Lead actor of Section 375 Richa Chadha and director Ajay Bahl talk to Titas Chowdhury about the dark subject that the film deals with, the importance of an open-ended but balanced narrative and what they set out to achieve with this film
Section 375 is an important film in light of the current situation that we are in. Richa, what importance does it hold in your filmography?
Richa Chadha (RC): I didn’t think of it like that. Like any actor, I’m greedy to do good parts and be part of solid subjects and nice films. I’m grateful that I got a chance to collaborate with Ajay whose first film I really loved. If he ever makes MA Pass, I would love to be in it. (Chuckles). I really enjoyed working on this project with Akshaye (Khanna), Ajay, Rahul (Bhat) and Meera (Chopra). If you see the film, you’ll know how balanced and engaging it is. I’m thrilled that I’m part of it.
Ajay, how did you achieve balance and objectivity in portraying the two sides of a criminal offence like rape?
Ajay Bahl (AB): This film is about a balanced presentation of perspectives and it empathises with every character rather than taking a stand in favour of one party. There are a couple of other stories in the film and it does justice to everybody’s side of the story. As a writer, when you are appointed to show a character within a scene, it becomes your focus of attention and you see the universe through their eyes. If a scene is between two characters, you keep shifting your perspective as you write dialogues for each character. That’s the only way to write; you can’t write as a third person. You have to be person ‘A’ and person ‘B’ and then write for them so that they have a well-defined and organic conflict within the scene. That is how I directed Section 375. Every time I was directing Richa, my whole focus was her universe. When I was directing Akshaye, I did it from his perspective. Same goes for Rahul and Meera. While I had these perspectives, I had one super perspective to figure out where the film is going and kept that in check.
Richa, you’ve played grey characters in many of your films. How do you keep your personal biases aside while essaying those parts?
RC: The characters that are fun to play are the grey characters. If I play a nun who gets up early in the morning, prays, goes to bed at seven o’clock, eats her meals on time and she doesn’t indulge in any sacrilege or blasphemy, that’s no fun because cinematically, it’s a boring character to play. As an actor, you cannot judge your characters. If you do, nobody will be able to play a gangster or a commercial sex worker. These are all parts that exist and we cannot deny them, whether it is the role of a drug addict or a cop. The fun is always in the greyness of characters. I don’t judge my characters ever; I just cannot. It is like being dishonest to your child.
AB: It’s like playing a villain like a villain. How interesting is that! Remember how it used to be in our films in the ‘70s and the ‘80s! (Laughs)
RC: Like the evil laugh. That doesn’t work anymore.
As artistes, do you think it is your responsibility to be part of films that make a social commentary?
RC: No, I don’t think so because films are not moral science books. If you want to give a message, it should be what the audience makes of it. We put a lot of responsibility on art and artistes. I’ve said it before also that we need better role models than actors. We’re not normal people, we do all kinds of crazy things and our lives are in the public domain. Why should there not be better role models than actors and filmmakers?
AB: We are not at all obliged to make a social commentary through our films. For people who’re in the field of drama, they want to tell engaging and interesting stories. That’s our prime responsibility. If that entails a message, so be it. But that’s not why I would want to make a film. I didn’t make Section 375 to give out a message or a byproduct. I liked the dichotomy that the story represents.
RC: As a journalist, if you’ve to give a message, you will write a long-format article. Ajay, as a filmmaker, will make a documentary. These are the things that can be done to put out a message. We don’t do fiction films to achieve that. I believe that any message is inadvertent.
AB: Films are primarily made to entertain. They can be intelligent entertainment or be mindless entertainment, but they are still a source of entertainment.
Ajay, can you take us through the process of the research that you undertook to make this film?
AB: That’s the boring part. (Laughs) But if you really want to hear about it, let me tell you that I read up a lot about the existing laws and the history of how certain instances came to be landmark cases and judgments as far as the rape verdicts are concerned. I also read the autobiographies of a few judges, lawyers and a couple of prosecutors up so that I know how they think. Then I read up some technical books on how to cross-examine. These days you just have to look up Amazon and Kindle and there are books on everything, which is amazing. Research has never been easier. I read the court craft of a prosecutor, how a defence lawyer cross-examines and how a prosecutor builds a case for sympathy for a client and how the defence attorney wants to negate the advantage that a prosecutor has. It’s like a chess game. I need to know these things because my characters are lawyers and also to understand and write the screenplay convincingly in a manner which would befit an argument in a court.
As an actor, what do you think are the challenges of being part of a courtroom drama?
RC: As an actor, we rely a lot on the body, the voice and the face. Here, I was wearing black and white clothes throughout the film. There’s nothing else that can distract you from the work that’s being done. Below the neck was the collar, the cape and the jacket. There was no fancy costume, no jewellery and no extravagant makeup. There was nothing to lull people into some kind of fantasy. There was no histrionics, screaming or shouting.
AB: It’s about conveying your emotions in an environment of formality. As a lawyer, you cannot convey each and every emotion that is in your mind and you still have to convey what you’re feeling to the audience and that is the challenge.
RC: You cannot break down, you cannot cry and you cannot shout to make an argument. Judges really hate people who get emotional or are unpredictable. You’re in a fixed parameter of performance and you’ve to bring utmost sincerity to the table. Section 375 is not one of those courtroom dramas from the ‘90s…
AB: (Cuts in) Where you scream, ‘My Lord!’
RC: Or say, ‘Saare gawaahon aur sabooton ko madde-nazar rakhte huye...’
In an interview, you had said that you broke down during one of the scenes. How do you detach yourself from characters that have such a deep impact on you?
RC: In that scene, I didn’t have to detach myself but I had to be in it. The lines were such that it would have reduced any woman into tears. If you keep repeating those lines, your brain starts to hear it and your body begins to feel it. I did several retakes for that particular shot. The dialogue was something on the lines of why we blur the image of the victim, why her identity needs protection and why we say that iski izzat aur naak kat gayi when the aggressor is somebody else. I got every emotional. I went to Ajay to tell him something and he assured me that the shot is going well. It was at that moment that I started crying. Then he gave us an early lunch break. The scene eventually worked out.
AB: It worked out beautifully.
Rape cases are subjected to trial and tribulations by social media and mainstream media. Does the film deal with it? What are your opinions on it?
RC: I really feel like this is not something you can tweet about or put a Facebook post about so that it goes viral. You can’t get to the truth on social media. You need a thorough investigation; you need to go deep into a subject. We have to understand that whether it is social media or media, these are businesses. If it’s a subscription model, a newspaper or a news portal, where you are paying for your news, that’s more independent and they have an obligation only to the truth. But when you are running a channel, or you are running a newspaper which is widely circulated, it’s a business. When you have to rely on clickbait, TRPs, circulations and subscriptions, you have to get eyeballs. That way, how will you get to the truth? Your perception of the truth will be so skewed.
AB: She’s absolutely right.
What do you really want the audience to take back from the film?
AB: The thing is this film doesn’t take any sides, which make it a balanced film. But if the film would have taken a side, and manipulated or nudged the audience to think a certain way, then they would have agreed or they would have disagreed but there would have been no conversation. When you have your climactic moment and the film gets over, you should leave it up to them to finish the film that started. The idea is to start a conversation. This is a big issue. One cannot thrust it down the audience’s throat. Let them just be open to having a conversation. If that happens then I think the film will have achieved what it set out to do.
Films like Pink, Article 15 and now Section 375 are proof that popular faces help films with darker subjects reach out to a wider audience. What do you have to say about that?
AB: You have to make it well to have an impact. Pink was a well-made film. If it was not well made, Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan or anybody in the film would not have made any difference. It has to be a well-made film and it is the most important thing. See, even the best of films stay with you for about half an hour or an hour and then it gets pushed back due to the daily rut of life. But as filmmakers, we have to manage to do that for that half an hour and the film should subconsciously lodge itself in our brains. We’ve to be a bit more open and not judgmental about things. We can only hope that it happens (with this film).
RC: I also don’t think that we are that powerful but I really feel like as long as it even forces people to think, it is fine.
AB: Definitely it’s scary for somebody who is accused because the laws are very strict. There is a difference between will and consent. Rape is against will and without consent. A lot of people think that will and consent are the same thing. They are not. That’s one thing that the film touches upon.