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If I’m the producer, I’d cast actors with lived experiences in roles from oppressed castes: Richa Chadha

Richa Chadha has been one of the few Bollywood personalities, who have continued to condemn systemic oppression of any kind. The last few weeks, however, have found her at the wrong side of it all, courtesy her upcoming film Madam Chief Minister.

From the film’s first communication to the audience through a casteist poster to Richa’s decision to collaborate with director Subhash Kapoor, she has been questioned for going against her otherwise feminist beliefs.

In this interview, Richa answers why she wouldn’t let go of a character because she is an upper caste, and the biggest lesson she’s learnt from the poster-controversy surrounding Madam Chief Minister.

What drew you to the Madam Chief Minister’s script?

When the director called me and said there’s a part for me in the film, I didn’t know what it was about, if it was going to be a role or the lead part but I liked his work so I went to meet him. He told me it was about an underdog, this one girl who comes from a certain background and is going to fight all the odds. She is like a tomboy, rides a bike and stumbles into student politics and goes on to have a whole career as a politician and becomes the youngest chief minister of a state. So, that story itself was really exciting for me.

Then there was the context of caste and North Indian politics. I have enjoyed every bit of this character and I am almost feeling sad that now with the release, there will be a closure and we will have to move on.

What was your understanding of this girl and the woman that she finally becomes and also what was Subhash Kapoor’s brief to you?

He told me that he had been a political journalist for a few years so he used some of his anecdotes, his experiences, and interactions with people from Bihar-UP belt in the characters in the film. That was quite interesting for me. Plus the graph of this girl is just crazy.

She is somebody, who by some reactionary logic models herself as a tomboy because three of her older siblings were killed off, simply because they were women. So, she has become the man of the house, she is riding the bike, she is chopping the wood and working in the fields and she is also a librarian at a university.

But something happens to her that forces her to either seek vengeance or do something long-term about it and that’s when she meets this character of Dadda or Master ji (Saurabh Shukla), where he tells her, “You can either take personal revenge or speak for your people.” So then she gets involved and has a meteoric rise. Her impulse is aggressive, she is unafraid. I really thought I hadn’t seen a character like this in Hindi films.

The portrayal of politicians in Hindi cinema tends to get caricaturish at times. They will either be shown to mouth these big punchlines on stage or would be absolutely negative without any in-between shade. Madam Chief Minister trailer gave me a sense that your character is acting not in isolation but has reasons to behave in a particular way. What was it like for you to play her, to perhaps make her human-like?

One of the first things the director told me was that once he was covering a politician, who has just come back from a rally and it was very late at night. I won’t name her. This is his anecdote. Basically, he said that he had just seen a completely different avatar of hers, giving speeches to a large crowd. While at home she looked an old, fragile woman. So he got this idea that even the most powerful people in their internal, intimate circle can be vulnerable and prone to betrayals and attacks and many things that you may never read about in the press.

From that, he crafted this character, who had her own vulnerabilities, who was a certain type of way, who liked aloo-puri and he tried to make a very wholesome person out of that individual. There’s also a comment on the nature of power. When we do anything for power, what happens to the individual? So, it’s quite interesting.

The discourse around caste politics in context of cinema has picked up over last few years. We are awakening to how caste should be projected on screen, who should play it, how it should be done. How conscious were you about the caste aspect of your character? How did you approach playing a woman belonging to an oppressed caste?

I don’t think this awakening is new first of all. The first film on caste came out in 1936 which was Achhut Kannya. It was about a Dalit woman falling in love with an upper caste man and they are forced to marry other people. In the end, she dies. We have had films like Sujata. Even Sadgati and Ankur have all layers of caste because it is difficult to ignore the role of caste when you are working in India.

I want to remember that era with a sense of nostalgia and purity because I don’t know if Om Puri was asked about not being from DBA (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi) background and playing the part of a Dalit and how he would have responded because as actors we can’t just constantly play who we are. In my own film (Masaan), Vicky (Kaushal) was playing a dome boy.

I want to have a length discussion about portrayal but sometimes people want to have it on Twitter and I don’t think that’s the place to have that. An interview like this is more like it. As far as who should play it, that’s a very convoluted question and comes from a place of extreme ignorance. It’s like when they say that only these people should play because it’s their lived experiences. As an actor, that doesn’t make sense to me because then what are we going to do about it?

Having said that, this is a time for all of us to evaluate and improve with every step. Casting is not a non-commercial question. People, who don’t know how Bollywood films are cast, will perhaps say this or that should have happened. It’s easier said than done. They probably don’t know that I had to take this film out of the hands of someone I consider completely untalented, who was somebody’s reference and not aware of politics. They don’t know what happened behind the screen.

I get when in the west, Black actors, actors of Asian or Indian origin fight for representation in a Hollywood film because that’s very different. They are racially portraying different characters. Are we now saying that somebody from the Dalit caste is racially different? This is a complicated question and I don’t have an answer to it. I have done this film and I don’t think it’s right for anybody to expect that if I get a good film and role and I would not do it because I don’t belong to that caste. That doesn’t make sense to me.

But would you agree that there is under representation of Dalit community in industry and that we need more of them to be on screen?

I do agree there should be more representation and stories should be told from lived experiences and apart from my very dear friend Neeraj Ghaywan and another friend from South, Pa Ranjith, I don’t know who else has outed their Dalit caste identity so openly or proclaimed the identity so openly. So, if I want to pass the mic I don’t know where to go.

That’s because we haven’t given a conducive environment for artistes from oppressed castes, to come out with their caste identities. There’s so much stigma attached to it. In fact, Neeraj has said that it took him a long time to speak publicly about his caste. It was only after Masaan’s release that he felt safe and comfortable to open up about his caste identity.

And when you talk about race, the kind of oppression that Black people have been subjected to is the same that people from oppressed castes have gone through because of the upper caste. Caste is as pervasive here as race is in the west.

I disagree. I think it’s far worse here than in the west because it’s been going on for some 3000 years until today.

And it’s still not considered wrong.

It’s purely criminal and an inhuman practice. My privileged existence till 2016 was “Oh it’s ended. It must only happen in villages.” But when I did a film like this, it taught me so much. It reoriented me to what’s going on around me. It helped me relocate things. I went back, and watched Bandit Queen. As a kid, my understanding of that film was one woman gets raped and she becomes a bandit. The role of caste was missing for me then. And it’s not that we aren’t reading about (caste-based atrocities). So, when a Payal Tadvi or a Rohith Vermula happened, we know caste is not absent.

But it takes a long time to learn about it because you are privileged and you are cocooned. I didn’t know my caste till a few years ago. The first time I learnt about it was when in my extended family, somebody’s family was opposing their marriage to someone because of caste and I found that ridiculous. But this is where it is…

But tell me tomorrow if you come across a character from the Dalit community and you happened to know of a Dalit actor, who perhaps hasn’t gotten a lot of opportunities, would you…

(Interrupts) If I produce a film that’s in my creative control, if I hire a director or if I am directing something or Ali (Fazal) is directing or someone I trust is making it sensitively, which needs a particular story to be told, I would go for someone with a lived experience because I control the budget. I will make sure that everything makes sense and I can set things right. But I don’t control casting and I really think it’s unfair and holier than to expect and say that you shouldn’t have done it.  This I find judgmental.

Was there a conflict to work with Subhash Kapoor, who has a case of alleged molestation against him?

The case pending is how judiciary in the country works. Having myself won a court case just few months ago, I believe in the judicial process and I wasn’t in two minds. I knew this was one out of the two cases to have even gone so far as to follow a due process. The case is still subjudice and I don’t want to pass judgments on anyone.

In fact I read the interview of the girl that has accused him. She clearly stated that it wasn’t her intention for anybody to stop working with him. That made sense to me. I am not going to sit on a social media trial where people are cancelling each other. I need to have a clear conscience and I do. I stand by my decision.

When you look back at the Madam Chief Minister poster episode, the way it was received, how you reacted to the response and then even your engagement with people on Twitter invited criticism.. What have you learnt from it? Has there been an introspection?

My stand is still the same. Whichever handful people I engaged with on Twitter I was constantly repeating that it was misdirected because I hadn’t designed the poster, I was merely sharing it. And that it was a bit premature because you haven’t seen the film so don’t put someone in a bad light. You know me and the kind of films that the director has made in the past so have some faith.

However, I completely understand. I never once said that the criticism wasn’t valid. I just said Twitter is not the place for this and the thing is any meaningful conversation ends if you start your sentence with, “You upper caste leech.” It’s a very stupid thing to say, “Oh you are profiting from our oppression.” I am not the producer of the film. I am not the director or the writer.

But you are a part of it.

But I am not… By saying this, I am not even discrediting them. When they (makers) realised this was a blunder, they immediately course corrected it. They took the feedback and the very next day there was a new poster without the objectionable term. See for me I know what I have done in the film.

My character is cleaning the floor of Master ji’s house in the first 10 minutes in the film. That broom which is a trigger for many people, given their history of ostracisation and oppression, I can understand it’s problematic for them. From my well-intentioned space, it was a prop that I as an actor had used in one scene. It could have been a cup of tea or a chalk, with which I write.

But that’s exactly where people like us go wrong in thinking, ‘It’s just a small thing I did’. People, who haven’t lived that ostracisation, tend to objectify others’ oppression. So, what’s a prop for you is reminder of shame and stigma that people have suffered through.

That’s what I am saying that this criticism is valid but should I be taking that criticism only from DBA Twitter handles or should I let the online lynch mob have a field day? I won’t be bullied even if the troll is from the Left. A troll is a troll.

And what you mean to say here is that privilege makes us blind. As an actor I know I am doing full justice and my job. I am performing my duties and it’s not even from a photoshoot. It is actually a prop from a scene in the film, which was taken and put on the poster. Some genius thought it was a good idea. I received the poster, I posted it. We received backlash and we course corrected it the very next day.

I have been thinking about how to address it because I don’t want to speak out of context. I can’t take the official line unless other people do. Having said that, I am open to valid criticism and have no shame in admitting that this whole process has been a learning experience for me. Right from scripting to acting and this emotional stuff is no different. I know even after the film releases, some people will talk about the gaze or misinterpretation.

Making a political film in India is hard as it is. Harder today. The only thing that I want to say is that it was a deeply regretful poster. However, I didn’t want to be bullied by people like I was responsible for it. I never defended the poster.

Go on…

I spoke to the director also, I told him that this was wrong and he replied, “I regret that I couldn’t see it from the point of view.” Nowhere spoke from a sense of arrogance. He wasn’t defensive about it. I just didn’t like the way that episode unfolded.

If you are going to sit on top of my chest and call me a savarna liberal, I don’t buy it. You don’t know me or my politics or my background or what I do in my personal time. In my eyes, to show solidarity with the Hathras rape victim… When that happened, nobody was speaking openly about the role of caste at that point of time. So, I wore an Ambedkar T-shirt. A lot of people said, “Jai Bhim,” and a lot of said, “My oppression is not your costume.” So, you understand where I am coming from?

We are all intellectuals, we are hard to please and we will never be perfect or tick the right boxes. I am okay with being imperfect, being cancelled or criticised. If someone thinks that will deter me from telling the kind of stories I want to then they are wrong.

I am sure a lot of people, who are having reservations about the film, their fears will be dispelled when they watch the film. And I also know that no one’s going to come back and apologise to us for calling us “Upper caste leeches,” and that’s also okay. But what I want to say is you should watch something before you decide to oppose it because you should know what exactly are you opposing in it.

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