Interview Hindi

Why should I not speak? I am not going to keep silent: Richa Chadha is in the mood for Panga

Actress Richa Chadha, who will be seen next in Panga (2020) with Kangana Ranaut, speaks in a refreshingly honest interview about her upcoming film, speaking out against the government and, of course, dealing with trolls.

Sonal Pandya

Richa Chadha arrived for our interview apologizing for being late when she was right on time. The actress was dressed casually in a T-shirt and trousers to speak about her upcoming projects. We began with her next release, Panga (2020), directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, where she plays an accomplished sportswoman and which is slated for release on Friday 24 January, and moved on to more pressing matters, like the state of the country today.

The actress has always chosen to play intelligent characters and her roles, either leading or supporting, have always left a mark. Chadha was refreshingly honest as she discussed her projects, past and future, her goals for the 2020s, and told us about speaking out against the government today on many matters. Excerpts:

How did you prepare for your role of a kabaddi player? Had you played the game before?

No, so that was one big reason why I wanted to do this film. Actually, what happens with actors who are greedy like me, with every film there is an opportunity to learn a new skill. This was my lalach [greed] for doing Panga. I thought that they will get good people to train us and I thoroughly enjoyed that process of learning something.

Did you have a long period of training before the filming started?

They had booked trainers for about three months. I was not available for two months, I was shooting for Shakeela and Inside Edge and my other projects, so I could only train for a month properly. But I learnt a lot in that. I worked a lot on my body to make it a little tougher.

And I love [kabaddi] now. Honestly, it’s the process because sometimes you work really hard on something, and then on Friday, people either get it or they don’t. It’s promoted or it’s not, so my thing is, let me enjoy these six months that I’m spending on this subject with this character. I really loved prepping for the role.

Are you a former player or a coach in the film?

I’m still a player. So what happens with sportspeople is that they start young, when they are [teenagers], and they start getting into competitive sports and by the time they are 24 or 25, if they can keep their fitness levels high, they continue to play. And [for] someone like [tennis player] Leander Paes or [boxer] Mary Kom, it’s [an] exceptional longevity [to have] in their careers.

But this character [Meenu] is about 30 years old, and she still plays international matches, and in sports like kabaddi, your employers are usually a big Tata, Birla type of company. But the best teams in India come from the Railways teams, Western Railway, Eastern Railway, etc. Kangana’s character and my character also, their ambition is to get into a railways job because you are secure and you can continue [to play]. You can play when there is a match or when there is a series, and then when there is no series, you are coaching even younger people like 13- or 14-year-old schoolkids.

And what is your equation like with Kangana Ranaut's character? You are encouraging her to come back?

In this case, [Jaya and Meenu] are two sides of the same [coin].

One continued, one did not?

Yes, I continued, I don’t get married, I prioritize my sport. Somewhere in the film, I’m like now maybe I should get married, I’m 30. So [Jaya] sort of gives up everything and wants to get married and then has a baby, and then she’s like aab mein kaise khelungi [how can I play now]? My character, they meet after seven or eight years and they have a [conversation], why can’t you just play? You just have to push yourself. So that is the equation. Two star players, one goes one way, and one goes the other, and then they reunite. That triggers her to want to make a comeback in the sport.

You and the other actresses, including Kangana, did you all get together and train or was it all done separately?

I ended up training a lot with some of the other actresses in the film who are also players. There is a new girl called Megha Burman, she is playing a new player. There is Smita Tambe, she is amazing. She is a brilliant Marathi actress, and so I ended up training with them a lot. And I think Kangana trained a little bit separately. We trained together on one day when we had to choreograph a flip. The first 15 days we only learnt the basics of the sport, this is a foul, this is the boundary line, this is the bonus line. And I loved it.

Did Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari have you in mind for the part, or did you approach her? How did that work?

I have never approached anybody for a part in my whole life. I am not saying it with pride. I think it should change, but I have been lucky, people just come to me with parts. They see me [in them]. I think she wanted a strong female cast. So I think that’s why she came to me.

Now the film’s message, it’s never too late for your dreams, is that what Panga is trying to say in a way?

Yes, absolutely. I think it isn’t too late for your dreams ever because what happens is, it’s a very psychological thing. Even now, if you google somebody, suppose you write Kate Winslet. The first question that pops up is age on Google. Why is that? I think psychologically human beings want to feel like oh, let me compare where I have gotten in my life with her life. It’s the same for whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg or somebody else who is a high achiever. The truth is everybody has a different path to success and a different meaning of success, so I truly do believe that it’s never too late.

I was watching an interview of a 100-year-old gentleman who had a crush on somebody in an old age home and at 92, and she told him, you must get fitter. She was 80. And he was like okay, I’ll start running. So he started running competitively at 95. It’s a viral video, you must see it. I’m like why do people stop themselves, because people put impositions on you, on themselves, especially women.

Your previous film, Section 375 (2019), generated a lot of conversation when it was released. What was your take on it?

My take on it is that I stand by the film. I know I got personally attacked a lot by open letters and blogs. This is the reality. When you are trying to excavate the truth, it’s never black or white. It’s always a bit grey. The film stands by the law. The law says if a man, in a position of power, is going to use his power or suggests that the woman is going to sleep with him, it’s going to benefit her, he is suggesting that if she doesn’t, it’s going to harm her. So that, the law decides, according to the Justice [JS] Verma commission, is rape. It’s under coercion.

Is it rape technically? Maybe not, human to human, if you ask, because it is consent. But was that consent obtained under duress? So now these things, when you try to fight with somebody, the law says this, the law is not a gender-neutral law like in the case of rape. People said ke arre, Bollywood ne yehi film kyun banayi aur phir society mein kuchh ho raha hai. But I feel if we really want to progress, you have to look at subversive truths also.

And in a very strange way, sometimes, the liberals can also be as hard-line or stuck-up as the right-wing side. I’m not saying I’m a centrist. I’m a liberal. But I do not believe in this cancel culture, this woke stuff, it’s too hyper. It’s about reading the headlines and never the story. I didn’t take any of that stuff personally. But I thought it was a well-made film and I would work with Ajay Bahl and Akshaye Khanna again in a heartbeat.

You have been quite outspoken on issues, including now the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).

Me and the rest of the industry, finally!

But has the outspokenness cost you?

If you are going to not hire me because of my views, then I’m better off not being hired by you. But honestly, nothing. I have only grown every year. Because I don’t come from a place of wanting to shame. This is what I mean by the liberal left. I don’t believe in telling somebody, oh, you can’t speak in English [or] you don’t even have basic knowledge of history. I know who I am. It comes from privilege.

You have to recognize your own privilege, and right now what’s happening in the country, we are headed towards civil war, it looks like. Because both sides are refusing to engage. I think the founding fathers of this country, the men and women who fought for Independence, would be so sad to see that because of one policy.

The university fight in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], what is it? It’s Indians attacking Indians. Whether it’s on Twitter, it’s on the road, it’s in real life. How does that serve us? It doesn’t. So I will continue to speak. And I think I don’t come from a place of hatred, which is why I still have good equations with most of the people who disagree with me. I have worked with Vivek Oberoi. His political thinking, his ideology are different from mine, so is Kangana’s, but this is democracy.

But do you think going forward this would affect the way people interact on a film set?

No. The Hindi film industry is a very secular industry and I am proud to belong to it. We start with ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’ every day. The beginning of a shoot you break a nariyal [coconut], and it is circulated for everybody after the first shot, and when the azaan comes, whether it is the sound designer or whatever, people maintain silence. People appreciate each other.

I was shooting on Christmas, so everyone celebrated it. And there were two Christian members on that crew, but they got cake [for everyone]. I think it’s very hard to undermine this basic togetherness. And of course, the people who were bigots before are still bigots. It’s not about them. It’s about the rest of us. Peace is good for the economy and hate is not. This is testament to that.

What drives you to speak up when others don’t want to speak or prefer to remain silent?

It’s not that I speak on everything. I speak on things which are important, not just to me, but sometimes it’s just important to stand together and stand by something. And I don’t think that is going to change in my life at least. I’m not going to keep silent. Also, I have to understand, I have no liability. I have no Rs300–400 crore riding on me, I’m just an individual who is questioning what doesn’t seem to be okay, and it’s very much within my rights. I pay more taxes than the ordinary middle-class Indian, I cast my vote, and I’m a symbol of success in this country, being a middle-class woman coming from Delhi and trying to make it on my own. Why should I not speak?

Is it important for an artiste to be sensitive to what’s happening around them?

See, a lot of artistes are sensitive. Some are so sensitive that they are depressed. A lot of my friends, like my Muslim friends, in the past, have felt like this citizenship thing, no one understands it, there is so much confusion, but the hatred is visceral. It’s easy to see. So, suddenly, you and I sitting together and in the end I’m like, oh, I can’t drink the water because you have touched it. How would that make you feel? It’s very dehumanizing. A lot of people are sometimes too sensitive to speak. I speak for them also. I speak for the normal Indian also who’s like dude, where are the jobs? Give us jobs, give us clean air.

Through this, you get a lot of trolls online. How do you retain your sanity and your empathy for causes?

So fuck the trolls. Honestly, I’ll tell you what it is. You have to understand the troll mentality. Most of them are not real people. They are bots. I’ll give you an example, in fact, I can use your interview to disseminate information about this.

Suppose somebody says, ‘You are a bitch. Go to Pakistan’ or ‘You are a prostitute’, which is like a common everyday good morning for me, you click on that, it will be like a cartoon or a sketch. Not a real face, not a real name, MrCool12345. You click on that, suppose it says something like Ajay12345 for the sake of convenience. If I google Ajay12345 on Facebook, I will find probably the same picture, and the same name. And I will find that person has 1,500 or 2,000 followers. And the Facebook page will be registered in Ukraine or Georgia or Russia and this guy will have 2,000 followers without a single post!

So tell me, how do I feel bad about people who are not even real? Everybody has to be aware. And it’s not that only one party is doing it. Every party is doing it because they realize that sometimes you wake up in the morning and you tweet, it catches the news cycle and it favours them, whether it is presidents or prime ministers using things like Twitter to talk about their policies, so everyone is trying to manage it.

I look at it and I’m like bot, bot, bot. Easiest thing to do is to block them. They have four followers on Twitter, they are abusing you, you block them. Unke haath paer kaat diye na? Unka mooh band ho gaya! They don’t exist. That’s how to deal with it.

Have you been reading anything lately? Are you a good reader? Any books on your list that you have been reading?

I have been trying to read a lot more. That was one of my things to do for 2020. One day I was on this phone and there’s this app, the timesaving app, and something had happened that day on the news and I saw that I was on Twitter for three or four hours. I said, ‘Oh my god, what a waste of time!’ Then I started that we’ll start with half-an-hour reading every day, and so far I’ve been successful. I used to read voraciously as a kid, but since I became famous, other people make too many demands on my time. I started saying no, slowly.

Richa Chadha with boyfriend Ali Fazal
(Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

And any Oscar films that you have seen lately, now that the nominations are out?

Actually, Ali [Fazal] is an Academy member, so he is getting all the screeners and he has watched all the films while he is shooting for his Hollywood film in London, so I’m going to steal them from him and watch them.

This past decade, your career has seen many shifts. You have gone from supporting to leading actress, and you have received many substantial parts since. What are your goals for the next decade?

I got thrust into the limelight with Gangs Of Wasseypur which was in 2012. It will be eight years in June, so given eight years being an outsider, not having famous boyfriends and all that, yes, I think I have done pretty well. My goal is still the same as it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have begun like that. My goal is still to do memorable films. I wanted, at that time, also to be relevant beyond my youth. And today it is the same thing. I am going to keep taking strides in this direction.

I have done some fantastic work in the second half of last year which should all be releasing now. So yes, this year is going to be very good. Also, I feel like this is a luxurious job. You can do a film for two or three months and you can take two months off. I love that. A banker can’t do it, an army man, a doctor can’t do it, a lawyer can’t do it. I feel like I am lucky, so last year I learnt two three new things, and that’s going to continue. I am sure I’m going to evolve to find a way to express myself in different ways.