Richa chadha: extols the virtues of good cinema
As Sukhpreet Kaur, the wife of Sarbjit in the just released biopic of Sarabjit Singh Aitwal, a farmer from Punjab’s Bhikhiwind arrested in Pakistan for crossing the border on August 28, 1990, Richa Chadha is mostly on the fringes. It can mean her life is tough. True enough. As Sukhpreet, Chadha brilliantly captures the role of a silent, grieving wife in eternal wait for her husband.
Her presence cannot be overlooked despite the fact that she is up on the stage with Aishwarya Rai, who plays Sarbjit’s sister Dalbir, and Randeep Hooda who plays Sarbjit, both touted as the top draw of the film. However, surprisingly, Chadha shines in her de-glamorous role and engages us in a space where she emotes in silence. Indeed she leaves us feeling for her in more ways than one.
Sample the scene towards the end where Sarbjit’s sister Dalbir attempts to take her own life. Finally Sukhpreet confronts her in the only scene where she bares her heart out and her hidden pain. Chadha delivers with finesse in an accurate Punjabi accent and emotions quite effortlessly.
But that is Chadha for you. She never tires of extolling the virtues of good cinema and delivers with precision. Chadha says the role of Suhkpreet is a beautiful one where she makes a quiet and gentle presence. “In this biopic, we have characters that are fighting for justice, but there is also a character like mine who is quiet and would emote through her silence.”
The subject of the film was also something that Chadha could relate to given that she has brothers who mean a lot to her. “To see a film which speaks about a sister’s struggle to get justice for her brother gives me chills. It is such an amazing human story of survival and I have two brothers who have been my support system. To be a part of a movie of this nature sure makes it very special for me.”
Speaking with the Indian Weekly just before the release of the film, Chadha says playing the role of Sukhpreet was a responsibility in her career. But she was very sure about one thing: she was not going to be intrusive when she met Sukhpreet in real life. “Because she has been through this tragedy and it is public, I didn’t want to do extra damage by patronising her in front of the public. I hope people will like what I have done now. And I am really happy that I took up this role.”
Of her co-stars, she says, “Aishwarya is incredible. Her role is pivotal and I really enjoyed working with her for the first time. She didn’t make me feel I was working with a global icon. I have worked with Randeep before and he was great as always.”
The Omung Kumar-directed film which is narrated through the perspective of Dalbir Kaur played by Aishwarya Rai, was not an easy choice to make admits Chadha. In fact she says, she was advised not to take up the role as the character aged over time and such portrayal of roles could affect her image. She was also told that she would be overshadowed by ‘a world beauty’ like Rai but Chadha believed that if one has the talent one will always stand out.
But accepting challenging roles has been quite the trajectory in Chadha’s career who caught not just the eyes of the critics but the audience’s too by her debut powerful performances in the Gangs of Wasseypur I & II. “I played Nawazuddin’s mother in my first Bollywood movie. People did not take to me and I had to prove myself every day that I’m not that old and that I’m quite urban, that I am not the person I portray on the screen.”
And instead of focussing on these negative aspects, Chadha just concentrated on doing good cinema. She satisfied the critics and audience one again with Neeraj Ghaywan’s award-winning Masaan, which according to is neatly summed up as the story of four lives that intersect along the Ganges: a low caste boy hopelessly in love, a daughter ridden with guilt of a sexual encounter ending in a tragedy, a hapless father with fading morality, and a spirited child yearning for a family, long to escape the moral constructs of a small-town.
Masaan was India’s little big winner at Cannes last year bagging the FIPRESCI Prize. For Chadha it was also recognition at the global level. “I wasn’t eying the international circuit. I just want to play good roles and good roles tend to be unconventional. Other actors start off with really conventional roles and then start off with unconventional. I took a lot of risks and they paid off.”
From Gangs of Wasseypur, Fukrey to Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela and Masaan, Chadha is revelling in her success built on roles beyond what is conventional and mainstream in Bollywood and has clearly built a level of expectations. “I am not daunted by the expectations. No I can’t be bothered about what people think. I just want to do films which mean something,” she says.
Right now, she is working on a Pooja Bhatt film Cabaret which according to Bhatt is set to a give Chadha a new image. “Those who’ve dismissed Richa Chadha as ‘un-glamorous’ will eat their words,” says Bhatt.
The teaser of Cabaret released few weeks ago crossed more than two million views on YouTube within just two days of hitting the social media. Chadha is seen flaunting her toned body in a figure revealing outfit.
“Cabaret”, as the name suggests, is based on a dance, which Chadha has been extensively learning and practicing for a long time. However, speculation is rife that the film is inspired by yesteryear actress and cabaret queen Helen’s life. Chadha’s character is a dancer from small town who has a dream to go big.
Unlike other actors, Chadha says she doesn’t do a lot of research on the roles she plays. “I read the script a lot and think about it a lot. Then I write my own idea of the story and I come up with things. I breathe life into my character to make it more believable and real.”
Clearly this Delhi girl has succeeded in making her home in a city and an industry that is famously difficult especially if one does not have any Godfathers or well-wishers. “I have absolutely settled in Mumbai and this city makes me never to give up on my dreams.”
Before we wrap up the call Chadha laughs, “I don’t want to date anyone filmi but will definitely be honest about it all when love happens. And yes I do want to work with Christian Bale, who I am a fan of.”
Chadha’s words for fans here is: “Thank you Australia for producing Hugh Jackman”. There is also a lot of candour in her.

Film: “Sarbjit”; Director: Omung Kumar; Cast: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Randeep Hooda, Richa Chadha; Rating: ****
Seeing some of the scathing reviews for Sarbjit, I was tempted to fish out the early reviews of a film released in 1975 which was condemned by critics for being “loud”, “brash”, “plotless” and “over-dramatic”. That film was Ramesh Sippy’s “Sholay”.
Sarjbit is no Sholay. Thankfully. But I firmly believe its forceful message on prisoners of politics and its persuasive emotional velocity in the scenes showing the imprisoned man’s sister’s and wife’s suffering, would be acknowledged in retrospect as remnants of a truly remarkable cinematic achievement.
The sister is played by the helplessly beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who rises valiantly to confront and embrace the sister Dalbir’s anguished and defiant fight to the end to free her brother. This is Dalbir’s story, more than Sarbjit Singh’s. And yet it’s also a film that doesn’t spare us Sarbjit’s anguish.
Sarbjit is not a film that holds itself back. It is a stormy rousing chest-thumping epic saga of a sister who rages against the injustice of her brother’s incarceration across the border.
Director Omung Kumar adeptly weaves scenes of family ties and their rude rupture through a skilful pattern of bright flashbacks and dreadfully pessimistic present-times when Sarbjit, locked up in a dingy cell far from home, mourns for the loss of freedom.
The film has tremendous visual velocity. Whether its Randeep’s Sarbjit locked up in a cell large enough to house a rat, or shots of Dalbir strolling forlornly amidst a bloom of yellow flowers, cinematographer Kiran Deohans captures the innermost sanctity of hearts torn asunder by political violence.
The sibling theme is treated with an exacerbated energy by Omung Kumar. The lengthy sequence where the family meets Sarbjit in his dingy prison cell in Lahore is outstanding for using cramped spaces to convey an emotional infinitude.
Later there is another sequence where the sister shares a meal with Sarbjit in the same confined space. The two actors especially Randeep fill that space with a hungering sibling love.
This is not a film that believes in subtleties. Kumar lets it all hang out. The background music, the dubbing and sound effects are amplified to augur an operatic angst. The volume is upped to a crescendo.
The scenes of Sarbjit’s torture and his sense of suffocation inside his dingy kerchief-sized cell are vividly captured.
There is also redemption amidst despair when clutching a letter from his family Sarbjit suddenly finds all the lights of the rat-hole of a prison being put out. He then holds the letter in one beam of light that becomes the life-force for a life being rapidly snuffed out.
A moment such as the above is so lyrical, it transcends the political vitality of the tale that throbs at its temples like an urgent migraine.
The director demonstrates a firm grip over the proceedings. The actors do the rest. Aishwarya is in ample, and amplified, command over her character’s gutsy endeavour to break down the defences. Though the performance gets shrill at times, it never loses it power. Although she remains inevitably glamorous, her performance gets progressively clamorous as the tragic finale approaches.
Randeep’s physical transformation as a traumatized prisoner is astonishing and convincing. He invests life-enforcing power into his role of a man who is locked away from home until his death. His demeanour as a dying prisoner, so frighteningly authentic is matched by his tireless spirit when he tells his sister that the name Sarbjit roams free all over the world because of her crusade to free him.
While Darshan Kumaar as a compassionate Pakistani lawyer and Ankur Bhatia in a very brief part as Aishwarya’s husband merge into the tragic fabric of the real-life saga with effortless candour, it is Richa Chadha as Sarbjit’s wife who is the real surprise.
In her melt-down scene when she reminds her tireless sister-in-law of their mutual losses of time and hope, Richa expresses a deep yearning for those of us who feed on memory. Powered by heart-breaking restrain and screaming silences this is Richa’s most accomplished performance to date. Makes you wonder what the film would have been like if it was told from Sarbjit’s wife’s perspective.
Sarbjit has immense poignancy at its heart. But the execution of the theme of a homesick dying man imprisoned in a hostile country often tends to lean dangerously close to populism.
Sarbjit manages to keep its head above the water even while the proceedings frequently revel in crowd-wooing conventions like singing, dancing and rabble-rousing rhetorics.
For all its concessions to high drama and populism, Sarbjit is a moving testimony to these troubled times when cross-border politics overpowers humanism. There is still hope.
By Subhash K. Jha