Richa Chadha on the appeal of playing an adult star like Shakeela

Dubai - Enacting a woman who was adored and condemned in equal measures was fascinating, says the actress


Ambica Sachin

Published: Tue 22 Dec 2020, 7:33 PM

Last updated: Tue 22 Dec 2020, 7:35 PM

She was an adult star who brought an entire film industry to its knees. Rumour has it that even the reigning superstars of the time were running scared of her draw over the box office. Such was her sultry mass appeal that they refused to release their movie opposite hers. Shakeela was an icon down South in the 90s and now the rags-to-riches story of the young girl from an impoverished family who turned to C-grade movies to make a living is being brought to the big screen this weekend by Richa Chadha. Shakeela, directed by Indrajit Lankesh, also stars Pankaj Tripathi as a flamboyant 90s superstar whose insecurity led him to attempt to derail her career.

The film, which was slated to release in March, was pushed back due to the pandemic and now has a theatrical release in the UAE on December 24.

Richa is matter-of-fact when she tells us over a Zoom conversation that the main draw for her was the fact that Shakeela was such a cult figure. “She was someone who was responsible for sustaining a lot of cinema halls in the South, specially during times of repression and recession, it was pretty much her films that was helping the cinema chain survive.”

There were other aspects of her life that Richa found interesting as well. “Like the minute she got even a limited deal of success, she hired a body double; that her personal relationship with her mother was so flawed that she was always looking for love and she trusted blindly. The fact she could never get married and lead a conventional life as she had hoped to…"

The actress also alludes to the fact that Shakeela wasn’t ambitious. “She knew she had to do these films to make sure her family survives.” That she says is the key difference between Shakeela and the other Southern soft porn star Silk Smitha, portrayed on screen in The Dirty Picture by Vidya Balan.

When mainstream actors take on C-grade roles

Richa is clear the role of Shakeela is an experiment of sorts for her. She is dismissive of any comparisons with The Dirty Picture. Mainstream actors taking on these sidelined characters have the potential to make them more relatable for sure.

“If someone from the same sub category as Shakeela were to play this part, chances are that in telling the story of an exploitation, the story itself would become exploitative,” she explains.

“I guess this is why these kind of things work when serious actresses take on these challenges; we want people to look at these parts and women with new eyes.”

Women we love to loathe

Richa has been open earlier about the toll the ‘male gaze’ and the inherent patriarchy in the film industry had taken on her psyche. For someone with that experience playing an adult star who titillated an entire generation of cinema viewers down South would not have been easy. “I have always found it fascinating that people adore these women and worship them, and they condemn them in public,” she says by way of explaining why she took on the role. “This hypocrisy was something I wanted to delve into,” she says.

“It exists everywhere, but I think the societal hypocrisy is represented by the character of Pankaj Tripathi, who plays Salim in the film. He is shown as being openly hypocritical in that he tells his heroines that he does family films, but the minute he is alone with the actress, he’s telling her, ‘we will go for an outdoors shoot, don’t bring your mummy..’ etc.”

The movie might be set in the 90s but the attitudes are still the same, she avers. “Even now whatever ills there are in India, people are quick to jump and blame Bollywood.

“Bollywood has become the go-to punching bag for so many things whether it is a state election in Bihar… everything gets politicised now.”

The appeal of playing Shakeela

For Richa the fact that while Shakeela, the actress was someone who tantalised people, as a person she was almost childlike, was one aspect that she wanted to highlight through her role. “This woman was condemned,” she says, but “in her own head, she was still using a body double, she was quite devout and she had a good heart.”

Acting with Pankaj Tripathi

Having acted alongside Pankaj Tripathi in indie film Masaan (2015), the actress is all praise for her co-star and calls him a blessing.

“We are a super hit jodi,” she avers. “Our films always make money at the box office and I hope this is no different.”

Tripathi plays a 90s superstar threatened by this young girl who seems to have the audience in her sway.

“He has given a lot of himself to the role since as nice as he is in real life, he is playing someone who is notorious in this film,” explains the actress.

“This woman (Shakeela) who was actually a nobody compared to him had stood up to him and he went out of his way to destroy her and her career, and destroy her mentally.”

So are men threatened by successful women?

“I think they were more upset that these films which were considered lowly and condemned were watched in such large numbers that their own films didn’t get so many of the footfalls compared to these!”

“But for that even the men are to blame! They go and watch these films! That’s why they were all threatened by her and tried to put an end to her and her life.”

Tone of the movie

Biopics of people who are marginalised often prove to be a work in tragedy. Will Shakeela follow the same path in terms of tone?

“One can make a film like Masaan and talk about caste and the hypocrisy of Indian society and how women are not allowed to have any sexual agency and it will travel to festivals and come back and people will write lovely things about it,” Richa says.

“Or, one can make a commercial film like this and have the same messaging but have it less subtle, more direct and have people understand it better.

“If the people who watched Shakeela's movies come and watch this one, they should understand why her life was the way it was.” Interestingly the real Shakeela in another interview had mentioned how she “didn’t want sympathy or new found respect” post the release of this movie.

Breaking stereotypes

Shakeela in real life is a buxom woman who even at the height of her success was extremely rotund.

Richa is not keen to get into the number game as to how many kilos she put on for the role since she fears the focus of the story would go towards that.

“I did put on a lot of weight especially in my upper body and midriff which was a requirement,” she admits. “The only reason I don’t talk about numbers is that it becomes the central point of everything."

Vidya Balan may have been lauded for piling on the pounds to play Silk Smitha, but Richa who admits, “the weight was the key part of the prep”, says she gave equal focus to the mental prep.

“A lot of the other stuff has to be internal like the performance, how she approached her life, how she smoked her cigarette and had her drink, all that was important for me,” she says.

The real Shakeela

To get into the skin of her character Richa also spent a lot of time interacting with Shakeela. She admits she asked the former adult star a lot of tough questions to try and find what kind of person she was, her state of mind and how she felt about her life.

“I asked if she was upset with her mother,” Richa says. “She was bitter about these male stars who wanted to sabotage her career.

Biggest takeaway from the role

“My takeaway is that society continues to be as hypocritical as it was where we watch these people (adult stars) but we also like to run them to the ground and dismantle them and destroy them."

"And this is not a happy story - it doesn’t have a happy ending. But I hope at least by virtue of this movie she (Shakeela) in real life can have a happy ending.”

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