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The unpredictable Sheeba Chaddha

She is not your conventional 'heroine' but then she never wanted to be one. Inside Sheeba Chaddha's life-long love for theatre and acting, her non-process process, and more

Published: Jan 13, 2023 12:23:16 PM IST
Updated: Jan 13, 2023 12:39:14 PM IST

The unpredictable Sheeba ChaddhaSheeba Chaddha Image: Neha Mithbawkar for Forbes India

When Harshavardhan Kulkarni, Akshat Ghildial and Suman Adhikary were writing Badhaai Do, one of the most off-beat characters they’d written was that of the mother—Baby. They wanted her to not be a traditional Indian mother, which both the industry and the audience had seen a million times.“Baby was a reluctant and lazy mother, a role that was complicated. She was funny, yet not completely loony,” recalls Kulkarni. While writing, they were thinking that it was an extremely tough character to pull off, “Yeh kaun kar paayega [Who will manage to do this]?” Unanimously, they all said: Sheeba Chaddha.

The 49-year-old is one of the most versatile actors in the industry. Her work in six films in 2022 alone is testament to the same—Baby in Badhaai Do; Pam Hansraj in Maja Ma; Shobha Gupta in Doctor G; Sheela Thakurji in Khuda Haafiz: Chapter 2; Chikni Chudail in Phone Bhoot or Manju Gulati in Sharmaji Namkeen. “Sheeba can play any character,” says Rajesh Tailang, actor and Chaddha’s friend. “Be it an elite South Delhi or South Bombay woman or a village person. She can do anything!”

Chaddha loves picking up nuanced roles that are challenging. Tailang, who has worked with her in Bandish Bandits and Mirzapur, feels that unlike many co-actors, he can never predict what Chaddha will do. “She finds details in every scene and some different aspects that you would never have thought about. She surprises you, and when you are acting with her, you have to be extremely receptive at all times,” he explains. “Whatever Sheeba’s process is… I would like to know and follow that.”

What is that process? “I don’t have a process,” she laughs, “And I think that is my process as an actor. I am a lazy actor. I don’t prepare a lot; often I don’t even read the script more than once. But the one thing I try to do is be present in the moment.” Those who has worked with her agree.

Kulkarni adds, “Everyone would look forward to her shots, to see what is to come. She only adds value to every scene, in a completely effortless manner—that is the genius of Sheeba Chaddha.”

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How It All Began

The experience of watching a musical in her hometown Delhi encouraged Chaddha to enter the world of art and theatre. “I remember watching Main Ladli Maina Teri by Sheila Bhatia at the Shriram Theatre and being absolutely mesmerised by it,” says Chaddha, who had never seen a play before. “I remember feeling, ‘Oh my God, I would really want to do this’.”

She would often rush back home after school, put on her mother’s sari and her father’s coat, and start playing a teacher. This, Chaddha recalls, continued for a long time. “When you’re younger, you think of all kinds of crazy professions, but acting was a thing that just kept calling,” says Chaddha, who now feels that she cannot see herself doing anything else as her primary focus in life.

Acting was a passion, but taking it up as a profession felt far removed from reality for Chaddha. Coming from a small business family, she thought she would try out other professions, such as interior designing, fashion, and being an air-hostess. But when she joined Hans Raj College in Delhi, a whole new world of theatre opened up. “College is where my passion for acting started getting concretised in terms of the amount of theatre work that I started to do,” she says.
The college had a prolific theatre department and she also joined a theatre group called Chingari in Delhi. The concept of TV shows was still budding at the time and landing a role was no easy feat. So entering the universe of cinema was “something you never thought you would fit into”. “I don’t think it even occurred to me ever,” Chaddha recalls. A couple of years down the line, as Chaddha calls it, India experienced a “television boom”. This was the time when fiction series in television took off big time, which opened up the possibility of taking up acting as a profession for many people.

Chaddha has been part of a number of TV shows like Kasturi, Gubbare, Hitler Didi, Pavitra Rishta, and Na Aana Is Des Laado, to name a few, and her debut film was Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. “I had come to Mumbai for a month, and I told myself that I will stay on if I get work... if not, I’ll go back to Delhi. And in that one month, I had landed Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film.”

The unpredictable Sheeba Chaddha

At the same time, Chaddha also signed a television series with director Ramesh Sippy of Sholay fame. She remembers shooting with Sippy and messing up her lines. “This world was still so new to me, and I remember feeling so intimidated, while the other co-actors looked so comfortable, and so at ease with what they were doing. I just kept forgetting my lines, which doesn’t happen a lot with me, and I remember feeling so bad that other people are having to wait and repeat their stuff because of me.”  
When one enters the world of cinema, the aspiration is often to become the lead actress. But for Chaddha, it wasn’t so. “I never thought I had what it takes to be a ‘heroine’, and so I didn’t even go there,” says the actor, explaining that not having this desire saved her to some extent. “The kind of person I am, the roles that I was doing, worked out for me very well.”

As it happens for many actors when they start out, the biggest challenge is of getting work, which is usually slow. They need to struggle, be constantly after directors and producers, and make use of all their resources and contacts in the industry to land that one role. In Chaddha’s case, as she puts it, “mysterious and inexplicable” reasons were at play. “I got work almost immediately when I came to Mumbai, so that big challenge of not getting work, that struggle didn’t happen for me,” she says. But like most actors, she has also seen her fair share of rejection. But she knew better than to take rejection personally. “I see so many talented people around me, who have what it takes to land the job. Yet, only one gets it—there is no science to this place.”

Post her initiation into the TV and cinema world, one challenge was having to do a certain kind of work for monetary reasons—to pay rent and other day-to-day expenses. Sometimes, Chaddha had to take up certain roles, especially in television, which she wasn’t happy with. “If I had to consider as a challenge, I’d say it would be having to do work that I wasn’t happy doing,” she says.

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Second Innings

With over-the-top (OTT) platforms producing originals—both movies and TV shows—there is a lot more content being created, which leads to more opportunities for actors. As work from OTT started being more consistent, Chaddha stopped doing as much television. “The biggest change with OTT is that more varied, witty and nuanced stories are being told. It has also taken away the power of formulaic films,” says Chaddha. “The tone and texture of the set are different now, fresh blood has brought in a work ethic and atmosphere that is conducive to creativity. It is a pleasant change.”

Earlier, there was barely any choice... she would go with whatever was offered. When she looks at a script now, Chaddha reckons, “I look at the nuance and weight that a particular role needs to have. Often, I get roles that might not have a lot of screen time, but because the role has a lot of weight and nuance, it makes it very attractive.” Additionally, the director and team are big factors while taking on a project. For instance, her role as Hamida in Gully Boy, directed by Zoya Akhtar. “Beyond a few factors, it’s all about an instinctive decision for me,” she says.

“Even though Sheeba Chaddha has had six film releases this year, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say that she remains under-utilised by mainstream Hindi cinema. Filmmakers often tend to cast her in terms of what roles could suit her and rarely in terms of what role could do justice to her talent,” says Poulomi Das, film critic, who believes Chaddha’s unpredictability makes her stand out.

The unpredictable Sheeba ChaddhaChaddha’s performance as ‘Baby’ in Badhaai Do is one of her finest Image: Junglee Pictures

Her role as Mrs Thakur or Baby was her personal best, which Das says, “is singularly one of the greatest performances of the year”. Chaddha admits that it was one of the most challenging roles she has played. “The character was so outside of reality—how can someone be pulling out a chit and reading from it to give advice to her daughter-in-law,” she laughs. For her to land the character honestly, without making her sound over-the-top “was like walking on a tightrope”, says Kulkarni. “You go slightly off-balance and the character will go haywire.” Adding that it was a dream to watch her work, the filmmaker says, “Once Sheeba agreed to take up the role, we were sleeping peacefully.”

Director Anand Tiwari, who worked with her on two back-to-back projects—Bandish Bandits and Maja Ma—reckons, “Often filmmakers try to keep some distance in casting the same actor between projects, but with Sheeba I didn’t have to think twice—you just call her and hope that she has dates to work with you.” For Tiwari, she was the perfect fit as Mohini in Bandish Bandits, who has a lot of therav (calmness), or an eccentric character like Pam Hansraj in Maja Ma. “Even in her reaction shots, sometimes you can tell the whole story, and that is the beauty of Sheeba.”

Tiwari believes she is one of the few actors today, who has a good perception of how a scene needs to flow, and is not selfish. “In fact, she cares about the greater storytelling,” he says.

Kulkarni agrees. During the shoot for Badhaai Do, Chaddha broke her leg and underwent surgery. Despite that, the next day, she called up Kulkarni saying, “We are shooting a marriage scene, how can the mother not be there, it will look very odd.” After a lot of insistence, Chaddha was airlifted to the set, where she sat through two hours of shoot. “She is probably one of the rare actors, who is only thinking about the film. She is a team player, and that is so important for a filmmaker,” he says.

After completing almost 25 years in the industry, what keeps her going? “This industry is not a place for the faint-hearted. But I think what has kept me going is the fact that my work is not the be-all-and-end-all of my life. I am grateful for the work I’m getting now, but I’ve never had an ambition of being a certain way or achieving a set of goals,” she says.

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Since the time she was working for TV, she insisted on spending not more than 16 to 18 days in a month shooting, primarily because she is a single mother. She has always been conscious of not making her work, her life. The other life for her is important, even if it means just watching the day go by. “Having the luxury to waste a day, it is beautiful.”

Though she isn’t getting too many off-days lately, “I am in the busiest phase of work I have ever been. I am extremely grateful,” she says. With a lot more projects in store, including a bunch of films and a couple of series, Chaddha is looking forward to 2023. The talent and passion that she brings to each role are unmatched. Many directors and producers look forward to having her on set. Kulkarni says, “I can’t thank my stars enough that she said yes.”

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