When actor Pulkit Samrat reported on the sets of Three Storeys, he kept looking out for his co-actor Renuka Shahane. With barely minutes to go for the scene to be shot, he asked, “Where is Renukaji?” “One of our producers replied, ‘Renukaji toh nahin hai, par Flory hai’. I had been sitting in a chair the entire time in full costume and makeup,” says Shahane, who plays Flory in the recently released film, Three Storeys. Samrat, like all of the people who grew up watching Surbhi and Hum Aapke Hain Koun, was looking for Shahane from that era. Here Shahane was playing a Goan Catholic widow, with a short bob and knee-length dresses. “When I shared the trailer on Facebook, people asked me, ‘Yeh aapke koi dost ki film hai kya’. I had to hammer home the point that it’s my film. Playing Flory was something so different. I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” says Shahane, 53.
Three Storeys marked Shahane’s return to Hindi cinema after 14 years. She had become a household name courtesy Surbhi, a cultural programme which aired on Doordarshan every Sunday. This was followed by her playing Pooja in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, the blockbuster film of that decade. The silent but strong aspect of Pooja, is something very close to Shahane, and is imbibed in the daily life of the actor. Shahane’s Facebook page is flooded with posts that take a strong political stand about what’s ailing the country. Nirav Modi scam finds a mention, as do the death of soldiers on the border and the numerous cases of sexual assaults. It all came into the limelight when Shahane wrote a Facebook post about Salman Khan’s blackbuck case in 2016, followed by a poignant plea to Irom Sharmila when Shahane offered the activist her own house to stay.
Shahane’s outspoken avatar is a breath of fresh air, in the largely “apolitical” industry. “First of all I am not an A-lister. Second, it’s not easy. People, who have chosen to speak about things in a very personal way, have been victims of so much trolling and bullying online. We don’t work the same way as Hollywood does — where such things are accepted and encouraged. Here going against the flow is not accepted,” says Shahane.
Born to a naval officer and a journalist mother (Shanta Gokhale), Shahane was always encouraged to speak her mind. “We were always very vocal. The powerful people are the overlords and we are the underdogs. Somebody needs to speak up. If there is injustice, we need to speak up,” she says.
Acting was an extension of the cultural and social milieu Shahane inhabited. Theatre great Satyadev Dubey was a regular in her house. Her mother was involved in the Marathi parallel theatre movement. But she was in denial about her calling for the longest time. “I had my mind set on being a psychologist. I was pursuing my bachelors in the subject at St Xaviers and the path was MA and Phd. But, on the other hand, I was active in the cultural scene of college, sangeet mandals and Malhar (annual culture fest). My first brush with this world happened when I ended up singing the background alaaps for a play Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja. It had 14 songs. I was hooked. The process of making a play fascinated me. When the next time Dubey came home and asked if I wanted to act, I said yes,” adds Shahane.
She made her stage debut as a crow in a play directed by Utkarsh Mazumdar called Bambaiyi ke Kauve based on a Marathi play. “There were no female characters in the play, but since Dubeyji’s production can’t do without women characters, he cast me as a crow. I was very high-fi crow and we even had a choreographed number by Astad Deboo,” says Shahane, who later played Desdemona in a Marathi rendition of Othello.
Shahane made her TV debut with a breakfast show for Doordarshan called PC Aur Mausi, followed by Circus — where she was cast by Aziz Mirza opposite Shah Rukh Khan. Surbhi, Imtihan and Sailab were other shows that established her as a strong female lead. “I think TV in the ’80s and ’90s was far more progressive than the films of that time. Today it’s the opposite. Today the canvas of films has expanded. We have everything — space for lesser-known actors, newer stories and new format of storytelling. But TV, on the other hand, has become increasingly regressive. I can never play a woman who is happy to belittle and be cruel to other women on screen, like many of our saas-bahu shows,” adds Shahane.
Right now, she is happy to pick and choose her roles and is busy working on her next project as a director. Her next release
includes Bucket List, a Marathi film where she reunites with Madhuri Dixit Nene, her co-actor from Hum Aapke Hain Koun.