For actor Shefali Shah, the lockdown was a period of introspection and taking a step towards fulfilling her long-cherished dream of turning a director. After making the short film Someday (2020) about a frontline worker and her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, she has released her second short film, Happy Birthday Mummyji. The 49-year-old actor has written, directed and acted in this film about a woman who unexpectedly finds herself alone, away from her family and relatives, and enjoys her solitude.
The acclaimed actor, who headlined the Emmy-award winning show Delhi Crime (2019) as DCP Vartika Chaturvedi, is currently enjoying the spotlight with several interesting projects in her kitty. She was considered to be one of the most popular actors of the ’90s, with her roles in successful television shows such as Banegi Apni Baat (1993-97), Hasratein (1996-99), Aarohan (1996-97) and Sea Hawks (1997-98). She made several remarkable big screen appearances in movies such as Satya (1998), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Gandhi, My Father (2007), The Last Lear (2007) (for which she received the National Award) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015).
In a freewheeling conversation, Shah speaks about interesting projects that are keeping her busy, finding age-appropriate characters to play, and her hopes of directing a feature. Excerpts:
What was the experience of writing-directing a short film, Happy Birthday Mummyji (just released on Large Short Films’ YouTube channel), which you also acted in?
I always wanted to direct but I wasn’t sure I could take on the responsibility of a full-fledged feature film yet. Like others, I did a lot of introspection during the lockdown and came to the conclusion that life is too short. I can’t wait for the right time. A short film, I thought, I could do. The story just came to me. But I didn’t want to put another actor at risk since I am a first-time director.
Protagonist Suchi, played by you, is stood up by her family, at a holiday home, on her mother-in-law’s 75th birthday. How did you go about detailing the character?
Every single thing around her was thought out. I drink green tea and I wanted her to have that. I spoke to Eeshit Narain (director of photography) about colour-blocking and the visual language. He took it to another level. The focus was on what’s around her — the laid-out breakfast, balloons, her sense of liberation, the desire to do nothing when suddenly she’s by herself.
There’s a subtle suggestion of Suchi unhooking her bra before enjoying her solitude. That seems to be the turning point in the film.
That’s the turning point for me as well. It’s one of the beautiful moments in the film.
In a recent interview to us, actor Vidya Balan said how in her 40s, she’s learnt to let go. Do you identify with the statement?
You get pakaoed (tired) by the end of it. You have tried so hard but can’t please everyone. Recently, I came across this line: ‘You are not Goa. You can’t make everyone happy.’ It’s a fact. Carrying these relationship tags, responsibilities can be exhausting. A lot of women are forced into it and have no option. But a lot of them choose to carry out the roles of a homemaker, wife, mother and daughter-in-law. (Sometimes) It’s okay to say ‘you can’t do it’ even at the cost of being called ‘selfish’.
With a slew of upcoming projects, are you, at last, getting interesting roles?
Finally, I am getting the kind of work I wanted to do. After my television days (in the ’90s), this is the first time I have taken up multiple projects at the same time. In all the movies and series I’ve signed, I’m doing roles I have never played earlier. When I became a mother, I made a conscious decision to take a break and be a full-time mother. When my sons (Aryaman and Maurya) were growing up, I worked sporadically, partly because I wasn’t getting the kind of roles I wanted to play.
How much did Delhi Crime (2019) help in opening up opportunities for you?
It changed everything for me. That’s the turning point of my career. The work I’m doing today is because of this show. Earlier, I would have been one of the supporting cast but now they look at me as one of the main leads. And, these are age-appropriate roles.
What has shifted in the film industry? Has it moved beyond ageism?
We have. In the ’80s, female actors had a shelf life. Today, there are stories about men and women in different stages of their life. Gulabo Sitabo (2020), Piku (2015), Tumhari Sulu (2017), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and Badhaai Ho (2018) have very interesting women characters. A lot has changed. There are no ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ in the movies and web-series being made today. Every character is significant in their own space. The stories are about characters. I’m playing lead characters, parallel leads, and at the forefront of projects. People want to write roles for me. In the series Human, which Vipul (Shah) and Mozez Singh are jointly directing, I play a part I’ve never played before. Darlings (a film being co-produced by actor Alia Bhatt and Gauri Khan of Red Chillies Entertainment) is a dark comedy, a genre I’m exploring for the first time.
How differently do women storytellers approach a subject?
They bring as much sensitivity to cinema as certain men do. Juice (a short film Shah acted in) was directed by a man (Neeraj Ghaywan). So were Tumhari Sulu and Delhi Crime. I don’t want to demarcate it on the basis of gender. If a person has the sensitivity and honesty, s/he would do the right stuff.
After Ankahi (part of Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, 2021), have you thought of doing a full-fledged romantic film?
Please tell everyone that I’m a hardcore romantic and I want to do romantic movies.
You once said if something can be expressed in fewer words, do that. Was that on your mind when you did Juice and Happy Birthday…?
Why use so much screen time when you can show it in a glimpse. I believe, whatever is crisper and sharper will hit harder. In Happy Birthday…, there was a need for silence as there is so much chaos around her. Even a phone call becomes painful for her.
You are famously a scene-stealer, even in cameos and brief appearances. To what extent do you collaborate with your director?
It’s the director’s vision. I have been very fortunate to work with directors who collaborate. When I met Richie (Mehta, director of Delhi Crime), he told me: ‘I don’t want an actor. I want a collaborator’. It is a collaborative process not just with the director but with everyone involved, including your stylist and make-up artist.
Will the next season of Delhi Crime be available later this year?
A bit of patchwork is to be done. As per original schedule, I should have been shooting for (the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer) Doctor G right now in Allahabad. But since everything is delayed, we are still shooting for Darlings. The patchwork will be done soon after I finish my work for these two projects. Then it depends on whatever time is required for the post-production.
A lot of your Instagram posts are about your team. Do you believe in nurturing a support system?
No project is one person’s doing. Now that I have directed two shorts, I can very confidently say that only a team makes a project come together. My team is very dear to me. When we are together, we share a lot of joy. I wouldn’t be who I am without these incredible people. That aside, it would be narcissistic if I keep posting only my photos.
Recently, you posted online a photo which you had sent with your job application to an airline. How would you visualise your life had they responded to it?
I would have travelled around the world. I would have lived out of a suitcase in hotels. Believe me, I would have been very happy. I would have put intonations to the announcements air hostesses make.
Have you ever had second thoughts about choosing acting as a career?
My acting career was not planned. I started acting in inter-collegiate plays in Mumbai, then I acted in Gujarati plays, earning around Rs 150 per show. Then came the television serials. I never had second thoughts but I do want to learn other things like French cooking or run a bed-and-breakfast place. That’s why I joined an arts school some years ago.
Since you blog, do people ask you about writing a book?
I have written a manuscript. I don’t know if it would ever get published. Whatever I write is spontaneous. While I do want to write a book, it requires a lot of time and commitment.
And what about directing a feature film, does that interest you?
Right now, I don’t have the time. Whenever I direct a feature, I would take a lot of time. I don’t want to lose out on the wave I’m riding. I want to make the most of it as an actor. But I definitely want to direct a feature.