'It's easy to call anything problematic': Richa Chadha on outrage against Madam Chief Minister, Section 375

Tatsam Mukherjee
·13-min read

It's a Sunday noon, and I'm first in line for a long day of interviews around Richa Chadha's latest film, Madam Chief Minister, but she already sounds exhausted. Playing a Dalit woman in the film (reportedly inspired by the life of Mayawati), Chadha was criticised for the film's poster showing her holding a broom. When I eventually broach the topic during the phone interview, Chadha sounds amused and ready, as if she has been mentally preparing herself to address it a dozen times during the day. At a later point, she also heaves and says the words 'problematic' and 'automatic' many times in quick succession, as if to infantilise the 'outrage' she was recently subjected to.

Chadha is a curious presence in the film industry. Making her mark in a supporting role in Dibakar Banerjee's Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, where she played a West Delhi girl, Dolly, Chadha has come a long way. "I remember coming from a very intellectual space for that film. It was that kind of a film, which had the space for this kind of conversation. What happened to India post-liberalisation, how did the cultural fabric of the country change. I remember not even asking what my screen-time was going to be, it didn't matter. After all, you're going to get a break, and you're working with Dharmendra's nephew, and it's almost like you've 'arrived'. It's almost sweet that I thought my life would change after that one role," she says.

It's been 12 years since, and much like her contemporaries, even Chadha has tried to seek a balance of 'topical' films and 'masala' entertainers. Which worked like a dream in the beginning with films like Wasseypur, Masaan, being followed by the two parts of Fukrey, Chadha's filmography has been less attractive of late. Trying to fight the stereotype of playing a North Indian firebrand character, Chadha tried to reinvent her space with films like Jia Aur Jia, Cabaret, and even the recently released Shakeela. Each one more forgettable than the next. And then she kicked up a storm on 'woke Twitter' with last year's Section 375, which many felt upheld the popular narrative of the 'vengeful woman' and the 'innocent man', merely a few months after the #MeToo movement.

As if being an Indian woman on social media wasn't enough (for unsolicited DMs and general rudeness), Chadha sometimes inhabits an unenviable position, where she's subjected to rudeness from pretty much anyone. With her films becoming more and more 'formula', there seems to be an overwhelming lack of invention in her roles of late. When I ask her about all this, Chadha sportingly answers most of the questions. Excerpts:

2020 has been a year of introspection for many of us, is there one realisation that the year left you with something you'll be carrying forward?

The only thing that I've learned is, that my own personal sanity and happiness is most important to me. Sometimes, other people set unrealistic goals for us, and we're constantly told that we can't be 'happy' unless we achieve this or that, none of which is true. We don't need that much to be happy. I think that's what I learned during the last year.

Most of your contemporaries are trying to hit the sweet spot of an 'issues' film, which is also entertaining. Is it hard to hit that mark?

I don't think so. There have always been these kinds of films, that have strived for national integration, while also being really enjoyable movies. Like say, Amar Akbar Anthony, which was commercial and also had the biggest stars. See like, I did Masaan, which highlighted the subjects of caste and gender. Which I think is also the two major themes of Madam Chief Minister too. You need to choose a director, who clearly understands whether the film is being made to reach the masses, as opposed to travel (in film festivals). This is a commercial film and that's why it has punchy dialogues. But it's also something that happens in real life, and we see it in front of our eyes.

Is it frustrating sometimes about how little control an actor has around how a film eventually shapes up?

It's very frustrating. No one really signs a film with the intent, that we will make a terrible film. You get to work on it with a lot of excitement, and perhaps you think everyone else's intention, interest level, and commitment to the project is the same as yours. That doesn't turn out to be true. Of course, it is frustrating. But it's part of the game, I don't know any actor who hasn't gone through it.

Do you sometimes think that you've been unfairly bracketed as a North Indian character?

It's about how you start. If you start with a Gangs of Wasseypur, people will assume that this is all you want to do. More of that keeps coming your way, and you have to decide what works and what doesn't. I think I have credible range as a comic actor, or someone who can play the underdog, but the industry sometimes needs new eyes, in the way they see both men and women. It's a very complicated thing, because even the audience has to accept you in a role. I read a lot of comments around my performance in Masaan, and they said "Ismein toh acting aapne ki hi nahi" (were you not acting in this film at all?), which I found really funny. Exactly what I mean, there's no figuring out how the audience might respond.

The feminist overtones in your characters have been increasingly less subtle...

No, but why should I hide it?

No no... I only meant that they've become less subtle...

That's what is offered to me. None of these films was written by me. People have come to associate this 'angry young woman' image with me, partly because of my role as Nagma in Gangs of Wasseypur or a popular film like Fukrey. But that's not all I can do. And I'm sure with time it will change... Even in Madam Chief Minister, even though the trailer is full of punchy dialogue or how she's riding a bike, once you see the film you'll see what a soft side she has in her relationship with Saurabh Shukla, who is a father figure to my character in the film. How she almost has an infantile relationship with her husband, played by Manav Kaul, she's vulnerable in her private moments.

You've been lauded and also faced the wrath of social media... what's your current equation with Twitter? Considering it's an important of part an actor's arsenal for publicity these days?

I don't think it's an important part of an actor's arsenal, because on the ground it doesn't translate to much. It doesn't mean people buying more tickets of your film. I take neither the adulation, nor the criticism, very seriously. I still don't understand my criticism for the poster of the film, and yet I took one for the team by issuing a statement describing exactly what happened. And if people really still want to hate on me, or 'cancel' me, then I simply couldn't care any less. This is a classic 'liberal' problem, we are so harsh on our own allies, we expect so much perfection from everyone at all times, that people feel tired. The outrage is so automatic, that somewhere you really miss the point. I doubt if any of them will reach out to the filmmaker if they feel differently after watching the film. It's a place that is so fickle, where people need to agree on one thing so that they can feel connected like a tribe. I've written blogs, and people have lauded me for it, and then one poster comes along and everyone is like 'OMG, we didn't expect this from you". I don't want this burden of expectation.

Do you take on some extra 'responsibility' as an actor, especially when you're playing a character from an already oppressed part of society? Does it change how you prepare for a film?

It changes the context for my preparation. I wouldn't have read so much, or done any research, if the character was not from an oppressed part of society. But would I play her any differently from how I would play any regular person? Not at all.

Could you elaborate a little about what you read, and how you prepared for the film?

I got a long reading list from my director (Subhash Kapoor), he gave me a bunch of books which were political biographies. He's been a political journalist, and he's seen many of these politicians from close quarters. He's seen them in their private moments, for eg: once the press conference gets done, or after a big rally, when they let their guard down for a few seconds. Which is why he's gone ahead and made such a risky film. Apart from the biographies, I also read a bit of Ambedkar, a bit of Kancha Ilaiah, and some other academics who write on caste. Even though the film truly is the story of an oddball, who becomes really powerful. Still for context... I thought it would help me with the character, because what we're taught in school and colleges is clearly not sufficient, unless you've dealt with it. If you're simply told that caste is a social evil that was abolished in 1960, then you negate the caste aspects and the stories of the Rohith Vemulas. Just a simple google search can tell you about its prevalence, even now in 2020, and I think that really helped me learn a lot.

Many thought Section 375 was ill-timed. Do you think it could have better timed?

I don't control the timing of a film, or a poster. People are so quick to judge something, that sometimes they're not looking at the subversive view. We work in this industry, and to not leave any room for what you believe is the 'absolute truth', is really something. I had people who didn't even watch the film, coming out and criticising the film saying 'Oh! The end was very problematic.' Why was it problematic? Does this not happen? Of course, it does. Are we saying that this is all that happens? No. The law needs to be looked at. The film was designed to trigger conversation, and the rape law is not gender neutral. The onus is on the person who has been accused to prove that he's innocent, and that's not the case with other things. Has this stopped rapes from happening? It's a bit like death penalty for the rapists. I'm always open for debate, and open to challenging subjects and parts, and I love doing these. What I find tacky and juvenile, are people who have this holier-than-thou attitude towards how people *should* behave in their personal life. What really is a 'valid' experience for an actor like me to have, who is going to decide what kind of films I can or cannot do? You have to be really silly to think that I can control the timing of a film.

I think, Richa, the conversation that was going around was how the film was upholding an already popular narrative on the heels of the #MeToo movement, which is what I think some people found problematic...

I have a problem with the word 'problematic'. It's so easy to call anything problematic, and then outrage around it automatically. I know that there was a narrative going around by a few powerful men that had been spun around that time, that this was in fact, consensual, and some cases in that were probably even true. We work in this industry, so we understand some of the nuances that outsiders aren't privy to. However, at what point did you feel that the film was propaganda?

I didn't think it was propaganda for sure, but I personally got the feeling that it was siding with the powerful person...

It was taking a hard look at the law. It says that if the person is under duress, even if the consent is offered at one point, later they could retract it and say that 'I felt pressurised'. Which was exactly the case with someone like Harvey Weinstein, so I don't understand what was wrong? But to say that you can't make a film like this in India, we're already such a deeply regressive and patriarchal society, then we'll never have a contrarian point of view. I just think that people who are deciding on someone else's behalf about what kind of film should come out, are holding others to a high standard than themselves, and that's exhausting. Honestly, you have to leave enough room for all kinds of films to be made. When I read the script, I found that it was taking a hard look at the law, how details in a case can often be confusing, and also how media trials affect a court's ruling. I've seen it myself, how easy it is to 'cancel' someone. Tomorrow, I can say anything without having to offer any proof on the matter, and that person can lose everything from his livelihood, you tell me as a man... is that fair? It's actually happened to a friend of mine, an actor called Karan Oberoi, who was deliberately framed. Is there no room to tell his story? Or should we wait? I'm very happy to not be that woke, and not be adored for it.

You've starred in some cult classics or some very forgettable films like (Jia Aur Jia, Cabaret). Is it something that you have reflected on during the pandemic?

No man, the fact that I exist is a miracle. I came in doing unconventional parts, and when you're picking scripts you're obviously not hoping that these will this role ruin my career. Sometimes the consideration is monetary, sometimes you're hoping that this will give a boost to your career. These are not things I reflect on too much, because everyone knows that the industry operates on connections and nepotism. I'm at that point in my life, where I don't care too much (laughs). I hope that doesn't sound too arrogant, but I don't care even if it does. The one thing I've learned during the pandemic is my own mental health and sanity. That's what is vital for me.

(All images from Twitter)

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