She didn’t plan it this way, but Indian actress Richa Chadha has inadvertently invited attention to her new film ‘Shakeela’, out in UAE cinemas on December 24.
The biopic about a South Indian adult film star enjoys the distinction of being the first Indian movie to get a wide release in the country after the start of the pandemic. The movie will release in India over 1,000 cinema screens in five languages including Hindi.
The pandemic had downed the shutters on multiplexes in India for safety reasons, so ‘Shakeela’ is likely to be the true litmus test on whether audiences are ready to venture out of their homes to enjoy a film. An earlier film, ‘Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari’, was released in India in limited theatres and did not boast the same access as ‘Shakeela’. But it wasn’t planned, says Chadha.
“It just so happens that it is releasing now. The pandemic happened, otherwise it would have released earlier in the year,” Chadha tells Gulf News. But her tone dramatically changes as she talks about playing the titular role in this biopic. She stars as the South Indian siren Shakeela, who was one of the most bankable adult stars in the 1990s, and showcases her rags-to-riches-to-rags again story.
“We are trying to capture the phenomena behind her … There’s is no whitewashing of her remarkable life … We will also explore the hypocrisy behind her soaring popularity,” Chadha says over a Zoom call.
Excerpts from our interview with Chadha as we talk about the film, putting on weight, and how ‘Shakeela’ is different from ‘The Dirty Picture’, which was loosely based on the late South Indian siren Silk Smitha…
Were you aware of Shakeela before this project came your way?
I grew up in Delhi, therefore I had no concept of who she was. The only time I saw or read about her was when one big family magazine had done a cover about this unlikely superstar. There was a full page cover on how there was this actress who was ruling the roost in South Indian films and the article went on to describe how she was big, really dark and yet people were crazy about her. So I was intrigued by the phenomena of such stardom and at the same time I really wanted to read that cover in depth. But I think my mum just took it away. Up north, she wasn’t very famous but I knew about her through that cover story. So when the script came to me I was more interested in her as a subject. She is an interesting person and interesting things have happened in her life and I wanted to explore that in cinema.
How do you humanise such a character?
The quest is to humanise her and explore things from her point of view and how she entered the industry. There are two ways to tell a story: you can either go the art-house way, make a beautiful festival film that travels and wins awards; or you can make a pulpy film like her movies. We have chosen the latter and want to chronicle her personal struggle, her life and how her family forced her to do all of it. We explore how she wanted love in her life and how her superstardom was something she hadn’t worked for. The quest is to save her from all those judgements that she has been living with in the past few decades. But I don’t know how successful we will be. Even though there are many villains in her story she is not a bitter person and I found that interesting.
But don’t you think it is easy to become cynical and nasty since life dealt her an unfair hand? And it was interesting that you didn’t put on a lot of weight to look like her...
I did put on weight for the role. As you may have seen in the trailer, I have put on lots of weight in the belly. Perhaps, I should do a post about this because some people are saying ‘oh, there is such a big transformation’ and others are saying ‘oh, there isn’t much of a change.’ So maybe I should post about it because I did put on weight. It wasn’t possible to put on a lot of weight given my work commitments. It wasn’t possible to become her size because she was larger. And, I didn’t want to get trapped into this narrative that ‘Richa has just put on weight’, because the focus tends to be on the physical transformation alone. Also, we did not wish to ape her mannerisms … I focused on being true to her story and her personal grief. We also focused on the loneliness which set in later and her struggles with the big superstars within the industry.
Bollywood biopics tend to glorify their subjects or gloss over their unsavoury bits. Was there a temptation to water down her struggles?
There is no whitewashing here. Even though it’s an out and out commercial film, there was no attempt at whitewashing her ... For instance, she became a smoker and we haven’t hidden that she smokes cigarettes nor have we have we hidden that she drinks once in a while when she is troubled. We also make it clear that Shakeela opted for a body double only after she could make a certain amount of money. It’s what it is … She is honest and unapologetic about who she is in life and in this film.
Do you think this film will help in injecting dignity into her life?
She was dignified in person and there are so many things you don’t know about her... Our attempt was to tell her side of the story with as much dignity as possible without shying away from the truth. We are also attempting to expose the hypocrisy. So, how did she become a big star? Everybody watched her films and she was shamed for her popularity. I hope that changes and it makes people realise that they chose to watch her films and that she didn’t force them to.
What was the legwork like and did you have a heart-to-heart chat with her before filming? Did you have any reservations?
I asked her difficult questions. To her credit, she answered everything with as much honesty as possible. I asked her sticky questions like: ‘Are you angry with your mother?’ She said: ‘No … It is what it was at that time’. I asked her if she felt bitter about losing all her money and she said she isn’t bitter about anything. My conversation with her were tough. I wasn’t scared to do this role because I knew the script. Just like how she had a body double, I had one too. I wasn’t scared of anything except for the execution part.
‘Shakeela’ reminds me vaguely of ‘The Dirty Picture’. It was a wicked watch …
While this is also a pulpy commercial film, it will be much more serious than ‘The Dirty Picture’. ‘The Dirty Picture’ had characters which exuded a 60s and 70s feel. My film is set around the late 90s and early 2000. While it will be high on nostalgia, we haven’t created anything outlandish in terms of big sets or songs.
Does this movie show its central character in control of her life choices?
No, not really. She was not in control at all and that’s the biggest tragedy of her life. Her mother forced her to do all this and she was the one collecting all the cheques. She was the one keeping all the money, so essentially this girl who should ideally have been studying in a school spent her whole life in front of the camera. She did not get much in return for it. She did not have any freedom to meet her friends and she would often get into troubled relationships. She went through bizarre moments in her life when she would take her boyfriend to the set. She was very damaged by her family’s attitude and they used her … Her mother was a character who gas-lit her and she induced guilt in her kid which was so wrong on many levels.
“He’s one of the nicest things about the film. His presence may be a comic relief, but his presence can be intimidating and make you feel creepy,” said Chadha, about seasoned actor Pankaj Tripathi playing the role of a smarmy male superstar in ‘Shakeela’.
Don’t miss it!
‘Shakeela’ releases in UAE cinemas on December 24.