Bollywood actress Richa Chadha, who is currently facing threats of death and mutilation, isn’t fazed by all the hate and violence.
Her crime? She was accused of stereotyping a marginalised Dalit (lower caste in India) woman in her latest political saga ‘Madam Chief Minister’. She was seen holding a broom, which many pointed to as a reductive symbol of the underprivileged doing menial jobs.
While she promptly apologised for the poster as an honest oversight from the film’s makers and the promotional team, the volley of violent threats continued. Nawab Satpal Tanwar, the alleged founder of Akhil Bharatiya Bhim Sena, has now offered a reward to anyone who will chop off Chadha’s tongue. The drama comes just as ‘Madam Chief Minister’ releases in the UAE on January 21.
“The threats are graphic and very [extremist]. But I don’t want to amplify their stupidity. There are certain sections of people who think that they can get quick mileage or publicity by attacking someone else. But I don’t really care,” said Chadha in a Zoom interview.
Her defiant stance mirrors the many instances where top Bollywood actresses have been threatened, such as when Deepika Padukone was targeted for allegedly misrepresenting history in her warrior epic ‘Padmaavat’. It isn’t unusual for actors to stoke anger if they participate in films and narratives that go against popular opinion.
“But my only response to such threats is that I am not scared … All of this is so premature because none of my haters have seen my film yet. Somehow it has become more fashionable right now to start a boycott trend or to call for a ban of a film … It doesn’t cost people much to sit on the internet and spew abuse and filth all day. I know my conscience is clean,” said Chadha.
While she hasn’t let her faceless haters get to her, she admits that the poster in which she was holding the broom didn’t raise any red flags in her head or her discerning director’s eyes.
“Honestly, I was a bit startled because I didn’t find it problematic due to my privilege … I was surprised to see the outrage because people thought I had designed that poster personally … Trust me, my director had an uneasy 10 days because he was constantly reflecting about it and was feeling terrible that the problem had to be pointed out to him by others … It was not about our pride or ego but how to rectify what we did,” said Chadha, adding that often actors don’t have control over the promotional material of their films. She was handed the poster a few hours before it was time to disseminate it on social media.
“But we are not defending what happened … But the truth is I am from Delhi and I have always associated a broom with the Aam Aadmi Party [AAP] … And even though it wasn’t my fault, I thought I should take one for the team and take it on my chin as it is a valid criticism and feedback,” said Chadha.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) brandished the broom symbol as its election tag symbolising dignity of labour and his party’s aspirations for sweeping away corruption in mainstream political outfits.
The controversy is unlikely to mar her film as ‘Madam Chief Minister’ seems to tackle complex issues like caste-based discrimination and a fierce Dalit woman’s rise to power.
“Our film is mainly a story of one woman, her journey and her obstacles as she becomes an icon for her Dalit community. It talks about fighting for your rights to go to a temple, the rights to the same education as the privileged and the rights to eat the same food,” said Chadha.
The film starts where most movies end. Her impoverished character becoming the chief minister of a state is the starting point. “Her life actually takes a turn for the worse when she becomes a chief minister. We all assume that once you are in a position of power, things will be hunky dory but that’s rarely the case. People simply cannot tolerate a woman being a in position of power, much less if that woman is from a Dalit background.”
Caste and gender-based atrocities aren’t an anomaly in India. Chadha admits that caste-based crimes such as the recent Hathras gang rape in which a Dalit woman, 19, died after being sexually violated by four ‘upper caste’ Hindu men, or the time when a young Dalit man, 25, was beaten to death by his friends for touching the food from an ‘upper caste’ mate’s plate in Madhya Pradesh, fills her with unbridled rage.
“Let’s stop trying to undermine, eradicate or erase the role of caste that has marred our country’s history and conscience … Let’s face it: India’s a caste-based society …. So, let’s not undermine the feelings and anger of all those people who are denied equal rights and opportunities.”
Chadha, who has enjoyed an eventful Bollywood career with stirring films such as ‘Fukrey’ and ‘Masaan’, is equally enraged with the ‘cancel culture’ around caste that exists. “Just because you don’t feel there’s caste discrimination, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. When you are not the one being denied a job due to your caste, you have no right to say that the caste system doesn’t exist.”
While her film tackles a grim and a sobering subject, Chadha had immense fun playing the chief role of a downtrodden woman rising to take charge. “Tara became a sister to me. I would chuckle when I think about my character going to a meeting on a bike and dictating terms to men. She wasn’t under confident because of her background or her gender. Her courage and her attitude towards life made it my privilege to play her.”
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‘Madam Chief Minister’ is out in the UAE cinemas on January 21.