Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal seem to have had a fairytale romance. They met on the sets of Fukrey (2013), and hit it off. It was while they were watching the Robert Downey Jr-starrer Chaplin (1992) at Richa’s house that she told him she loved him. It took him three months to say it back to her. The couple announced their relationship at the premiere of Ali’s film Victoria and Abdul (2017) in Venice. Then came the perfect proposal–at a small island in Maldives, over post-dinner champagne. “My love. It was indeed the best night–to be with you,” posted Ali on Instagram on Richa’s 34th birthday on December 18. “And to be able to tell you how beautiful and lovely you are among other rather lengthy adjectives.”
In stark contrast is the story of the person Richa is portraying in her latest film—south Indian adult film actor, Shakeela. Hailing from a Muslim family, Shakeela was forced into prostitution by her mother. She started her film career at the age of 20 with the Tamil film, Play Girls. She soon dominated the ‘B-grade industry’ of the 1980s and 1990s, and acted in over 100 films in Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil, many of which have been dubbed into Chinese, Nepalese and Sinhalese, among other languages. Although she claimed to have received more than 100 proposals from filmmakers and producers, the 41-year-old siren remained single.
“Shakeela’s personal life was so full of challenges and so cinematic, including everything from sabotage to an assassination attempt, that I thought it would make for an interesting film,” says Richa. “She herself is quite unapologetic about her choices, so I felt it would be fun to do this part.”
What interested Richa about Shakeela was that she was not bitter about anything in life. “She has a childlike innocence that can almost be described as ‘cute’,” says the actor. “She has some energy about her which makes you want to look out for her and protect her. I tried to use that vulnerability in the film. There has to be vulnerability, because when you do not get what you want from your family, you carry that around your whole life.”
The film is scheduled for a theatrical release on December 25. According to Richa, Shakeela’s story was spicy enough without the makers having to include any explicit scenes describing what she did. “Of course, we have recreated some iconic scenes from her films, like the waterfall sequence, but other than that, her story, with its many betrayals and rejections, [needs no adorning],” says Richa, adding how she gained weight for the role and learnt certain mannerisms of Shakeela’s, like biting the lower lip.
But Richa did not have to worry too much about capturing Shakeela’s sex appeal, because sensuality is something that comes naturally to her. “I guess all actors have to be somewhat sensuous,” she says. “We have to enjoy the sight, sound, smell and touch of things, because that is how we portray what we do. Visually, what an actor does is really feel things and then express them.”
Perhaps that gives a glimpse into the secret of her “inbuilt fire”, as a critic described her performances. In fact, she got the name “Ms Fire” for her energetic portrayal of Nagma Khatoon in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). She is a natural performer who refuses to be typecast. From her debut role as the bar dancer Dolly in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) to the foul-mouthed don of her highest-grossing Fukrey films (2013 and 2017) to perhaps her most praise-worthy performance as a small-town girl in Masaan (2015), Richa does not just stick to what she knows. She seems to have quite the Midas touch as, even when her films have tanked, her performances have received critical acclaim, with a few rare exceptions like Chalk n Duster (2016).
Richa and Shakeela might have led radically different lives, but both have experienced “the tyranny of the male gaze” in their own ways. If one has faced patriarchy’s blatant exploitation in the entertainment field, the other has been subject to its subtler variants.
“It is there in the most well-intentioned people,” says Richa. “When they tell you certain things like how actresses have shorter shelf lives. Or how you have to play glamorous parts and look nice all the time. It is there at every stage. Your casting director will tell you at the age of 20 that you are not getting any younger. And that person will be really ugly and bald and in his late 50s, but they appropriate the right to tell you these things.”
Richa has been extremely outspoken about the objectification of women in the entertainment industry, even opening up about how she became a bulimic as a result of the blatant scrutiny she was perpetually subjected to. “I was told I should gain weight, then lose weight, fix my nose and inflate my lips, get a boob job, lose the puppy fat, grow my hair out, or cut it, get highlights, or fake eyelash extensions… get fake gel nails, run in heels, wear Spanx, pout while talking, focus on dilating the pupils, and listen attentively. I crumbled under pressure like a wrecking ball had hit me,” the actor had said in a 2016 TEDx talk.
In fact, says Richa, during her 12-year journey in Bollywood, her biggest struggle had been to attain a sense of self-worth. If her confidence and the courage to stand up for her convictions today is anything to go by, she has certainly won the battle. The young girl who used to love doing mimicry because it “validated my need for attention” lost her voice when she came to showbiz. But when she regained it, it thrummed with a power that it never had before.