Richa Chadha is gearing up for the release of Shakeela, a biopic on the south star who rose to fame with a slew of adult films. Before the film hits the theatres, Richa spoke to Hindustan Times about the challenge of playing a real-life person on screen, possibility of comparisons with The Dirty Picture and the lesser-known aspects of Shakeela.
Q. Before the Shakeela biopic, you spent time with her and got to know her on a personal level. What were your meetings like?
I met her and spoke to her on the phone as well. She is a very unique soul. I am quite an emotional person and sometimes, I agree to do films just based on instincts. In this case, when I met her and I saw everything that she went through in her life… She told me very candidly about her family and the kind of struggles she started facing in her career, what people started expecting of her. I was very touched to see that even when she herself has so little, she has adopted someone and is a very forgiving, generous person. It is very interesting for me to meet someone who is so brave in so many ways and so kind, almost maternal. I really hope the film does something good for her.
Q. Shakeela deals with the journey of an adult star. Did you have reservations about the treatment of the film?
There was some stuff that I wanted to avoid and I wanted certain things, layers in her personality, highlighted. She was a soft porn or adult actress but she was very religious. After she made a bit of money, when she moved from survival to having enough money for at least her own needs, she hired a body double to do her scenes. I thought that was really interesting. Sometimes you do a project because you feel like what it has to say will benefit a large number of people. If it is commercial, the message is given in a way which is accessible to many more people, rather than just going to a festival and not impacting the masses.
Q. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with making a film on a real-life person. What was your greatest challenge?
I have done this film as an experiment. I don’t do many films that are single-screen projects, I have not done anything down south. Of course, there was an added responsibility because the subject is still alive. You can’t take too many creative liberties and you have to be mindful of the basic events. The plot points in her life have to be accurately represented.
Q. There is a mention of Silk Smitha at the beginning of Shakeela. How do you plan to deal with comparisons with Vidya Balan and The Dirty Picture, which was loosely inspired by Silk’s story?
I am not planning to deal with it at all. It is not an unhealthy comparison, it is natural. But having said that, the reality of this woman’s life was that she was never as ambitious and hungry to be an actor as Silk Smitha, and yet, she benefitted the most because of her untimely death. In her younger days, she even played her body double, and once she became a star, they even did a film together. It was inadvertent. She was on the verge of quitting her career and didn’t feel like doing the same stuff again. She was in that state of mind because she and Silk had also had a fight on a set. Shakeela talked about how she got slapped and she was very upset about it, in interviews as well. Her confidence was kind of shaken. After Silk passed away, Shakeela suddenly got a lot more money to do the same kind of films again and she just made hay while the sun shines. It was not by design, suddenly wanting to take over or be the next Silk. It just so happened that this lady died and the only option available and ready at that time was Shakeela.
Q. Do you think Shakeela’s journey holds resonance to the film industry today? For instance, male superstars attempted to get her films banned from theatres. Does that kind of stuff still happen today?
They actually succeeded in getting her films banned. She was blacklisted in the Malayalam industry. When you see the film, you will know why. She took panga with a really big superstar at the time, who wanted to be with her. She refused and said that, ‘Just because I do something in a film, doesn’t mean it is consent.’
A lot has changed. You see people who have done actual porn get treated with a great amount of dignity and respect, which is a good thing. There are women who have opted to do nudity and you don’t hear of them being ostracised in society. Culturally, a lot has definitely changed, but this was a different era and a different world – in the 90s, pre-internet and mobiles. Regional films of that time had a small world and budget in general. We have tried to highlight these things.
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Q. What is the message that you hope the audience takes away from the film?
There is no message as such. It is the story of one woman who chose to be gutsy in the face of everything that happened. There is a great deal of hypocrisy – adoring such a woman and then condemning her or making her feel lesser.
Q. Are you worried about the decision to release Shakeela in theatres amid the pandemic?
No, I am not worried. Well, it is the pandemic. There is only so much time that producers and distributors can hold off while making a film. Shakeela was supposed to release in March this year and now, it is releasing in December. I can’t question that decision. I went to a theatre last week to watch Tenet because I wanted the big screen experience. I am hoping that people will want to watch Shakeela in theatres. We are all living in strange times, so no point in being worried about something like this.