Richa Chadha, 35, has never done what was expected of her.
When she was 26, she had played mother to Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the iconic 'Gangs of Wasseypur' (2012).
For the longest time after that, she would get roles where she had to play the hero's mother, including one opposite Hrithik Roshan in 'Agneepath'. Not surprising because Bollywood believes in typecasting.
But she's a survivor.
And now in the age of streaming, she has become much wanted. Take this year alone. She played a version of Mayawati in 'Madam Chief Minister'; played a spy in 'Lahore Confidential'; a police officer in Amazon Prime Video's streaming show 'Candy'; portrayed herself in Netflix's satirical 'Call My Agent'; and is ending the year as film-star-turned-cricket-team-owner Zarina Malik in the third season of Amazon Prime Video's 'Inside Edge'.
'Inside Edge' is a streaming pioneer as its first season was in 2017. Chadha said she always knew there was a future because audiences had started to watch series such as 'House of Cards'. 'Inside Edge' with its mix of cricket, Bollywood and politics was a sleeper hit and the question "who is Bhaisahab" was almost as big as the 'Baahubali' cliffhanger: why did Katappa kill Baahubali?
Karan Anshuman, the creator of 'Inside Edge', says he has always been a huge fan of Richa’s. She has a wonderful mind, he says.
"She’s always been one of the more cerebral actors and that is really what was Zarina’s role here. In many ways she’s the lead, the beating heart, of Inside Edge. At the time when there was no precedent, we needed someone to “get it”.
"Over a few conversations and seeing her work in 'Gangs of Wasseypur' and other films (and of all things, having read her blog!) I was sure she was the right for the part. She was our first choice and she accepted immediately. It was thrilling. She was the first person to be cast."
The journey has been fun.
"Having said that, her reaction seeing the first episode at a screening was priceless. It was a dramatic (but genuine!) take on being pleasantly surprised at what we had created together. And that for me as a director, was priceless," he adds.
Chadha's Zarina is a woman trying desperately to catch grains of sand in her hands, she says.
"She will smile and do anything to win as a woman. I'm not like her so I find it fascinating to live her life vicariously, in all her insecurity and her ambition," she adds. "I don't understand her but empathise with her. It's taken me a lot to get here."
There are times when she still has to assert her power if she feels there is too much masculine energy in the room. Most times though, especially on
One half of a star couple with actor Ali Fazal, Chadha has been in movies that have defined the noughties, playing the outrageous Dolly in Dibakar Banerji's 'Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!' (2008); the stubbornly aspirational Devi in Neeraj Ghaywan's 'Masaan' (2015); and the foul-mouthed Bholi Punjaban in the 'Fukrey' series. Along the way, she has experimented, from the ultra-sensuous stripper in 'Cabaret' (2019) to the desperately exploited porn star in 'Shakeela' (2020).
She has the ability to confront her fears, and plunge into the deep, whether it is through her art or her politics. Subhash Kapoor who directed her in 'Madam Chief Minister' says: “It always helps when one works with an actor who is so aware of the world around him/her. Chadha is one of the most aware, conscious and opinionated actors I've worked with. Her awareness helped shape the character she portrayed. Also, her spontaneity is her biggest strength that at times brings magic into an ordinary frame.”
Chadha prefers to call herself a "citizen" and part of a group of artists who don't mind breaking the piggy bank to make something worthwhile. "I'm just a hippy at heart who likes to observe the world to create from there," adds the St Stephen’s College graduate. It's something that is finding resonance in a new, more experimental Bollywood. As Nikkhil Advani, who directed her in one episode of the Amazon Prime Video anthology 'Unpaused', puts it: “She is effortless in front of the camera and so hungry for giving her best. She is one actor who can go toe-to-toe with the best of them. I’m dying to work with her again."
It's an alternative world, with a fresh grammar of acting and being.
Chadha can call out misogyny, even as she can praise "balanced" male stars and compliment female co-stars. She is not a manufactured actor, assembled by marketing agencies, and adapted only for red carpet appearances, airport looks and Maldives Instagram posts. Her responses on social media are authentic, her anger as well as her appreciation. With a proudly inter-faith relationship with Fazal and loyal friendships with artists across the board, she has embarked on a new phase with a production house, Pushing Buttons. Founded with Fazal, it will work towards incubating work the couple wants to create.
She is doing her own writing as well, including the first draft of a subversive comedy about the pressure on women to get married.
As she finesses her own craft and expands her own intellect, Chadha is making sure that she will not only lean in on her own artistry but also champion it in others.
As she once said so memorably, she is interested in promoting the category, not the product.
(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of 'The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India')
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