An Attack on One Person's Freedom of Expression Is an Attack on Everyone: Richa Chadha

"I would be willing to take up the role of a man if offered, as was done by Edward Redmayne in The Danish Girl where he took up a role of a woman."

Damini Yadav: Hello, I am Damini Yadav and you are watching ‘Hindi ki Bindi’. A few years ago a movie called Masaan was released, in which there was a woman called Devi, who in her pursuit of sexual satisfaction in her love life was almost labelled characterless. The way this character was brought to life deserves great appreciation.

In another film called Gangs of Waaseypur, the woman playing the role of a middle-aged lady was actually half her age. However, the role was played in such a way that the audience couldn’t tell the age difference between the character and the actor. Richa Chadha has left her mark on these and various other roles.

People say that great compliments obstruct the path to great performances, and we would not want this to be the case with Richa Chadha. The reason we mention Richa Chadha today is because of her recent film titled Madam Chief Minister which was released a little while back. Her character Tara is said to be based on Mayawati, the ex-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and the songs of the movie are also garnering attention. These and other reasons have led to the film trending on OTT platforms. So let us talk to the Madam Chief Minister herself.

Welcome, Madam Chief Minister Richa Chadha to Hindi ki Bindi.

Richa Chadha: Thank you

DY: So, Richa your web film is not very similar to the story of ex-CM Mayawati, yet it is being said that it is based on her life.

RC: Firstly, this was not a web film and was made for a theatrical release. However, due to the lockdown, the producers couldn’t hold the release any longer and therefore released it on Netflix.

I don’t think there is any major similarity, but the fact that there has only been one female CM of UP, and from a Dalit caste. Also because of my character’s short hair. But as you would have seen in the movie, you would know there are not many similarities.

DY: Yes, I have seen the movie.

RC: People may think that is based on her for those reasons.

DY: Richa, the film represents the story of a Dalit woman named Tara. The reality of the situation of Dalits in our country is known to the world, but how did you prepare to understand the pain personally?

RC: Well, some things you can understand intellectually by reading books and understanding experiences. I read some books, biographies, to understand the political angle. There was a book on Mayawati ji called Behenji and one on Jayalalitha called Amma. I also read the most important work of B.R. Ambedkar on this issue, called Annihilation of Caste, as well as Why I Am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah. When I read all of these books I understood some of the context.

In my opinion, it does not seem to me that the reality of the situation is not very well understood, unless you actually read the news. The time we are currently in, in 2021, the facts are coming to light more openly. All that was required from me was empathy. It is no secret what happens to an entire section of society in our country, ranging from food, marriage to even cremation. These atrocities are increasing every day. I researched on the issue, talked to the director about it but if you just keep your eyes and ears open you will learn the truth.

DY: You said a beautiful thing, that if we just keep our eyes and ears open we will learn the truth. You mentioned multiple books that you have read in order to prepare for the role and that if we can feel it, nothing is hidden from us irrespective of attempts to hide the truth.

An artist is also a regular city inhabitant, but the responsibility towards a section of society increases because of being an artist. You are a very aware artist, where do you see yourself right now and do you feel you are accountable for your performances?

RC: I don’t know about accountability, I don’t think I would want to be accountable for my film choices and roles as much as I would want to be accountable for my political opinions and stance. If I would say that I just want to act and don’t have an opinion on other things, it would be saying that my vote doesn’t matter, my paying taxes doesn’t matter. I feel I have a responsibility towards society as a citizen, and even as an artist, but it gets a bit much when people question me over my roles and films.

But I do feel all artists have a responsibility towards society, and should try and improve our shortcoming or correct our mistakes. This is a weird time, because of the toxicity from social media which is having an impact on everyone, even school kids, and I fear it will hollow our society.

DY: Richa you said that your accountability as an artist is more, and I like your work. When I go to watch a movie with Richa Chadda, I have this opinion that Richa would be representing a different and unorthodox character. So does the image in my head while viewing a Richa Chadda movie reflect the image in Richa Chadda’s head while choosing a movie?

RC: No, there are all type of roles and these roles are chosen for various reasons. Sometimes you are just filling the empty dates in your calendar, or maybe the project is good or the banner is good and I would want to be associated. It’s a calculated decision, and when shooting started in 2020 the first thought in my head was that I haven’t earned anything this year and my savings are dwindling. Like Boman Irani says, four for the stomach and one for the heart. This ratio should be maintained by actors so that they aren’t sadly doing the same sort of work over and over again. But I try and pick different roles and experiment and work with different people.

DY: Yes, even we have fun watching you switch from a bholi Punjaban to Nagma Khatoon. Richa only a little while back cinema used to be divided in segments such as mainstream, art etc. But now it’s very nice to see the different types of stories, acting and production work and the change in the film industry. So how do you view the change in cinema and what future hopes do you have from it?

RC: I am hoping that it will evolve and elevate. In my opinion, it is the same cinema that we have strived for such as Gangs of Wasseypur or Masaan. The type of films I chose at the beginning of my career are now being chosen by everyone. Risky and experimental films are being undertaken, which makes me happy.

A lot of the credit goes to the audience which is now globalised, viewing things like Game of Thrones as well as Tamil and French movies. Moreover, I feel the distinction in the types of movies was in the mind of the industry and not the audience. The industry and mainstream stars have now understood that both forms of movies are now good and are stories worth telling. People who have understood that the ambit of mainstream movies is expanding have benefitted. Actors like Ayushmann Khurana and Taapsee Pannu are doing that.

Ten years back, when the film Dostana came out, it was the first time that a homosexual relationship was explored in a commercial setting. The film did not caricature it, did not represent any effeminate characteristics in the actors. The talk afterwards is irrelevant. For a normal middle-class family, Dostana is important because it introduced such a topic in the mainstream. Of course before there were other [less mainstream] movies that did explore it like My Brother Nikhil.

So it often happens, like in Madam Chief Minister, when the poster came out and the film was about to be released, I was told that I had taken a Dalit’s role. Their point is valid that ideally this role should have gone to a Dalit woman, but Bollywood is not an ideal place. Bollywood is a place where I had to compete with a non-Hindi speaking actress, or someone who has done only item songs so far, or someone whose Hindi is not good or their knowledge of caste and politics is poor.

So instead of defending myself, I wanted to explain to people that when we bring such stories out, we are expanding the mainstream. There have previously been films on caste like Article 15 which received its share of criticism and talk of saviour complex. I got the opportunity of representing a female Dalit chief minister who was a fighter, who used ‘saam daam dand bhed’. But her male counterparts or upper caste people criticised and called her a witch, as you have seen in the film. My idea is that the mainstream was expanded, and that some other films that will further explore and bring better stories into the mainstream may come in the future. So that in itself is progress.

DY: Richa it is a strange thing that a Dalit’s role should be performed by a Dalit. Cinema is a place where stories are shown, even on rape and murder and other issues. If roles are fitted into a category, it would be a laughable thing. Another thing that comes up is that Madam Chief Minister, in your words, utilises saam daam dand bhed to defend her seat and power, which is necessary in politics. So the woman’s character is very brave, bold and righteous. When we look at Richa’s personal life, even she seems bold, such as when you are trolled on social media and the way you handle it. My question is that cinema is based on freedom of expression and when this freedom is attacked, what space is left to say anything?

RC: There are two three things here. Firstly, you said that it is laughable that the role should be done by whom it belongs to a particular community. That is an artistic argument and I agree with you – but when it comes to a question of representation, it turns into a question of it being done by a person who has the lived experience.

This is an ongoing debate, such as with Scarlett Johansson who got a lesbian’s role in a film. But she was a trolled to an extent where she left the film because she couldn’t handle the trolling, that because I am not a lesbian so I can’t do this role. However, a few years ago, the role of Harvey Milk, a famous LGBT advocate, was performed by Sean Penn who is not gay himself. This is an ongoing debate, and I don’t know the solution to it.

I feel that an actor should undertake all roles. In fact, I would be willing to take up the role of a man if offered, as was done by Edward Redmayne in The Danish Girl where he took up a role of a woman.

Coming to the question of the freedom of expression, it is becoming evident that India is lagging behind the world in terms of democracy such as the freedom indexes, such as press, human rights, gender, freedom of expression. In terms of internet shutdowns, India has become the leader. So I don’t feel we can become a superpower if there isn’t even any freedom of expression.

The thing to understand here is that I am trolled because when I take a political stand that isn’t popular, then a paid machinery trolls me. They actually don’t troll me, but they tell you that you shouldn’t listen to me. They are telling the audience that they shouldn’t listen to me. It’s an attack on the audience and not me; what big difference can I make with 280 characters to the world? But they don’t want this question to come forward and for you to deliberate upon or laugh at it.

The attack on my freedom of expression is also an attack on you. So the thing to understand here is that an attack on an artist, or on a journalist who are attacked frequently – in this country they even lose their lives, in UP the situation is terrible, you travel a little distance and so many murders have been committed. If you kill a journalist, no one learns the truth. When you attack an artist by saying that your song, lyrics aren’t right or that your film is terrible or that I am offended by your film, these are all designed.

Why would you be offended by a TV show when the reality is worse and even more shameful? Every day in UP we learn of the rape of little girls, and their bodies being found half burnt or drowned or hanging somewhere. Why aren’t we offended by these things? Why aren’t we offended by a man carrying his daughter’s severed head on the road? Is this not a mental health or social or political issue? Why aren’t we offended by this? Till the point we continued to be offended by fiction, TV shows or by a comedian’s joke, we won’t become a mature or evolved society.

I feel that this outrage is manufactured. If you want to be then be offended, go to the court then. But even the Supreme Court is in a hurry to hear such cases. So I don’t understand that when my freedom is attacked, then it’s attacking my freedom to display my talent and skill to you. When that is attacked, the attack is actually on the public. You can’t watch or laugh at this, can’t hear this song, you can’t read this book or watch this movie because in some corner of this country someone has been offended.

DY: Richa you have said certain beautiful things that I was listening to you silently and absorbing what you said. Returning to your films, we have seen Nagma Khatoon, Shakila and even Madam Chief Minister. What’s next?

RC: This is the age of shows. There are many good shows. I have just finished two shows, one of which is Candy and the other is Six Suspects. After that, there is Fukrey 3 which is really liked by the people in Delhi. Bholi will be seen again. After that there are one or two action films. I am getting very interesting work now and I am happy with that because as you know, when you are an outsider you don’t belong to a camp. You want to do your own type of roles and have no interest in going to parties and networking, so your career moves slowly and steadily. I am also crafting my career in that manner and have started writing recently, and would like to write a great role for me. There are nine emotions, and one or two emotions can be tapped by a great director but the others aren’t explored. As an actor, I wish to explore those other emotions.

DY: During the conversation we learnt that you have an injury in your leg and are reading a lot, and we also learnt that you are now writing. Please shed some more light on what you are reading and writing?

RC: I am not reading anything right now as I was only injured two-three days ago. I am just finishing the pending work like reading emails and scripts and replying to the people who thought I am worthy of working in their projects.

I have started writing something that had been in my mind for a while. I wanted to explore this story and write about the experience of a middle-class girl or woman who is stuck in the pressure of her family, as there are many things that we do because we feel we have to and don’t argue against it. There was a sweet episode in Made in Heaven from Zoya Akhtar’s production house where a woman who isn’t getting married goes and marries a tree in the middle of the night because she is told that she has the effect of Mars on her among other things.

So I want to write about the psychology of the progressive girl who convinces herself to not take a chance and I am writing in that zone only. I feel this is the future, where the actors, directors and producers write good roles for themselves and are completely involved in the creative process as used to happen earlier.

People like Guru Dutt, Kishore Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Shabana Azmi are those type of people. Shabana ma’am sings so well, her sense of rhythm is so good and her speaking and writing as well. So all these qualities are limited by Bollywood which has not developed to such a level, but there are exceptions such as Vishal Bhardwaj, Sanjay Leela Bhansali sir, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. But by and large, people people think otherwise and characterise roles such as girl-next-door, bold, grey character and these things make me yawn because these people mention Scorsese, Tarantino, Nolan but still make what makes you sleep. I am trying to create something new and there will hopefully be takers for that.

DY: Definitely. Richa, sometimes short meetings are enough to get to know a person. While I don’t feel like stopping talking to you, time constraints are forcing me to take your leave. Thank you for giving your time to Hindi Ki Bindi and The Wire.

Transcribed and translated by Yagnesh Sharma.