IN A LEAGUE OF HER OWN
Actor Shefali Shah on her passion for filmmaking, show-don’t-tell performances and journey towards greater creative control
When many actresses struggle to find meaty roles in their 40s,you are thriving professionally at 48. It must be fulfilling to finally get your due.
It feels amazing to finally do the work that I have always desired.Now roles are written for me. My work was always appreciated earlier as well, but it didn’t translate into strong roles. There were offers that came my way but I chose to say no. I don’t regret those decisions. I came to the understanding that the kind of work I like doing doesn’t come along every day. If it’s something that feels right in my gut, then I will do it. I don’t have a very long resume, but a strong one.
You have dabbled in TV, film,short films and web series. How much has the latter empowered you as an artist?
It has, a lot. Delhi Crime [on Netflix] actually changed things professionally for me. Finally, people are writing scripts for me. Filmmakers believe I have the capacity to carry a show or film on my shoulders. I am getting the roles of central characters and ones befitting my age. Delhi Crime was my learning curve. It changed the way I worked.
It was an eight-hour-long film about a five-day story. Every small thing mattered and it was all connected.While I had a role model in front of me [IPS officer Chhaya Sharma],Vartika had to be her own person. When they talk about international actors rereading a script over 100 times and more, I understand that now. I had never worked so hard—the show really pushed me. Earlier I used to feel that this is a scene and now I have to work on it, but now I realize that the scene comes right at the end.First is my character as a person—who she is, has been and her attitude.
Delhi Crime became the first Indian streaming show to win an International Emmy Award.Season two is slated to release this year. Do you feel the burden of expectations?
Nirbhaya rape and murder case tackled in season one affected everyone deeply, so it is difficult to match up to that in some ways. The first season was magic, and magic cannot happen every time. Having said that Delhi Crime 2 has to be treated as an individual show and not seen in comparison to the previous one. We have a different creative team which is bringing their best to the table.
You have been typecast as a mother many times, yet your portrayal never feels repetitive because one ends up seeing different shades of women.
As a mother to two sons, I have to say that no moment is the same as the last one. There is no rule book for being a mom and you have to keep evolving with them. Children are going to rebel, be needy, disapprove and be embarrassed of what you do or say. It is all part and parcel of being a mom.I chose roles because they were part of very good scripts and not because the part was that of a mother. Once Again was about a woman who finds love in her 40s and in Dil Dhadakne Do she is someone trying to find agency.
Actors depend on powerful prose to express themselves.In Ajeeb Daastaans you had minimal lines and had to learn sign language to emote. Did you relish the challenge?
It’s not just with Ankahi [one of the four stories in Ajeeb Daastaans]. I strongly believe that if you can say something with two words then don’t use four. In fact, I am terrified of monologues! Actors have this innate need to show how good they are in every scene. I feel like ‘Mat dikhaao,kya zaroorat hai?’ [What’s the need to show off?] If you are true to your character, everything will fall in place.All the directors I have worked with will tell you that the first thing I do is start shredding my lines. It probably shows in my work
Writer–directors can be a little possessive about scripts. Do they approve?
Until now, most directors have been receptive. I read the script,make notes, ask questions and find solutions. It is not an approach I started with, but I have gradually grown into a space where I don’t need to say much—when I can just show it,especially when the camera can catch the smallest nuance.
Was your husband, filmmaker Vipul Shah, familiar with this method of yours when he directed you in the upcoming web series, Human?
I entered with my script and my diary and Vipul and Mozez [Singh, co director] looked at me and said “We will have to delay the shoot because this will never get over”. By the time our script sittings were done, Vipul pulled my leg and said, ‘10 episodes ka show tha, ab bas paach bache hai[This show was supposed to have 10 episodes; now only five remain].
You have been acting for 25 years.How do you look back on your creative journey so far?
Initially it was slow, disappointing,and it had nothing to do with anyone else. There were choices I made and I don’t regret any of them. Everything that’s come my way has been worth the wait. Finally I am where I wanted to be. It is interesting that it didn’t happen when I was younger.
You have also forayed into writing and directing.
I have been wanting to direct for a very long time, but it is a big responsibility so I wasn’t sure I could take it. The stories emerged from the things I was feeling during the lockdown. One of the two shorts I have made centres on the idea ‘If disease doesn’t kill you,distance will’. It really stayed with me.Tell us about your upcoming projects.Human is about the underbelly of the medical world: the human drug trial.It is gritty, raw and real, and deals with caste and class differences. In the dark comedy Darlings [Alia Bhatt’s maiden production] I play a wicked character.I play a doctor [with Ayushmann Khurrana] in Dr G, which is a sensitive yet funny film. Delhi Crime season two is shot but we need to some post production and patchwork