I get the jitters even today when the camera is about to roll: Shefali Shah
Shefali Shah is one of the most critically acclaimed actors across the audiovisual media today – cinema, television, OTT platforms and even theatre, where she began her career as a child. In a tete-a-tete with Shoma A. Chatterji she insists that she is an actress and not a star and loves to be identified as one.
You have often said that Delhi Crime (1) was a turning point in your career in recent times.
Right. Not only for me as an actor, but for the entire team as it has been able to redefine the role of the woman as a protagonist who doesn’t necessarily belong to the 18 -22 age-group ready to romance, sing, dance and the rest. For me, it has been a wonderful learning experience. I’ve never been chasing leading lady roles and they never came to me when I was ready for those roles. But today, everything has changed, including the audience that has gone crazy after Delhi Crime which led the producers to go for the second season.
In Delhi Crime Season 2, how did you work on the character of Vartika, perhaps one of the most challenging roles of your career?
For the first series, I constantly discussed with the original woman police officer who handled the Nirbhaya case. It helped that director Richie Mehta made it clear from the start that he wanted “not just an actor, but a collaborator.” I don’t know any other way of doing a show besides being completely consumed by it and the character. I remember when we attended the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where the show premiered, I heard a couple of people asking the organizers, ‘Is she the real cop who cracked the case?’ I felt that was a win.
Do you find major differences between the Vartika Chaturvedi of Season 1 of DC and the Vartika Chaturvedi of Season 2?
I personally believe that it’s unfair to compare the two seasons. Having said that, I’d like to state that Vartika Chaturvedi is no longer the person she was in Season 1 where she had become a larger-than-life figure but in Season 2, she is more human. She has changed and one might say that this change is the natural process of growth for any woman in her position. Besides, in Season 1, the stress was different. It was focused on the crime which the team was bent on solving and catching the culprits and making them pay for their heinous crime. This time, it is the other way round. A crime has been committed and the team goes to solve it. The dedication is there, the responsibility is the same but the approach is different. Season 2 throws up how differences exist among us on the basis of class, caste, sex, age and why which was not the case in Season 1. And this has a deep impact on Vartika’s character and work.
You are being showered with awards for your performances. Does it create any special pressure on you to give your best?
My work is not award-prone at all. I work on the character and take the guidance of the director about the character. Of course, awards make one happy but it doesn’t affect my work in any way. For instance, I get the jitters even today, after around 25 years in the industry, when the camera is about to roll. I feel I’d forget my lines and make a hash of everything. But this works very positively in my case to give of my best. I am passionate about my work and no one can stop me from being passionate.
To enact Gauri in Human, where you play a negative character, how did you approach the role?
I was thrilled about Gauri, I truly was. She is so omnipresent in the film. Gauri is one bundle of confusion and also, clear thinking, of stating that poor people’s lives do not matter though she herself comes from a poverty-stricken background, of brazenly stating how she murdered her foster father and took over his hospital and his practice in cold blood. She has no issues with her husband having a mistress just as she doesn’t bat an eyelid while sleeping with the minister or offering bribes to the CM if circumstances needed.
Did you feel uncomfortable in the scenes with Kirti Kulhari in Human while doing the kissing scene?
Gauri isn’t a lesbian but bisexual. And though I am not a lesbian in personal life, I accept these sexual orientations with an open mind. Since I am an actor, I simply had to take it in my stride. Kirti’s approach and performance helped me a lot. She is no pure lily either as Saira in the series. Kirti is in full command of a character built purely on a string of lies she lives on, though she realises it very late, that the world she has created for herself is fake. It was a very enjoyable experience for me.
You’ve played a doctor both in Human and in Dr.G released recently. What are your comments on these roles?
Though both the women are doctors, the environments they live in are completely different. In Human, Gauri is the protagonist and a powerful one at that. In Dr. G., I am not the protagonist and I play almost a cameo. I found both of them to be challenging and loved doing both.
You have a different kind of role in Darlings, a film on wife abuse narrated with a heavy dose of black humour as the mother of Alia Bhatt. How do you look back on the film?
The mother-daughter relationship runs as a delightfully entertaining and spicy sub-plot which sometimes merges with the main husband-wife plot with amusing scenes in the police station where the mother-daughter duo come to complain and Hamza (the husband) suddenly comes in, throwing menacing looks at this ‘new’ wife. The mother herself has been deserted by her husband and runs a food home delivery business so she knows exactly what is going wrong.
You make wonderful use of silence in your emotive scenes.
As an actor, I always feel that cinema, or television or OTT for that matter, is mainly a visual medium. So, why not focus more on the visual aspect of acting and do what one needs to do through silence? I find it often speaks better and more than words do.
You’ve opened your restaurant Jalsa in Ahmedabad and later in Bengaluru. What led to it?
I love cooking. I love serving, feeding people, hosting, and interiors. I am an excellent housewife even if I say so myself. And Jalsa became a package of all of it. I am also an artist and did much of the décor myself. After Covid, one of the biggest realisations was to celebrate each moment with the people we love because the quarantined really hit home. Jalsa is a perfect place that offers an entire experience of food, fun, music, dance, and togetherness. It serves authentic vegetarian dhaba-like fare and it is doing well.