The unappreciated heroines of Bollywood

(left to right) Radhika Apte, Swara Bhaskar, Richa Chadda

Richa Chadda, Swara Bhaskar and Radhika Apte have proved to be powerhouses of talent - so the reason they are seldom found in big-budget blockbusters will surprise you

By Khalid Mohamed

Published: Fri 6 May 2016, 4:25 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Jun 2016, 10:18 AM

They may not be in the A-list of glamour heroines. But when it comes to knocking out accomplished performances in roles of women of substance, they are the first options.
Now, in the largely formula-ridden system of Bollywood filmmaking, that can lead to a Catch-22 situation. The three actresses - Richa Chadda, Swara Bhaskar and Radhika Apte - have established themselves as gifted artistes in serious, off-mainstream cinema. But they aren't even thought of when it comes to casting leading ladies in the projects of frontline film companies, be it Aditya Chopra's Yash Raj Films, Karan Johar's Dharma Productions or Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment.
Once in a rare while, the decidedly different Nimrat Kaur may land up with Akshay Kumar in Airlift. Or the puckish theatre force Shriya Pilgaonkar may debut in Shah Rukh Khan's Fan. The downside is that they aren't assigned equal status to the heroes who hog the footage and the limelight. 
The fact is that there is no Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil, who once fitted into the disparate worlds of hyper-commercialism as well as offbeat realistic cinema perfectly. Evidently, the divide between the two brands of films has deepened instead of moving towards a free-flowing inclusiveness.

Richa Chadda in Masaan
Not surprisingly, Richa Chadda says ruefully, "If Karan Johar ever makes a small-budget film with a purposeful theme, I am sure he will call me." Wishful thinking perhaps, but the statement does indicate that Richa as well as her peers, Swara and Radhika, deserve infinitely better treatment.
The trio, as it happens, has several elements in common. They are all highly educated and have trained themselves in the complex art of acting. Twenty-seven-year-old Richa attended the Barry John Acting Studio soon after receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree from Delhi's St Stephen's college, besides a diploma in social communication media from Mumbai's Sophia College. Her mother teaches political science in a Delhi college.  
Also from Delhi, the 28-year-old Swara Bhaskar is an English literature graduate from the capital's Miranda House and secured her master's degree from the presently beleaguered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Her mother, Ira Bhaskar, is a professor of cinema studies at JNU. 

Swara Bhaskar in Nil Battey Sannata
It was natural for Swara to initially gravitate towards experimental theatre and cinema that was reality-based. "I don't care about the money I'm paid if a film is geared towards social awareness," she emphasises, adding, "That's feasible in big-budget films, too, which is why the effort of any actor should be to do his or her best in both worlds."
Over to the 30-year-old Radhika Apte, who's an economics graduate from Pune's Fergusson College. Her father is a neurosurgeon who supported Radhika's move to progressive theatre and unconventional films in Marathi and Hindi cinema. Trained in the kathak dance form besides securing a degree from London's Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, here's an artiste who could go places, if it wasn't for the rigid mindset against heroines who are more performance-oriented instead of doling out the mandatory glamour quotient.

Radhika Apte in Clean Shaven
Is this trio over-qualified for Bollywood? To an extent, yes. And that sets off a sense of insecurity among filmmakers who wield substantial clout but aren't academically qualified at all. Female actors are expected to just listen and obey. By contrast, males, when they've achieved market equity, invariably question everything from the script and dialogue, to the camera angles and the final edit.
Believe me, there's an age-old resistance towards actresses who have a mind of their own. Even if they've been garlanded with national and international awards and have achieved a substantive measure of public recognition, it's still an ongoing war to own their rightful place in show town's firmament.
Recently, Swara Bhaskar was showered with praise for her nuanced portrayal of a maid who dares to dream impossible dreams for her teenage daughter's future in Nil Battey Sannata. She has been noticed and liked for her supporting stints in the Tanu Weds Manu series and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, and is to feature in an upcoming movie with Sonam Kapoor.
Radhika Apte has made an impact with Badlapur, Hunterr and the Marathi film Lai Bhaari, besides numerous short films. At this moment, she's making waves, thanks to the Best Actress Award in an International Narrative Feature at the Tribeca festival for her performance of a neglected housewife in Anurag Kashyap's short film Clean Shaven.
Richa Chadda has a loyal fan base ever since she debuted in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! followed by her implosive performances in Gangs of Wasseypur, Goliyon ki Leela: Raasleela, Fukrey and Masaan. In the pipeline, count the Pooja Bhatt-directed Cabaret, the biopic Sarbjit, and yet another riff on the classic Devdas, helmed by Sudhir Mishra. That's quite a haul.
Despite the estimable achievements, there's a restlessness. Ask Richa and she spontaneously responds, "No matter how much we achieve nationally or internationally, we're always called actors, not stars. How fair is that?"

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