Richa Chadha on Bollywood’s feminist awakening: “We still have a long way to go”

All for the new-age heroine.
All for the new-age heroine.
Image: EPA/Franck Robichon
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Generations of actresses, from Suchitra Sen and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to Mahi Gill, have played the demure Paro in the various film adaptations of Devdas, a ‎1917 Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel. But “till now, we’ve only seen Paro pining for her lover, moping, and getting married to someone else,” Bollywood actress Richa Chadha told Quartz.

In her next feature film, Daas Dev, Chadha promises a Paro better fit for the 21st century.

Be it as Nagma Khatoon in Gangs of Wasseypur or Bholi Punjaban in Fukrey or even Leela in 3 Storeys, Chadha’s filmography is flooded with the roles of women with agency. A vocal flag bearer of feminism off-screen, too, Chadha spoke with Quartz about Bollywood and its women.

Bollywood’s leading men have been stars in their own right but women mostly played second fiddle. Is that changing?

Women were largely replaceable because of the parts. Look at the evolution of the heroine. In the 1940s and 1950s, the heroine was virginal, pure, and maybe naughty within a certain structure and then there was a cabaret dancer who was a woman of lust and desire. And then these two parts got merged. Now, you have to act well, dance well, be overtly in-your-face sexy, and also be tender and loving…I think there would be a greater range today. Seeing films like Dangal, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and Masaan do well is heartening, but we still have a long way to go.

What would make you turn down a character?

A prop-like role that doesn’t take the story forward or back, basically a glam creature in the frame, as well as something that’s regressive. I’m not saying all the films I’ve done are guilt-free but if a little girl is watching my film, I feel some amount of artistic responsibility that I shouldn’t portray, say, a rape victim who feels guilty. I would play a rape victim who goes from feeling guilty to being empowered.

How do you shatter stereotypes on-screen?

Age-old rules take a generation to change. But you can circumvent the rules, bypass the rules. For instance, I was doing a project where a line was demeaning to the woman. She was obviously ambitious and there was a throwaway line which said, “People have taken advantage of me.” I went to the writer and said that she is a woman of dignity; why don’t we say people have “tried to” take advantage—dealing with sexism and unwanted advances is very real as opposed to saying “I gave in.” The writer understood and changed the line. Sometimes, people don’t even realise they’re doing these things. We don’t always have to take out morchas and dharnas (protest formations). That is also necessary. Like when there is a rape and murder in Delhi, go out and do it. But in situations like this, I always prefer to not be abrasive…I am very Gandhian that way.

And how do you push the envelope for equality off-screen?

I am completely genderless as far as my team and crew is concerned. I always empower people around me. I make sure my make-up artist, who’s been with me since my initial years, goes ahead and does better work. It’s the same way I treat my maid, my driver. I’m encouraging my maid to get a divorce—all my maids since I’ve come to Mumbai have been victims of wife-beating. I stand with them, I don’t play class at all. I tell them there’s no need for you to be sitting on the floor, it’s not important that the man eats before women. I tell them to save money and spend it on education because priorities can be misplaced.

Actresses like Anushka Sharma and Sonam Kapoor have spoken out about the gender wage gap in Bollywood. What’s your take on it?

For 20 years, there’s been a set market in India. And no conversation about money is easy. People still think acting is a hobby. Bollywood tends to respect box office more. But I’ve been very careful and vocal. I’ve worked with companies like Excel with a good gender ratio and women like Zoya (Akhtar) at the forefront. A colleague was doing a film in the south in which the budget of the heroine was decided after everybody else’s. It was then that I understood that pay is in accordance to role in the film. Choosing a meaty part is a substantial step. Then, films like Masaan are pure independent films where you don’t get paid a lot because the budget is lower to begin with, but it’s not that the men and women are paid differently still.

Why did you choose to do a web series like Inside edge

I want to break the idea that a web series is a demotion from movies. The reach is huge. Inside Edge was an experiment for all of us. I was the first to be signed, even before Excel. It became the most-watched show on Amazon Prime…The digital medium is here to stay. It’s not the future, it’s the present. We need to wake up to that and make more content. It also allows makers to concentrate on quality content because it is not bound by first day box office. You don’t have to insert sex scene or violent scene to make things easy.

Is shooting for the web any different from shooting for films?

It’s still acting. Whether it’s theatre, films, digital…it’s still acting. I’ve committed 90 days to shoot Inside Edge Season 2. It takes up a lot of time and is more difficult to make. Budgets are lower but you expect the quality of film to be made at TV speeds.

Do you love or hate the role social media plays in an actor’s life?

There is no privacy sometimes. It’s like “oh, I have to post,” as if it’s become a chore. Why I love it, though, is because it lets me bypasses traditional media. If there’s a wrong story out there, you can tweet about it and put the rumours to rest. Otherwise, just overt voyeurism is not something I enjoy. I had coffee, I had breakfast, I took a dump…that’s not my scene.