If Richa Chadha is billed as a “special appearance” in Panga, it is by design. Ashwiny Iyer’s Tiwari’s January 24 release is headlined by Kangana Ranaut as former kabaddi player Jaya Nigam, a working woman and mother who returns to the game after a long break. Chadha plays Meenu, a kabaddi coach and Jaya’s old friend and chief motivator.
Chadha nails the body language of the seasoned athlete as well as Meenu’s contempt for realities beyond the field. Meenu is indifference personified when paraded before a prospective groom, and it is no surprise that he is nevertheless smitten and agrees to the match.
It’s truly a special appearance for Chadha, who made her debut in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! in 2008. Her career has included leading lady parts as well as crucial roles in films with ensemble casts. “If you are an actor who plays leading roles in Bombay, doing a supporting part demotes you,” Chadha explained. “My shooting days [for Panga] were few and so was my investment, so I wanted to be billed as a special appearance. Anybody who has watched the film will realise that nomenclature doesn’t matter anyway. It was for my own safety.”
Chadha’s preparations for the role includes loosening her body, just as she had observed kabaddi players to do. “Kabaddi players are very free with their bodies, especially since kabaddi is a contact sport,” she said. She modelled her movements, which included hunching her shoulders, on Gauri Wadekar, who coached the players for the movie.
Panga is the second sports-based project to feature Chadha in recent months. In Amazon Prime Video’s popular web series Inside Edge, Chadha has a starring role as Zarina Malik, the co-owner of the cricket team Mumbai Mavericks which is jostling to be at the top of the table in the fictional Powerplay League. The series, created by Karan Anshuman, has rolled out a mix of cricket, showbiz, crime and scandal over its two seasons. Among the grubby-handed cricketers, crooked team owners, shadowy gangsters, lusty hangers-on and a few good men and women trying to stay true to the spirit of the game is Zarina, a movie star whose career is on the wane.
Chadha perfectly conveys Zarina’s fathomless ambition, malleable morality, vulnerability in tricky situations, and despair when her beloved team seems to be slipping out of grasp. Streaming platforms are allowing actors to explore facets of performance that are unavailable to them in the movies. For Chadha, the risk of accepting a web series in the midst of a film career has certainly paid off.
The 33-year-old actor isn’t part of the generation that consumed Hum Log and Buniyaad on Doordarshan, but she is well aware of the impact of these thoughtfully scripted and deftly performed serials. She points to the vast segment of Indian viewers who don’t relate to either such Indian TV shows as Naagin or American fare.
“I was more than happy to do the role – I had the foresight to see that [streaming] was the future,” Chadha said about Inside Edge. “At the time, films were faring poorly and people seemed sick of watching the same damn thing over and again. A lot of people said it’s risky, web series are lower in the hierarchy. I feel like films haven’t been able to keep up and these guys have gone and bridged the gap.”
Zarina Malik has drawn comparisons with Preity Zinta, who is among the owners of Kings XI Punjab. But “there’s no reference point” for Zarina, Chadha explained, adding, “She did remind me of my vain actress friends, whom I have known for ten years and who still pretend to be the same age. No matter how beautifully styled, they are insecure about how they look.”
Chadha poured these impressions into Zarina, whom she described as “somebody who is irritated at being constantly told, you can’t do this”. Zarina is the polar opposite of who Richa Chadha says she is in real life – a “free-flowing hippie flower child who wants to only do those things” that make her happy.
This “free-flowing” nature has resulted in some indifferent choices but also some great roles – the sharp-tongued dancer in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, the focused-on-revenge Najma Khatoon in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, the fragile Devi in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan and Bholi Punjaban from Fukrey and its sequel, Fukrey Returns, about whom, it is said, she opens her foul mouth and causes a tsunami in the Yamuna river.
Chadha is especially good at playing women who speak their minds, but such roles have earned her the unwelcome adjective “bold”. She hates the descriptor and its cousins, including “savage” and “badass”.
Her liberal stand on political issues means that she is as unfiltered on her social media platforms as in interviews, but she detests the manner in which her views get described in violent terms. “She lashes out, she demolishes her opponents – I am actually a Gandhian at heart,” Chadha said. “I am tired of tweets that identify me as bold. I just want to say what I want to say.”
For every journalist asking her if she has lost work for having strong views on such hot-button issues – being opposed to the Citizenship Amendment Act, for one thing – she has a spirited response: “Not one of these journalists will do an investigative piece on how those who have aligned with the regime have benefitted from the connection.”
Of course, fans don’t always separate the actor from the performance. “All of it [the performance] comes from me and none it comes from me,” Chadha pointed out. “All we do as actors is channel what we know. Take Meenu, for instance: I know that her parents want to get her married even though she is nice and comfortable as a coach. I am able to create a slightly fleshed-out character, which is why people tend to enjoy it. My whole endeavor is to humanise every character, even she is evil.”
It’s easier said than done to escape tags when the film industry tends to typecast actors on the basis of their most recent performances. “My last performance will dictate the next two or three roles, so if I have done an Oye Lucky, I will get offered potty-mouthed bar dancers,” Chadha said. “I do Bholi and then I get offered more Bholi or Moli or Goli. Bholi is a monstrosity, and I am vegan.”
Chadha’s frankness attracts admiration but also trolling – female actors are especially subjected to vicious online misogyny that reveals the staggering depths of the perversity of trolls. “This sexist rubbish, rape and death threats, all this trolling, they are now like my morning cup of tea,” Chadha said. “I have had these mentions on Twitter for the past three or four years. It used to upset me, but I have now realised that these are paid trolls, so I don’t bother any more. I block them and move on.”
Where does validation come from when you decide to opt out of the box office race? Chadha draws comfort from the people who praise her performances, awards, and better pay. “To be successful is to be memorable in the movies, but the industry shunts out women at a faster rate,” Chadha said. “I won’t allow that happen to me. I feel I am incredibly successful, but I also an aberration. I have been a sister and a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law and had a good time playing these roles. I’m still here despite being an outsider and without any naach gaana.”
About that last point – Chadha can dance. She has trained in kathak, and recently rekindled her connection with the performance art by enrolling in a course in fusion belly dancing in Kazakhstan.
The dance course is a part of what Chadha calls her “full other life outside of this imaginary landscape of Bollywood”. This includes singing, gardening, reading and travelling. “I have other interests that keep me balanced and sane,” she said. “It is both a good and a bad thing that I don’t take anything too seriously.”
She attributes her interest in the arts to her Punjabi father, a management professional, and her Bihari mother, a teacher. “Mom liked to paint, and she introduced me to fine art,” Chadha said. “My dad liked to sing. I would see him on Sunday with a harmonium. It’s incredibly dull to keep interacting with the same people from the same industry. I can’t talk about workout and diets all the time.”
Among the different things Chadha has been trying is comedy. She performed the kind associated with her Bholi Punjaban persona in the Amazon Prime Video web series One Mic Stand. In her spot, Chadha sends up conservative Punjabi aunties who keep pestering her to get married and then back off when she tells them that she is dating Ali Fazal, her co-star from Fukrey.
“Maybe I won’t be as forthright if I have children – I will worry about them,” Chadha observed. “But as I am growing older, I am only being truer to myself. Evolution isn’t possible any other way.” Might we be permitted to call her sassy? Please?