Odd woman out: Meet Madhurjeet Sarghi, the 'Chhapaak' lawyer everyone is talking about

Sarghi in Chhapaak

Sarghi in Chhapaak   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The actor speaks about playing the role of Archana Bajaj, the tough but empathetic lawyer of acid attack survivor Malti in the recent Deepika Padukone movie

A number of Chhapaak viewers may have admired Archana Bajaj, the tough-as-nails but empathetic lawyer of acid attack survivor Malti (Deepika Padukone); few, however, would know of the consummate actor behind the character — Madhurjeet Sarghi.

Her prominent and weighty presence on-screen makes it easy to presume that she is not just someone who randomly walked into the film set, and the role, but is an artiste of some calibre picked up with the right thought and intention. Curious to know more about her, I go on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and reach her professionally. Only to eventually fall back on the obvious personal connect — her director-husband Anurag Singh (Kesari, popular Punjabi films, Jatt & Juliet and Punjab 1984) — and I soon find myself seated across the table in the couple’s Oshiwara office.

Life after Chhapaak

If not entirely surprised, Sarghi is mildly pleased at our pursuance. Perhaps because the irony of being a good supporting actor in Hindi cinema is that however much the audience may have loved your character in the film, they are most likely to not recognise you on the streets. Has Chhapaak changed that? Is the appreciation pouring in? “There are people who have caught up on the road to tell me that they liked my work. I like such validation,” she says.

But, for Sarghi, the change in the world’s attitude towards her is not as consequential as how she herself has transformed within. “The film has improved my aesthetics of cinema; in terms of how to approach a role. I feel enriched. Whatever else is happening is a bonus.” The actor is quite zen and self-effacing about it: “It’s a well-written and meticulously crafted script. All I had to do was serve the script. The role is such that whoever would have done it, would have earned praise.” All that Sarghi was concerned about, all through the making of the film, was to not botch up the terrific opportunity that came her way.

A still from Chhapaak

A still from Chhapaak   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Screen calling

She might have played a seasoned lawyer on-screen, but the actor had never been to the court before. “I didn’t even know the full form of PIL,” she recalls. She briefly met Aparna Bhat, the real-life lawyer of Laxmi Agarwal (on whom her character is based), when she came visiting on the set once. In fact, the one person she relied on a lot for inputs was a cousin who happens to be a judge.

Up close
  • Sarghi is a fan of films from Iran. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up is an all time favourite. She remembers Mike Leigh’s Another Year frame-by-frame, thinks Lesley Manville is goddess and British actors, in general, are a class apart. Recently watched For Sama and Judy, and is rooting for Renee Zellweger’s performance in the latter.
  • She thinks the best poetry is being written in Poland, and is a die-hard admirer of Wislawa Szymborska, Vera Pavlova, Tadeusz Rozewicz. The day we meet, she was reading Egyptian poet Iman Mersal.
  • On OTT platforms, Sarghi is a fan of Fleabag and The Crown. Amongst the Indian ones, she liked The Family Man and thought the actresses in Soni were brilliant.
  • She rehearses at Starbucks early in the morning when it is the quietest.

Acting for the English literature graduate from Jalandhar goes way back to her theatre days in college. The academic, literary environment at home — mother, Tejinder Kaur, a retired professor, lyricist and screenwriter and father, Harjit Singh, a PhD scholar, former Doordarshan employee and Punjabi filmmaker — only helped in stoking the interest further. The siblings are also all as culturally inclined — filmmaker and singer brothers and a Kathak dancer sister. “We are a bhaand family (family of entertainers),” she laughs.

Husband Anurag Singh is the other sounding board. He had been a childhood friend; both their mothers were working in the same department in the university. “He was three when I was born and he visited the hospital with his mother to see me,” she laughs. They continue to be friends even in marriage and are brutally honest about each other’s work. He has seen and liked Chhapaak and wants to watch it again to discuss it in depth with her. She reads his film scripts to offer feedback from an actor’s perspective.

It wasn’t easy getting roles post moving to Mumbai after marriage, though she says the city felt like home; still does. Na Aana Is Des Laado on Colours TV that ran for four-and-a-half years was a success, and a huge financial support, but she lost interest when the story took a leap and things started getting way too stretched. She also did a small role of Manto’s sister in the Nandita Das biopic.

There was also a long period of depression to cope with in the middle, all due to lack of work. It was then that she started working on her own. She would religiously read a story or poem every day, something she keeps doing till date to keep her mind alive and centred. Sarghi also got associated with the group Jashn-E-Qalam that stages solo performances of stories. “I have not been without work for a single day since. Stories of Manto, Mohan Rakesh… I have kept performing something or the other,” she says. Some of the more celebrated ones have been performances of Mohan Rakesh’s Uski Roti and Rajendra Singh Bedi’s Lambi Ladki.

Sarghi on stage

Sarghi on stage   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Being Bajaj

In the midst of this, her biggest role to date in Chhapaak came her way out of the blue. All because she decided to switch restaurants on an outing with her mother and bumped into casting director Gautam Kishanchandani and his assistant Desh Deepak who berated her for not responding to their audition messages. “I don’t know how I skipped seeing them,” says Sarghi, who went for the ‘lawyer test’, as she calls it, after a week’s preparation. It was January 3, 2019, she remembers, and the screening of the film for the cast and crew happened exactly a year after.

There is an honesty and transparency with which she tells you that she is not as sorted as Archana Bajaj, that she is not ambitious, just happy basking in the appreciation. There is no manager, agent or publicist around, no portfolio of photographs to pitch to the press, casting directors and producers alike; no chase for the lucre, only good substantive roles, even the length, number of scenes and dialogue don’t matter. “I am out of the rat race,” she says, even while being just at the start of it. At the moment she is working on a dramatic story reading and performance of another Mohan Rakesh story, Gunaah Belazzat. Sarghi hopes that more people get to watch Chhapaak, and that more Archana Bajajs would come her way.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:22:52 AM |

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