The Paro character from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 Bengali novel Devdas has been typically represented on screen as a submissive woman who lets her lover’s actions (or inaction) dictate her fate.
Dev.D, Anurag Kashyap’s 2009 adaptation of the novel, rewrote the character’s fate. Kashyap’s Paro (Mahie Gill) chooses to leave Devdas after he doubts her virtue, and rejects him when he tries to rekindle the relationship. In Daas Dev, the latest interpretation of the novel, director Sudhir Mishra has imagined Devdas as the heir to a political dynasty who finds himself pitted against Paro, the politically ambitious daughter of his father’s secretary.
The time for a weeping, distressed Paro has passed, says the actor who plays Paro in the April 27 release. “That idea of Paro, carrying diyas and running in corridors, is too old now,” Chadha told Scroll.in. “This Paro is very progressive. She knows that if she stands in an election opposite Dev, he’ll be forced to acknowledge her presence in spite of himself. She’ll keep meeting him at parties. It is a twisted and convoluted sense of love, but it is love. We can’t keep replaying the old stereotypes of women. At some point, we have to have some kind of artistic responsibility, especially with everything that is happening around us in the world.”
Rahul Bhat plays Devdas in the movie, while Aditi Rao Hydari portrays Chandramukhi, the courtesan in the novel.
Mishra’s reinterpretation of Devdas is being released after missing its deadline five times.
“It is sad but this is what unfortunately happens to independent producers and great filmmakers sometimes,” Chadha said. “Often, someone who has a creative bent of mind does not have a business mind and vice-versa. It seems the twain shall never meet.”
Daas Dev will surprise audiences with its depth and complexity, the 31-year-old actor promised. “One of the ideas that the film explores is about how the people you love are often the ones that hurt you the most,” she explained. “And in Daas Dev, this hurt is visceral. Here, hate is a form of love. I remember while shooting for a particularly fiery scene, Sudhir sir suddenly said, make Richa wear red lipstick and let her wear her hair loose. I wasn’t sure why, since my character doesn’t wear such make-up in the rest of the film – and yes I’m one of those actors who is going to question the need to wear make-up. Sudhir sir told me that Paro was going to leave Dev in that scene. Dev should not feel bad that a beautiful woman if leaving him, he explained.”
Daas Dev is the latest movie to feature Chadha in a role that challenges the conventional depiction of women in films. These roles include the bold and brassy Dolly from her debut Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), the matriarch Najma in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), the tough-as-nails female don Bholi Punjaban in Fukrey (2013) and the introverted and resolute Devi in Masaan (2015).
Are strong roles for women still rare? “Now, everyone seems to be doing these roles but I’m happy to have done it before everybody else,” Chadha said. “I’ve realised that unless you stake claim to your own success and how you’ve led a change, people don’t realise it. I bet if I was a star kid, it would have been very different right now and every little thing that I did would be lauded and applauded.”
Chadha is deeply invested in how each of her characters turns out. “I want each character’s humanity to come out,” she explained. “Even when I play Bholi Punjaban, who is a comical character in a goofy comedy, I want her to be independent, inspiring and ultimately human. I’m playing a prostitute in the film I’m shooting for right now, and I’ve invested so much vulnerability and honesty in her simply because I want her to be looked at as a commercial sex worker as opposed to a prostitute, which is now a heavily abused word.”
Apart from her own homework, Chadha also draws sustenance from her co-stars, who have pushed her to “up her game”. She said, “Like Manoj Bajpayee, for example: it is rare to find actors like him who bring the best in you.”
Chadha likes to keep her “observation hat” on at all times, picking up cues and mannerisms for the characters she plays. “I’m mostly the fly on the wall, looking at people, seeing what they are doing, how they behave, how they eat,” she revealed. “Generally I read the script once and then I sit down and think about the various aspects that strike me about the character – does she speak fast or slow, is she educated, is she well-travelled, is she a virgin, what kind of food does she like. This process works very well because it gives you details that even the director or the writer may not have thought of.”
Many of the filmmakers she has worked with have embraced her approach. “Even a filmmaker like Mr Bhansali would often ask me whether it would make sense for the character I’m playing to say a particular line,” she explained. Chadha played Rasila, the sister-in-law of Leela (Deepika Padukone) in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013).
She credits her directors with the freedom to interpret her characters, right from her first movie, Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! “It was my first film, I was fresh out of college but Dibakar still asked me if Dolly would talk a certain way or not,” she said. “Of course, there are other filmmakers who’d prefer if you don’t raise an eyebrow or add a comma without checking with them, and that’s fine too.”
What Chadha tries to avoid is letting her personality seep into her characters. “That’s because then your body and consciousness ends up doing very surprising things,” she explained. “For instance, I had no reference point for Nagma in Gangs of Wasseypur. I had to play someone older and cry in a song. When I started crying in that scene, I really don’t know what I connected with – like some old woman’s pain of losing a husband or being lonely or being caught in this war of honour and violence.”
Chadha is currently shooting for Anubhav Sinha’s political satire Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai. The movie has an ensemble cast and includes Saurabh Shukla, Pankaj Tripathi, Vinay Pathak, Divya Dutta, Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa and Cyrus Broacha.
“It is an incredible cast and this is the most fun I’ve had on a set,” Chadha said. “It is a studio film that is being produced by Sony, and that gives me so much hope for the future. Just the thought that we don’t always have to watch rubbish and that there is hope for good content. Of course, it all depends on how many people actually go to theatres to watch small films and support them. Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai is one of those films that can either become a classic or people may just not get it at all.”
Chadha is less reluctant to talk about her other project, Indrajit Lankesh’s biopic of Malayalam adult star Shakeela, since the contract hasn’t been finalised yet. “It is definitely going to be something that will offer perspective and humanity to a character that is otherwise very judged,” she said. “That’s what excites me. Shakeela wrote a book about her life in Malayalam, which is going to be the source material for the film. The film will not present a black-and-white reading of her life. I also feel that one needs to look at the hypocrisy in condemning women who people think don’t fit the archetypes of the mother, the virgin and the slut.”