Richa Chadda’s upcoming release, Masaan, premiered in Cannes two months ago and bagged two awards. The film received a five-minute long standing ovation from the audience after it was screened, a video of which went viral in India. After the screening, Chadda tweeted a photograph of her middle finger with the caption – “To all those who said I shouldn’t work in ‘low budget arty films’, PFA my revert. (PARDON MY FRENCH)”.
I mention the photograph to her and she laughs. We are sitting in the Phantom (films) office and Chadda, dressed in a red jumpsuit and floral sneakers, is feeding toasted multi grain bread to the office’s pet dog. “It is very difficult to choose the kind of films I choose. They don’t pay and the subjects are not commercial. When you do a film like Masaan, you know that you will not get any events, endorsements and ribbon-cuttings, which is where all the actresses make money, because, well, we are not paid at par with male actors. So, sometimes it gets difficult to convince your own team, because you can’t be their cash cow. So the finger was to everyone who doubted my choices. People who said stuff like, arty hai, paisa nahi hai, TV show pe host ban jao… but hey, you can’t satisfy everybody.”
Chadda is nothing like the characters she portrays quite regularly on screen. She is seen mostly as a brash, loudmouthed ball-buster with a healthy disregard for femininity and men. All her performances on screen – as fabulous as they may be – are offshoots of the same archetype. For our photo shoot, she is beautifully dolled up, her hair is the right kind of messy and she speaks softly, without any outbursts of emotion. She is not wearing any jewellery, other than a simple pendant on a chain around her neck. “It has ‘badass’ engraved on it. My mother gave me some gold to get something done, so I made this.” She seems like a bundle of contradictions, and I cannot quite figure her out.
“I am what you see. People might think I am harsh and rude because of the work I do, but that is not me. I am very sensitive and ethical and I work with a lot of integrity. I am not brash and loud. I don’t like that at all.”And does she follow fashion, like most other women? “I do, but I’m not a slave. There are brands and seasons I look out for, like Dior and Chanel and McQueen.”
There is something Monroe-esque about Chadda. She might be sitting across you, talking to you, laughing with you, but there is a screen in between. She seems disconnected, and she’s definitely unfazed by the world around her. When I ask her about negative reviews, she tells me how she remembers just one, because she does not get any flak from critics or audiences. There is no wicked smirk or humble laugh when she says that. Her face is deadpan, her voice matter-of-fact. If it is arrogance, it is not scathing. Maybe her confidence is her armour, because it is not easy for an actress to survive in Bollywood if she chooses to walk the unbeaten path.
“There was a lot of curiosity in the industry about me,” she says. “They thought I was not a polished, English-speaking person, and that I was the girl I portrayed in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (her debut film). When they saw Gangs of Wasseypur, they couldn’t understand why I would play a character older than myself. Some people thought I was 40 plus. The first thing my PR firm told me was that people think I am really old. Not that I care, anyway.”
Why did she do an outrageously commercial film like Ram-Leela? “Ram-Leela happened because I really wanted to work with Bhansali and work in a big, commercial film. I wanted to experience that. And I had a great time and learned a lot. Bhansali really knows his job, believes in the world that he creates and is definitely one of the better film-makers we have.” So she is not anti-stardom, like many other ‘art house’ actors? “See, the line is blurring because Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a prime example. He is not only regarded as a good actor but he is also commercially viable and has his own following. There are other actors who are kind of in between, like Randeep Hooda. I won’t say I don’t care about stardom. I care about my work, but I wouldn’t die for it. I am detached in that sense. I also believe that I need to make money, because if I was a successful commercial star with the same amount of acting calibre, then making Masaan would have been easier for Neeraj (Ghaywan, the director). I get that. Otherwise, it will become a major challenge for the producers too. I am doing a film called Cabaret with Pooja Bhatt. It doesn’t get more commercial than that. And for other actors, Masaan might be an experiment. For me, that is.”
We discuss her love for animals and how she is a vegetarian-going-on-vegan. She has ordered an omelette from the cafeteria, though, and is trying to decide whether to eat it or not. It is difficult to be vegan, she confesses, and then ruffles the head of the dog sitting next to her, mentioning how he is food in China. We relax a lot more after I say that the interview is over. She smiles more, we discuss mutual friends and then we get to talking about men.
She breaks into a bright smile. “Men are more complex than they think they are. They think they are simple and chilled out, but they are the first to get jealous. They see a photo of you with another guy on Instagram and flare up and die. You put up a hot selfie and they get worried about who you could possibly send it to. They must make a little bit more money than you do. Independence, intelligence and ambition still intimidates them. They really are the challenge of the day. Most men, way into their 40s, behave like teenagers, and God help them if they didn’t have sex at the right time.” And I had thought she would say nice things. Chadda is a dangerous cocktail of sensuality, independence and intelligence, and under the calm exterior lies a vibrant energy which she channels expertly on camera. It is very difficult not to fall for this woman. But then again, who is man enough for this firebrand?