By Manik Sharma Oct. 19, 2022
In both Maja Ma and Good Bad Girl, Sheeba Chaddha continues to defy our dated ideas of time and screen space by delivering incomparable per-second impact.
There are actors who do method, rake up hours of screen time in the dogged pursuit of some notion of artistic brilliance. And then there are actors who seem to begin with brilliance, channelling it differently every time they are on screen, even if momentarily. For women in the business of cinema, the privilege of time and screen space is a functional contradiction. For the longest time a film without a hero, at least in our cinema was no film at all. Things have obviously moved past a tipping point and we can now see middle-aged women in meatier roles, the kind that do justice to their precocious talents. That said, certain actors carry impact irrespective of time and space. Their prodigiousness manifests despite the municipal realities of the way our industry works. To which effect Sheeba Chaddha has, at least in the last six or seven years seemed to exist over and above the idea of variables, for her impact has been the only dependable constant.
From her role in Dum Laga ke Haisha to her steely portrayal of a stubborn single mother in Badhaai Ho, Chaddha is possibly the only actress who can somehow balance ludicrous ‘sass’ with sensitivity.
Few actors bring the kind of unknown sprightly quality to small roles like Chaddha does. She may not always be central, but her transformation, her assimilation into the world of the film gradually becomes the headline act. Most recently, she played the NRI Pam, visiting India to evaluate the candidature of a Gujarati boy whose mother (Madhuri Dixit) comes out as gay. Enough has already been written about the terrible accent the actress has to put up with in the film but despite the plasticity of that coating of privilege, she is possibly the only one in the film who hides her anguish to stunning effect. Her ignorance is merely her defence mechanism and it gives way, in what is possibly the film’s most cathartic scene. Again, she manages to pull this off besides the illustrious and ‘braver’ Dixit.
It’s probably odd that Chaddha has been around since the 90s but has become something of a mainstay in the industry only today. Not necessarily in the size of roles, but just how pivotal the parts she plays, are. She has anchored most iconic, possibly historic films that have redirected Hindi cinema to an era of quiet contemplation. From her role in Dum Laga ke Haisha to her steely portrayal of a stubborn single mother in Badhaai Ho, Chaddha is possibly the only actress who can somehow balance ludicrous ‘sass’ with sensitivity. Her outbursts, more than her reluctant anger, is possibly what hits hardest because she does it with a shrillness that is meant to scrape and not break through the glass.
The actress never quite divorces you in the sense that you yearn for even her criticism, her uncool ideas about the world to return. Without her scrutiny, even these arduous stories of self-discovery feel incomplete.
Chaddha is also one of those rare artists who seem to have a similar impact on streaming as she does in the world of theatrical releases. Her streaming performances have come either side of yet another cool-mother role in Ayuhsmann Khurrana’s well-received Doctor G. On streaming she was impossible to miss in the otherwise ponderous Taj Mahal 1989 and more recently just as effective, even if underused in Good Bad Girl – a show that feels it was tailor made for her talents but never quite written to extract it out of her. But despite being a placeholder for a loud, animated mother Chaddha shines, even if she just screams while being trolleyed past the corridor of a hospital, on her way to give birth, to the protagonist.
It would be reductive maybe, to say that Chaddha has come to own the cool mom role in our cinema, for she, opposed to design, often plays the role like a misfit. In Maja Ma and Badhaai Ho, Chaddha’s characters must own up to the flaws of their own foresight. It’s the role that is possibly the hardest to play in our cinema because it’s also one that is the easiest to gaslight as a matter of interpretation. But the actress never quite divorces you in the sense that you yearn for even her criticism, her uncool ideas about the world to return. Without her scrutiny, even these arduous stories of self-discovery feel incomplete. Most actors can become characters, but rarely do they become the vehicle without which transformations simply cannot be pulled off.
Even though the latter gets to utter the punchline, its Chaddha’s notoriety, her ability to graft a sense of mischief onto a moment that otherwise feels more sombre that feels lasting. 10 seconds is all it takes.
If you go the Chaddha’s IMBD page you’d be, like me, happy to register that she has about a dozen projects in the pipeline. One of those, Phone Bhoot, has already offered a teaser of what is possibly another minor role that will have a lasting impact. In a scene from the trailer, Chaddha, as a ghost/chudel, attempts to speak to Katrina Kaif. Even though the latter gets to utter the punchline, its Chaddha’s notoriety, her ability to graft a sense of mischief onto a moment that otherwise feels more sombre that feels lasting. 10 seconds is all it takes. But then with her, 10 seconds is possibly all she needs.