Bollywood Star Chitrangada Singh Calls for Debate About Women's Security in India (Q&A)

Chitrangada Singh
Viacom18 Motion Pictures

The Indian model-turned-actress plays an ambitious advertising executive fighting workplace sexual harassment in "Inkaar," which premiered in India on Friday.

NEW DELHI – Model-turned-actress Chitrangada Singh first made a mark in Indian cinema with her 2003 debut in Sudhir Mishra's acclaimed crime drama Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, where she played a feisty young woman trapped in a love triangle. In her latest, Inkaar (Refusal), the 36-year-old actress stars as an ambitious advertising executive contending with the workplace sexual harassment that remains rampant in modern India.

With the suspects behind the horrific gang-rape that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old medical student going to trial this week outside New Delhi, the timing couldn't be more tragically apt for a film exploring women's rights in the country. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Singh to discuss the issues women face in Indian society, their portrayal on film, and why the situation must change.  Inkaar (Refusal) opened in Indian on Jan. 18. 

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The Hollywood Reporter: What attracted you to a film like Inkaar and its themes of sexual harassment at the workplace?

Chitrangada Singh: I have never worked in a corporate setup and was quite ignorant that this problem is so prevalent. The film's producers (Viacom18 Motion Pictures) had done a survey which came up with some startling figures -- major companies said that they had 60 sexual harassment cases reported every month. So I thought it would be interesting to look into this. What works for me is that the film is about love in a time of ambition which is what happens to the two main characters [with lead actor Arjun Rampal playing the head of an advertising agency]. That is something I can relate to. The woman has as much a right to be ambitious as the man. My character Maya [who starts out as an advertising copywriter] is what a lot of women are in their minds but can't say or talk like.

THR: Did you have any film reference points while preparing for the role? Can there be comparisons with Disclosure (the Michael Douglas-Demi Moore starrer)?

Singh: It's very different from Disclosure and in fact nothing like it. There is no easy villain in Inkaar. That makes it very different. It's not about being the victim – its about two very head-strong people who are at at logger-heads with each other. They loved each other passionately and now they hate each other with the same passion – that's what the film is about.

THR: The film comes at a time when India is dealing with the recent shocking gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi, which has sparked outrage over the lack of basic safety for women in India. What are your views on the issue?

Singh: I really think we in India, and even worldwide, have mostly talked about issues affecting men rather than women. This incident has at least started a debate over how women are treated in India and this will be taken more seriously and its about time this happened. The problem is that even within families, issues like rape and molestation are not discussed – girls are told to keep quiet about this because it can be a big embarrassment to the family. But we have to educate people that the victim is not at fault here. We need to support the victim and the family. I mean, when I was in college, once me and my friends were being teased and harassed so we went to a policeman to complain. And he just laughed it off and said, you can handle this on your own. He even said that if you wear such tight clothes what do you expect? So I think this cynical attitude that men have will now get affected in light of the Delhi gang-rape incident. I don't know what else will come out of this but for now I hope there is more sensitivity to the issue of women's security in the country.

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THR: The other topic that is being hotly debated relates to the portrayal and commodification of women in Indian cinema. How do you draw the lines on this issue?

Singh: I agree that all kinds of films do get made and you can't judge. The censor board has its job to do in that sense to have the final say. I mean if you take a film like Moulin Rouge, now that celebrates sensuality. But to take a wider view, when you see places like Afghanistan or rural India where the percentage of rape is much higher, their women are not being provocative in any way. But it still happens. So I think its more to do with the mind. I also agree there is a responsibility on the part of film-makers but that doesn't mean that it should stifle creativity. Similarly, shutting down nightclubs and bars early or discouraging women from going out is not the answer when it comes to making a social change.

THR: How do you see the industry responding to how women should be portrayed?

Singh: I don't think we can make films that look like documentaries. We have to tell a story and give a message but without being preachy. You can't take the entertainment part out of the entertainment industry. There have been good films recently like No One Killed Jessica and Kahaani that have dealt with women's issues while Rang De Basanti is a good example of a film with a patriotic message. And even my film Inkaar has a very strong female lead role. Every now and then people will make issue-based films like Gangs of Wasseypur. Going forward, I am sure there will be a change in how women are being currently portrayed in Bollywood, especially when it comes to the existing trend of “item” songs (overtly glamorized songs featuring a guest appearance by an actress in skimpy attire).

THR: You are currently shooting your next film I, Me Aur Main (Me, Myself and I). Does that have a strong female perspective?

Singh: This film is about a successful woman who has achieved it all but is emotionally hollow and wants to have a family and doesn't know what is going wrong with her relationship. Lead actor John Abraham's character is more focused about his career and ambition. Its a triangle drama which also stars actress Prachi Desai.  So the film is about how these three characters handle the situation they find themselves in.

THR: What is your take on the lack of women filmmakers in the industry?

Singh: There is still a lot more room for more voices to be heard. It will take time but its happening. We have successful directors like Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti and I am sure this list will only increase.

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THR: When it comes to women-oriented films, what has inspired you from international cinema?

Singh: I love all Meryl Streep films. My favorite is Bridges of Madison County. That film is a great portrayal of a woman who is most bare, most honest and there is no judgment on that character. You see her for who she is. It doesn't always have to be about being a feminist.

THR: Since you started out as a model, you are also seen as a fashion icon given your regular appearance in photo spreads. How do you balance this perception of being seen as a style icon and an actress?

Singh: I don't know where that perception comes from but thank you! I honestly don't see myself as a fashion icon. I am not good with brands and don't wear them all the time. When people ask me about how I manage my image, honestly you really can't do that as a plan. Who you are will come out eventually if you stick around in this business long enough. I am just being myself and am really flattered if people think I am an icon. But if you were to see my wardrobe, you will only find black, grey and white! Those are the three colors I live in. And I have a great stylist, so maybe that helps.