Richa Chadha on comparison of Shakeela to The Dirty Picture: It's fine as they're comparing us to a good film and good actor
Richa Chadha and director Indrajit Lankesh discuss Shakeela, biopic of the South Indian actress, now out in cinemas.
It was in 2011 that Vidya Balan portrayed Silk Smitha in her biopic The Dirty Picture. About a decade later, Richa Chadda has stepped into the shoes of Shakeela. In fact, the trailer of Shakeela starts with Silk Smitha’s death, and how later, Shakeela rises to prominence.
Helmed by Kannada filmmaker Indrajit Lankesh, Shakeela, based on the life of the South Indian actor bearing the same name, tracks her rise and fall. She gained the status of a controversial personality for appearing in ‘B-grade’ films, before she made the transition to mainstream cinema by playing bit part character roles.
“Shakeela is iconic as well as a controversial figure, and therefore, I was very happy doing the film. It was a very different experience as I am playing a character of an adult actress for the first time. Also, it’s a new kind of cinema setting. You will get to see a lot of South flavor. It is a very commercial film, and I had to approach it differently. I also felt a kind of responsibility on me because Shakeela should not feel that she has been wronged, and her life story has been misrepresented. It’s an inspiring story because she ruled the Malayalam film industry for nearly a decade, and even stood out as an arch rival to the top male superstars in the industry then,” says Chadda.
Since Shakeela is still active, she provided a lot of information about herself, which made it easy for both the director and the actor. “I have watched her films as part of my research, and I recorded interviews with her on camera for my material. She is open about the films she did, and never regretted about being an adult star. She is someone who talks without filters about her personal life, successes, and failures. So that helped me a lot. We have not hidden anything for the sake of hiding it. We have been very sensitive about it, and we have left a lot of space for the imagination of the audience. Even in the making, the narration or the character sketch, we have kept it as real as possible,” says Lankesh.
Chadda met and spent some time with Shakeela before the filming began. “I wanted to study her behaviour, and understand her point of view. What she had to go through, and whether she was hurt or bitter about anything that she had to experience. But I didn’t have to do much because the prep was already done for me, and the director was very clear about what he wanted to highlight. The kind of stardom that she enjoyed at one point, the number of releases she had in one year, I learnt all that from people I have worked with in the South. I wanted to meet her relatives but her relationship with her family was not very comfortable so I didn’t want to try that,” says the actress.
Chadda adds, “She is a very sweet lady. She was very protective of me. She wasn’t familiar with my work. She didn’t know me or what kind of films I did, and yet she divulged a lot of information. She was very generous. She trusted me a lot. She is a large-hearted person, and she still does a lot of charity. She is not bitter about anybody, and I found that to be a very noble quality in her. Loving, maternal, complicated, and at the same time, very childlike.”
Lankesh adds, “When I introduced Shakeela to Richa, and when they were talking, I noticed that innocence is still there in her. Maybe because of her innocence, she has lost it all. I could see the pain in her eyes. Even after acting in 250 odd films, she lives in the same one room house in a dingy neighbourhood of Chennai. Maybe because the industry pushed her to the corner, she had to fight back, and now she is acting again. It’s about her superstar status, and then to lose it all. For that, you have to watch the film. How they in fact found reasons to send her out of the industry. I have kept it very close to the truth. What interested me was this girl from a poor background, entering cinema and walking into the male-dominated Malayalam film industry during the ‘90s, and making adult films the trend of the time. She had a rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags story. For any filmmaker, that is interesting. I wanted to know what really happened, and I have tried to tell the story from a humane perspective.
I hope to celebrate her through my film as a person, and not only as an adult film actor."
However, Chadda was a bit apprehensive initially when she was approached for the part. “I had made up my mind that I won’t do it. I wondered what if I had to do bold scenes, and that could spoil my image. But when they started narrating, I realised the film is about Shakeela's personal life. So there was no need to show bold scenes. In fact, certain incidents in her life made me curious, and I asked the writers if these things actually happened. I understood her personality, her personal life, her stardom, and felt that I should be doing it. What also excited me was that the director wanted to bring the world of that period, how there used to be body doubles, how they used to shoot on VHS, and record songs on Nagra (audio recorder),” says Chadda.
Lankesh also made it a point to not cast a lookalike while searching for the main protagonist. “I just wanted a talented actor. We didn’t want a caricaturish kind of sketch. Richa comes prepared, and tries to get into the skin of the character. That eases the work of a director. She’s done justice to the role. When I went to the CBFC (Central Bureau of Film Certification) while the revising committee was watching the film, I was surprised to see that some of the members of the committee forgot who Richa is, and they started connecting her with Shakeela. That is the first step I thought I have succeeded in narrating the story,” says the director.
Both Chadda and Lankesh are prepared for the comparisons drawn between The Dirty Picture and Shakeela as both the actresses essay South actresses from the same era doing similar roles. “The repetition could be just because films are an integral part of both subjects’ lives. Apart from that, there is no similarity. I wanted to portray her time as a superstar when she was overpowering the male-dominated Malayalam film industry. And I also wanted to show her life after she stopped getting films. Shakeela is a real story, and presented in a very realistic platform with real characters and real emotions. I have not taken much liberty and tried to stick to her life story as much as possible,” says Lankesh.
"The time zone of both the movies is the same so comparison is inevitable. Silk died early. Thus, Shakeela was able to rise to prominence to become famous. We won't be able to help the comparisons that come. It's fine as they are comparing us to a good film, and a good actor performed in it," Chadda concludes.
Shakeela is available in Indian cinemas across Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam.
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