‘I don’t have a long resumé but I’m proud of the work I have done’https://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/i-dont-have-a-long-resume-but-im-proud-of-the-work-i-have-done-shefali-shah-delhi-crime-5660254/

‘I don’t have a long resumé but I’m proud of the work I have done’

Shefali Shah, 46, who leads the Netflix series Delhi Crime, on playing a cop, her work as a TV actor and why she prefers impactful roles, irrespective of length.

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Slow and steady: Shefali Shah; as Vartika Chaturvedi in a still from Delhi Crime.

THE RESPONSE to Delhi Crime has been phenomenal. Did you feel a certain responsibility while essaying the role?
When you are doing a series based on real life or a person, two things are paramount — one is sensitivity and the other, responsibility. You have to be extremely responsible in the way you create and portray the character. My role was of Vartika Chaturvedi (based on IPS officer Chhaya Sharma) and the show is a fictionalised version of a true incident (the 2012 Delhi gang rape). The point was to create Vartika on her own without mimicking anyone. To achieve this, director Richie Mehta had done a lot of research over the years. He knew the minutest detail of the investigation. I had the honour of meeting Chhaya Sharma, even if only for two hours. However, I was lucky that she could answer the queries I had while the shoot was on. Richie had told me that he wanted a collaborator not an actor. Playing this role has been my biggest learning curve.

Was there a process to arrive at who Vartika is?
I definitely worked on who she is irrespective of whether you see that in a scene. It’s not about trying to be like her. I had to become Vartika. We had to take every small detail into consideration. For example, during one interrogation scene, I wanted to roll up my sleeves. But Chhaya said that on a December evening in Delhi, when the police station does not have power, it is too cold to roll up your sleeves. Delhi Crime is the story of five days of investigation and search. So, keeping the emotional aspect of the story aside, during the shoot, we had to think of the exhaustion that the characters had gone through and how long they had been awake.

How gruelling was the shoot?
We shot the seven-part series in 62 days. That was quite something with so many actors and locations involved. It also reflected the urgency in cracking the case and catching the criminals. During the shooting, I did not entirely return to my own space even when I was at home. Whatever time we wrapped up the shoot, the first thing that I would do is ask the assistant directors to give my list for the following day.

There is a beautiful camaraderie among the characters. Did you work on it?
Surprisingly, no. We didn’t have time for workshops. The show fell into place very quickly and all actors were busy with other projects before that. Yet, the relationship between Vartika and Bhupinder (Rajesh Tailang) is so incredible.

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In spite of the appreciation that you often get for your work, why are there gaps between your screen appearances?
I don’t have a long resumé but I’m proud of the work I have done. Even the audience has liked my work in Satya (1998), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Gandhi, My Father (2001), The Last Lear (2001), Juice (2017) and Once Again (2018), among others. Even early on in my career, when I did Satya, I didn’t think about the length of a role. It was a seven-minute role but it left an impact.

It was not like I was not offered enough work. But if a role was not convincing to me, then it would be very unfair on the makers if I went for it. I love what I do way too much to just go and do a job. Earlier, it used to bother me that I was not doing enough work. Today, I have chosen to go by my conviction, instinct and impulse.

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Shefali Shah’s Delhi Crime has been getting rave reviews.

Your role as Ria Verma in Monsoon Wedding started a conversation around child abuse at the time. Have you deliberately gone for strong roles?
When Meera Nair approached me, the role had already been written. Meera had watched Satya. When she called me, she wondered if I could speak in English and added that she would love me to be her Ria. It was the role of a very strong woman. But who decides what’s strong? I don’t believe that you are strong just because you can keep up a stoic face or fight. For me, even if someone is a broken and shattered human being, her emotion has to be strong. Neelam Mehra, the character I played in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), has to put up this front that everything is fine in her world even when no one in the family loves her. In Once Again, you see a person who is strong but at the same time poetic. She is vulnerable and ready to show it.

How different is your world now from when you were a top television actor?
I was really lucky to work in television when content ruled. The makers stuck to the character and content till the end of the series. Someone didn’t suddenly die or turn into a naagin (snake) for the sake of ratings. But we can’t deny that television started putting women at the centre. In many shows, Renuka Shahane, Pallavi Joshi and Neena Gupta played central characters.

With your father working at the Reserve Bank of India and your mother a homœopath, your world must have been very different while growing up. What drew you to acting?
It happened by chance. I was studying at Arya Vidya Mandir, Santa Cruz, Mumbai. The husband of one of our teachers was a director of Gujarati plays. One day, I had taken some photos of mine that my mom had clicked to show my friend. The teacher saw them. Her husband was looking for a 10-year-old actor for a Gujarati play based on the movie Omen (1976). In the play, they turned the boy into a girl, who was possessed and went around killing people. There was a long gap after that role.

However, when I was seeking admission in Mithibai College, Vile Parle, all the paper cuttings about the play came in use. I wanted admission in science and I didn’t have enough marks. After admission, I hardly went to class as I was only doing theatre. Eventually, I got roles in television shows (Aarohan, Sea Hawks, Banegi Apni Baat and Hasratein). Midway through all this, I realised if I was acting and getting paid, then that must be my job. Today, I see things more clearly but I still don’t have a plan.

Did you take up painting by accident as well?
I need a creative outlet — be it acting, painting or writing. For movies, I have to depend on others as the kind of work I wish to do comes once in a while. So, I started painting. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. I didn’t have to do anything on anyone’s terms and conditions. So, I decided to study it and some years ago I did a three-month course in Spain. Later, I did another three-month course. That’s how it began. I also love reading and watching movies.

Have your sons, Aryaman and Maurya, watched Delhi Crime?
Yes, and they said they are very proud of me. The show is layered and has a lot of depth. I am not sure they understood all that. Even adults might miss a few things. Apart from the crime and investigation that the series follows, it talks about caste and class difference, patriarchy and economic disparity.

When will you begin working on the next season?
Very soon. Richie is working on the script. The characters will be the same but the crime will be different. It will be a fresh challenge.