Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi has Alia Bhatt at the front and centre as the madam of a brothel in Mumbai. Among the film’s actors who has made a mark is Chhaya Kadam, who plays Gangubai’s rival Rashmibai. Kadam is also in Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund, as the wife of Amitabh Bachchan’s cricket coach.

Kadam began her career on the stage before moving to films in 2009. She had significant parts in Fandry, Sairat, Gour Hari Dastaan, Nude and Andhadhun. Through Rashmibai’s effort was to “make my role stand out and yet keep it synergetic with all the other characters”. In an interview, Kadam shared her thoughts on working with Bhansali and Bachchan and the kind of characters she would like to play.

You made your debut on the stage as a sex worker in Waman Kendre’s ‘Zulva’. Did that help in portraying Rashmibai?
It did. We rehearsed that play for more than three-and-a-half months. During the rehearsals, Waman Kendre scolded me daily, irrespective of what I did. It got to a point where I began to question whether I knew acting at all. He once picked up a chair and threatened to hurl it at me for not getting something right. But that challenge made me push harder to get it right, better my craft and grow as an actor.

Was Sanjay Leela Bhansali challenging to work with too?
Bhansali Sir went out of his way to make me comfortable. If I wrack my brains, I can think of a shot where I open the door for Alia’s character to come in and turn around. I come from a school of acting where everything is robust and done with unbridled energy. Bhansali Sir wanted even a routine movement like that to look stylised, graceful and lyrical. He asked if I had learnt dancing and asked me to learn when I said I hadn’t.

He was very affectionate with me. We only speak in Marathi with each other. Once I heard what he wanted from a scene I worked with that. He would insist on retakes only if he wanted something specific.

What has the feedback to ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ been like?
I feel humbled that people have reached out to me on social media platforms directly with feedback.

One such response highlighted how both Seema Pahwa [who plays Gangubai’s employer] and my shots are mostly close-ups. Now this is not something actors like me really think of while acting. That felt really nice.

Someone told me that the final look that Rashmibai gives Gangubai during the latter’s victory march conveys her assuredness that the young leader will take care of the community. If my conveying this without a single word reaches the audience what more can I ask?

Dholida, Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022).

It was initially felt that Alia Bhatt was too young and petite for the role.
Casting is the director’s lookout. All I know is the sheer hard work Alia put into her character. And remember, this ecosystem is completely alien to her. She is not even from a working-class background like me.

My father was a mill worker. I grew up in Kalina [in suburban Mumbai] in a working-class home. Did you know I played national-level kabaddi in college?

I’m not playing any sympathy card here. On the contrary. This background often gives me so much material for my characters.

You do get frequently cast as marginalised or working-class characters.
Every actor has to decide whether they want to take the easy way out and do assembly line films. I refused many films immediately after Fandry because they were identical characters with the exact same graph. Even if I concede that some characters come from a similar zone, I have interpreted and played them differently.

I’d love to do an urban, soft mainstream film. However, it’s not like you can waft through a film like that. This too requires immense preparation for it to work and seem meaningful.

Every role is a challenge. One has to grow out of one’s comfort zone.

Hutatma season 2 (2019).

Which would you choose between theatre and cinema?
Each medium has its charm. Economics works for one and the heady satisfaction of a live audience response works for the other. Theatre polished my craft and I’ll forever be grateful.

I last did a Marathi play called Angai [Lullaby] for which we struggled to have even 25 shows. I once saw more people on the stage than in the audience. It pricked me to accept my honorarium since it was coming out of the director’s pocket. That’s when I stopped. I arrived quite late into cinema, and I have barely begun exploring the medium.

You have been in Nagraj Manjule’s ‘Fandry’, ‘Sairat’ and now ‘Jhund’. What was it like to share the screen with Amitabh Bachchan?
I was offered a film with Amit ji but couldn’t do it because of last-minute date issues. I remember going to Juhu just to gape at his house as a young kid. Being star-struck lasted only till I faced the camera with him.

Once, Nagraj said that we were going to Amit ji’s house for a meeting. I went shopping and bought myself a silk kurta. On the appointed day and time, I took special care to ready myself and set out from my Kalina home for Juhu. I was told that the meeting was postponed. Twice I got ready in the same outfit and set out, only to have the meeting postponed. But when we finally met Amit ji, his mix of warmth, professionalism, and decency more than made up for this.

Did you fan-girl at any point?
I generally avoid taking pictures with my co-stars. But on the last day of shooting for Jhund in Nagpur I told Nagraj I wanted a selfie with Amit ji.

I was called where Amit ji’s shot was going on. As soon as Nagraj said ‘Cut!’, Amit ji asked, where is Chhaya, some photos need to be taken. That’s how I got my selfie with him and a memory for a lifetime.

What do you think of contemporary actors?
The younger lot is very aware of fitness, diet, adequate rest and media savviness. They also understand the technicalities of the shoot better. I’m not saying this because we’ve worked together but Alia Bhatt and Ayushman Khurana are so driven.

I like Tabu, Shefali Shah, Dhanush, Vijay Raaz, Sandhya Mridul, Mita Vashisht and many others. Some of the work in the South is amazing.

And then there is Manoj Bajpayee. When he plays a character everything about him from his toe to his hair acts. I remember telling him about how he uses his lips differently for different characters. Picking up something like that and holding it in continuity for the duration of the role is not easy. But he makes it seem effortless.

Nude (2018).