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Richa Chadha on Shakeela, Madam Chief Minister: I take a keen interest in what’s going on in the cou- Cinema express

Richa Chadha on Shakeela, Madam Chief Minister: I take a keen interest in what’s going on in the country

Richa Chadha and Indrajit Lankesh on capturing the real-life story of Shakeela Khan ­— and releasing a pan-Indian film during the pandemic

Published: 04th January 2021

Director Indrajit Lankesh first met Shakeela Khan on the sets of Monalisa (2004). By then, the former adult star had already fallen from grace, living in a dingy one-room apartment in Chennai. Once the toast of the Malayalam softcore industry, she was now seeking out bit-parts in mainstream movies. “It shook me how someone like her was living a hand-to-mouth existence,” Indrajit recalls. “That’s when I knew I had to tell this story.”

The resultant film, starring Richa Chadha as Shakeela, was released in theatres on December 25. It traces Shakeela’s rise from a young schoolgirl in Kerala to becoming a controversial star, contrasting her success with the moral and public outrage she stirred. She was deemed a threat by the industry — resulting in sabotage and mass protests against her movies. There was even an attempt on her life, as depicted in the film’s climax. “She was both loved and hated in equal measure,” says Richa, who spent a lot of time interacting with Shakeela before the shoot. “I was surprised by everything that happened with her. Her personal life is quite unusual and cinematic.” 

Another draw, Richa admits, was the chance to pay tribute to 90s raunch — all those posters and movie clips she appears in throughout the film. In one, she’s outfitted as a sultry nurse; in another, as a gun-toting maid. “When we look at those films in retrospect, they might make us laugh. But back then, there was a certain innocence to how they were shot and made.”

The film turns when Shakeela refuses the advances of Salim (Pankaj Tripathi), a flamboyant Mollywood star who promises to give her a break. Enraged, Salim initiates a smear campaign against Shakeela, strong-arming producers and journalists to turn against her. Negative reviews notwithstanding, Indrajit insists the film presents an honest view of the industry. “Nothing much has changed,” the director says. “It’s a male-dominated industry. There’s still a difference in pay and market. Not many films are being written about women…”

There are shades of Naseeruddin Shah from The Dirty Picture in Salim, though the latter is clearly more vengeful and cartoonish. Richa and Pankaj had previously collaborated on Gangs of Wasseypur and the Fukrey series. However, this is the first time they have shared so much screen space together. “When you see Naseer sir in The Dirty Picture, you can tell that he is having fun,” Richa says. “I felt the same way about Pankaj in Shakeela.” 

“There’s no role that Pankaj hasn’t done,” Indrajit adds. “However, this is the first time he’s playing a superstar. He has many quirky change-overs and I’m happy he agreed to do this part.” 

The portions of Shakeela’s childhood were shot in Thirthahalli in Karnataka. The makers had initially planned to shoot in Kerala, but were turned away by the floods. The rest of the filming happened on studio floors, amid the paraphernalia of the 90s. “It was fun exploring how weird those set-ups were,” Richa recalls. “At one point there was a dinosaur skeleton on our set.”

At 1,000 screens in five languages, Shakeela was one of the biggest releases in India post the lockdown. While acknowledging the gamble, Indrajit argues that someone had to take the risk. “Given Shakeela’s story, it only made sense to release the film in theatres. She was a single-screen star and we knew we had to bring the film to that audience. It’s a pan-Indian film in the real sense — with actors like Rajeev Pillai, Sheeva Rana and Ester Noronha also in the cast.” 

As for Richa, she will next be headlining Madam Chief Minister, a political drama directed by Subhash Kapoor. The film, much like Shakeela, is about a woman blazing a trail in a male-dominated world. “I am most excited for Madam Chief Minister,” Richa says. “A lot of work has gone into it, from learning to ride a bike to shooting a film at that scale. It’s a political film and I take a keen interest in what is going on in the country.”

There’s also Fukrey 3 and a number of shows she’ll be doing. “2020 was a real watershed. I hope things get better and we have peace this year.” 

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