do this. That makes me very happy.
I love your dialogue delivery, but I think what’s stronger sometimes is when you don’t speak. Do you realise how powerful your silences are on screen?
(Laughs) You are just making my day Asjad. I am telling you, I can’t take credit for it, I really can’t because every time I have this, it is like a real out-of-body experience. I read up on it because for Gangs, I was 23 at the time and it was really hard for me to play a mother to someone 20 years older to me. And I am completely cosmopolitan, I have travelled and come from an affluent family. For me to relate to that kind of rural and uneducated woman, who was sort of being subjugated by her husband, but was giving in because that is the society they live in, was hard. I had to wear those chappals and the sari. It was kind of magical that it flowed. I had never even done domestic work in my life.
But even through Sarbjit, I feel like its something about the way a character is written. I read up on this creative consciousness and how you tap into it, including reading about Mozart. I just feel like I really enjoy what I do and nothing makes me happier than the day I have done something creatively fulfilling or have given a good shot.
You have received so much praise, but is there a memorable compliment that has stayed with you?
It was when I was doing Gangs Of Wasseypur and was walking with one of the extras. I was just chatting with her and saying, ‘what’s up, aunty’. She was actually playing one of my friends in the film even though she was like 50. I had to do this scene where I had to start crying in the middle of a song. It happened naturally and spontaneously both times at the same point. That aunty just walked up to me and wanted to say something, but she just cried. And it shook me a little bit, but she just kept crying and said, ‘may God take you higher. You will go far.’ That kind of stuff really moves me, you know. It means more to me than any silly award.
A lot of the characters you play are very tough. Are you tough in real life and are people frightened of you?
(Laughs) You know what, it can work really well when I am shopping or travelling alone and people think I am actually really tough. They don’t really talk to me much and I keep that up or just wear headphones.
The thing is, inside I am a mush ball. I am a soft and creative, artistic person. I love animals. I don’t eat them and don’t wear leather. I try as far as possible to wear make-up that is cruelty free. In my personal life I am completely soft and non-violent. I am really sensitive and that is why it’s so easy for me to cry on screen. I don’t use glycerin. I think it’s because I am very sensitive and vulnerable. I am so attached that I am detached, if that makes sense. I am really not tough in real life. I grew up with four brothers so maybe it is easier for me to play the tomboy.
Tell me about the charity you support?
It was a small crowd-funding campaign. I wanted to do something charitable this year and came across this NGO (Purnata) that does work to prevent trafficking and prostitution. I met a girl who was six when she was sold and told she was going to be sent to school in Bombay, but of course, they groomed her until she was old enough to become a prostitute. Today she’s a hairstylist. So when I saw the work the NGO does, I realised they are going further and rehabilitating people. That really spoke to me.
It sounds like the girls really inspired you?
We think we have problems in our lives, but you should meet these girls. They are so full of courage, hope and resilience. They really inspired me. There is a girl who has been through so many abortions. Another girl is just 24 but has a 10-year-old kid, both from forced intercourse. Their life is in shambles, but they are so excited there could be a possibility of a new beginning. It is not for me, there are no films being released or publicity campaign, I just wanted to raise some money for this campaign. The first donor is me because I can’t really urge people to contribute when I don’t give any money from my own pocket.
I am really excited about watching you in Cabaret. What was shooting that like?
Well, I just wanted to do my first kind of commercial film. So that was exciting. I really enjoyed doing it because it had a lot of song and dance, and I used to dance as a kid. I really enjoyed the whole thing. Now I am just now waiting for its release, to see how it does, to see if people accept me. Most of them really haven’t registered it’s me doing it.
Yes, I love that sexy new image of you on the poster?
The thing is, in real life I am always experimenting with my style and my hair. I recently coloured my hair red because I know I have a little bit of a break. It is just the films that I do are so different. Like a lot of people during the first few years of my career wouldn’t speak to me in English. They would speak to everybody else in English and would compliment me really slowly in Hindi. I would be like, ‘thank you so much’ in English and they would be really surprised that I could actually speak English. I would be like, ‘I am not that person.’ It is so funny.
Tell us about your global project Love Sonia?
It was good to work with different people on Love Sonia, people from different cultures and sort of different methodologies of work. Ironically, this is how life imitates art or art imitates life. It is a film based on trafficking. Just like when I was getting this crowd-funding project off the ground for a charity dealing with the same issue, this film comes my way and I was like, ‘let’s do it.’
Finally, why do you love cinema?
It’s an opportunity to live another person’s life, for that period without any baggage and really express yourself. I know that somewhere it makes a difference to other people’s lives, because what else is there to defend if there is no art? So I really look at it like that.
Also, I love movies. Good movies can make my day.