May 16, 2021 12:49:11 pm
Shefali Shah isn’t a stranger to any of us. Over the years, we have seen her in television shows like Hasratein and Banegi Apni Baat, films like Monsoon Wedding, Satya, Mohabbatein and Waqt-Race against Time. After working in theatre, television and films, she made her web debut in the short film Juice, where she played Manju, a homemaker who decides to take a stand, or in her case a chair and a glass of juice and call out the misogyny in her home. Then of course came the Emmy Award-winning series, Delhi Crime, which reset all the benchmarks for content being produced in India. As DCP Vartika Chaturvedi, Shefali created an unforgettable portrait of a woman calling the shots, displaying sensitivity, and making sure to get the job done.
What I didn’t know was that Netflix came on board only after two episodes of the show were first screened at Sundance. So, when Shefali agreed to be the lead actor in this series, she didn’t know that a major streaming platform would acquire it and it would become the enormous success it is today. Working on Delhi Crime also had a tremendous impact on her as an actor.
“It was a story of 5 days, so every moment had to be accounted for. If Vartika had been shown having coffee in the previous scene, she would have to look more energetic in the next. If she hadn’t been shown sleeping for the entire day, her body language would change accordingly. Delhi Crime changed the way I work, it was my learning curve.” Interestingly, she adds, “People perceive Vartika to be this iconic character. But the truth is she was doing her job. The story was told in a manner that was very matter-of-fact and real. We had to be extremely sensitive and responsible given the story we were telling.”
How does an actor manage to keep a sense of equanimity and objectivity when the matter is so heart wrenching, whether it’s the scene in Delhi Crime where the doctor describes the details of the victim’s injuries, or the devastating last scene of her story Ankahee in the Ajeeb Dasstaan anthology? “I get completely consumed by the material, “Shefali shares. “There is no other way I can work. Every role takes away a part of me. It’s exhausting, it drains me completely, and then enriches me. It’s a cycle, but I don’t know any other way,” she reveals.
But does being consumed by the material mean she considers herself a method actor? “No. I wouldn’t call myself a method actor.” In fact, Shefali believes that she is not very good when it comes to the craft of acting. She elaborates that even today, every day on set can be nerve-wracking. “If my instincts cannot guide me, I am scared that my director will say ‘Action’ and I will just end up standing there not knowing what to do,” she says.
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So, if she is not a method actor, how does she prepare for a role, and allow the character to seep into her pores? For quite a few years now, Shefali shares, she spends a lot of time brainstorming alone and with the director and writers to understand ‘who’ the woman she is playing is. What is her story, what does she sound like, how does she speak, what is the baggage she is carrying, and what are the major milestones she has been through before we finally meet her?
“According to me the scene is the final expression,” Shefali says. “I can say the same lines in 50 different ways. But what is important is understanding how this particular character will say it. In Juice, for example, the character is irritated from the get-go, because she has already been in the kitchen for hours before the film starts, and this is not the first time she has been put through this humiliation.”
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I had to ask her, of course, about how she prepared and approached that heartbreaking last scene in Ankahee, which made many of us bawl. “I was in a really foul mood that day. I kept thinking that she is hopelessly in love with this man who lives just around the corner, but now she can never see him again, and she has to break his heart. I just couldn’t digest the fact she had to shut the door on him like that… I was a complete emotional wreck before and after shooting that scene. It was a handheld shot, and I remember the DOP followed me as I sank to the ground in tears.”
But did the limited number of dialogues or coordinating sign language and gestures ever intimidate her while shooting for Ankahee? “No no, not at all. I am one of those actors who asks the director to reduce my lines. When you have the luxury of a camera that can come so close, you don’t need to say a lot. If it can be said in four words use two, if you need just two words, use zero. Silences are extremely powerful, and this film really proved that you don’t need to say anything to be able to feel the emotions.”
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In 2021, and now maybe 2022 given the current grim scenario, Shefali is looking forward to a brand-new web series, Human, which is being produced by her husband Vipul Shah and directed by Vipul and Mozez Singh that will expose the dark underbelly of human drug trials. She will also be seen in the second season of Delhi Crime as Vartika Chaturvedi, and in two films; Darlings with Alia Bhatt, and Dr. G. opposite Ayushmann Khurana and Rakul Preet Singh.
OTT platforms have played a huge role in helping her really get the parts that do justice to her talent. “The thing is that OTT platforms are not bound by box office dynamics where a film has to make money on a Friday or has to have a star or a dance number. The focus is completely on the content, the story, and the characters. Also, shows like Delhi Crime started streaming in 190 countries simultaneously, so the bar is already so much higher when you compete at an international level. OTT platforms have expanded the horizons for not just actors, but all creative artists- writers, directors, costume designers, everyone”, she adds.
It’s amazing how after almost two decades in the business, filmmakers and audiences are truly realising Shefali’s immense potential. “I don’t have a very long resume, but I have a strong resume, Shefali shares. “I have been very lucky to be a part of some amazing films and shows, but this is the first time in my career that my performances are actually translating into more meaningful offers of work”. I ask if she feels like the real creative challenges and fun has just begun and she agrees. “Oh absolutely! People are finally feeling confident that I can play a central character, or be the lead performer in a project, and that feels amazing.”
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More power to you Shefali Shah! When it comes to an actor as talented as you, the best is truly yet to be.
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