Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

After tiptoeing around fame for close to 20 years, Shefali Shah is finally staking her claim to the spotlight

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jan 11, 2023 11:39:45 AM IST
Updated: Jan 11, 2023 05:59:00 PM IST

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'Shefali Shah Image: Mexy Xavier
Shefali Shah is planning her 50th birthday. “These days I’m doing nothing, really,” she says, sitting comfortably in a chair, dressed in a striped kurta and white palazzos, her hair tied in a bun.

This is not something you expect to hear, because filmography-wise, 2022 was jam-packed for the actor. She had a new film or an over-the-top (OTT) show almost every quarter, starting with the series Human in January, then Jalsa alongside Vidya Balan in March. She followed that up with Darlings alongside Alia Bhatt, and Season 2 of her award-winning show Delhi Crime in August, and capped off the year with Doctor G, led by actor Ayushmann Khurrana, in October. Most of these projects were shot in 2021 and spilled over to 2022 with marketing and promotions, all in all resulting in “more work than I’ve done in my entire career”, Shah says.

That’s not all. She did a TEDx talk in November about breaking barriers and not being defined by conventional roles set by society. After that, she was at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa for the premiere of her forthcoming film Three of Us, directed by Avinash Arun, and co-starring Jaideep Ahlawat and Swanand Kirkire. She is also in the early stages of discussing two OTT shows that are currently in the scripting stage and will materialise in the second half of 2023.

In retrospect, perhaps it makes sense that on the December day we meet, Shah is finally doing nothing. She is taking the time off that she desperately deserves—planning a trip to Africa, she says, and also her milestone birthday in March. For the celebration, she wants to take care of everything; the food, decoration, guest list, theme, the works. “Can I also tell people what to say?” she jokes.

I ask her if this is about wanting to be in control of everything. “No,” she replies, her eyes twinkling and her face breaking into a smile. “It’s about living your life the way you want.”

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

She projects the same agency that most of her onscreen characters have asserted over the years. Be it single mother Shamsunissa Ansari in Darlings, restaurateur Tara Shetty in Once Again (2018) or all the way back to her role as Savi in the television series Hasratein (1996), which spoke of marital discord and gender roles, and was considered to be ahead of its time.

Film critic Udita Jhunjhunwala observes that Shah has not followed any set pattern in selecting roles across her two-decade-long career, except the fact that almost each of her onscreen personas has been a strong woman. “That’s probably the one common factor. Playing a woman with agency. And if she doesn’t have the agency, she is going to get it somehow.”

Looking at how Shah’s career has shaped up in the past year, particularly, the critic says that the actor seems much more confident now. “She knows she is capable, and now, even the world knows that. She is in that league where people will write parts for her. But she’s not just waiting for those. She’s also creating content,” Jhunjhunwala says, giving an example to Shah’s directorial debut with a short film Happy Birthday Mummy Ji in 2021.

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

Shah’s co-star in Human, Kirti Kulhari, agrees that 2022 has been the year when Shah got her due in the industry. “It’s really a matter of time… it’s not about how much work you do, but how well you do it,” she says. “Shefali has been around for a while, and has always stood out, whatever she has done.”

Also read: Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a star

Slow and Steady

The way Shah narrates it, her life has been a series of coincidences, where she has often had the comfort—and the courage—to walk away from things if they were not what she wanted for herself. And she also had the patience to wait for her time.

Shah was raised in Mumbai as an overprotected child of a mother who was a homeopathy doctor and a father who worked with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). When she was 10 and a student of Arya Vidya Mandir, the husband of one of her teachers, a Gujarati playwright, was casting for a girl her age. “He asked my mother if I could do it, and she agreed,” Shah recollects.

This was followed by a handful of Gujarati plays through her teenage years, and later roles in films like Rangeela and Satya with director Ram Gopal Varma in the late 90s. Even if the former was a film with Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar, Shah chose to walk away from the project after a few days of shooting because the character being developed was unlike the one narrated to her. During this period, she was also working on popular television series like Hasratein and Kabhie Kabhie.

“When I started my career, Shefali was quite busy on television, and the performances she was giving those days were outstanding,” says actor Manoj Bajpayee, her co-star in Satya. “The only thing that I always wanted was to see this magnificent actor getting her due.”

But just as she was cementing her footing in the entertainment industry, Shah chose to give it all up during the turn of the century. “I was getting married [to filmmaker Vipul Shah] and was sure I wanted to have kids immediately,” says Shah, now the mother of two teenage sons. “But once the kids grow up, they don’t need you anymore.”

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

Shah did not have a plan B—has never had one—she says. With no good scripts coming her way, she started seriously pursuing painting, and also wrote a blog. After an art course at a residency in Bandra, she enrolled for a course at an art school in Barcelona, Spain. “I stayed there for four months,” Shah recollects. She just landed in a foreign country, not knowing the language, or even having a place to stay.

Shah, who started playing much older characters early on in her career, then went on to give strong supporting performances in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Lakshmi (2014) and Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). After this, a short film called Juice, one of the turning points in her career, came in 2017. “In fact, it’s because of Juice that I got Delhi Crime,” says Shah, referring to her 2020 Emmy Award-winning Netflix show that shot her to popularity on the national and international stage.

For Juice, Shah met director Neeraj Ghaywan, told him she was a fan of his previous film Masaan, and expressed interest in working with him. For Ghaywan, the decision to cast Shah came with the consideration that she was a strong, recognised actor who would bring credibility to the courage of his project, which was about everyday patriarchy and gender roles at home.

“People would believe that they can be Manju [Shah’s character] from the film,” Ghaywan says. He remembers how Shah questioned herself constantly, despite being a seasoned actor. “On the first day of shooting, I asked her why she was so nervous, and she said it happens to her on every film set,” the filmmaker recollects. “That, according to me, is the hallmark of a genuine artiste. They are not in awe of themselves and are constantly honing their craft.”

Ghaywan says that when he met Shah, she was totally into painting and art, and not doing too many film projects. “Then she won a Filmfare Award for Juice and was cast in Delhi Crime. She never expected all of this to happen. Suddenly, she became this actor who could carry a project on her own. That really gave her a boost.”

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Keeping it Real

Shah believes the emergence of OTT platforms has opened up avenues for actors like her, who might not be ‘conventional enough’, yet strong performers who deserve their due. Imagine, she says, a woman in her 40s can now be the face of a film or show, giving an example of Delhi Crime.

“I am so happy that OTT is finally becoming a platform to give so much to an actor like Shefali, who has been choosing [scripts] so carefully and giving one outstanding performance after another,” says Bajpayee.

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

Shah adds that acting in OTT shows is much more difficult than films. If there are 10 episodes of 50-odd minutes each, and you’re shooting for it all together, you need to memorise every single line, of every single scene, she says.

And even when her character is not on screen, Shah feels the need to be conscious of what she must be doing at that time, what she must be thinking, whether she has eaten or not, and what she must be feeling all through. “And the next time the character appears on screen, it should be reflective of all those emotions.”

One of her biggest strengths as an actor is that she is always present in the moment and can do a lot with silence, says Tanuj Chopra, the director of Delhi Crime 2. “She’s a very generous, multi-faceted artiste. She brings her writer sensibility to her approach to acting. I’ve seen her films, her paintings… she approaches her art with so many points of entry. That reflects when she acts, because she does not see things just cerebrally, or just by the obvious dynamics on the page,” he says, adding that he sees Shah as an artiste who has a methodical process, but is also attuned to emotions and the world around her, which make her performance jump out on screen.

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

Shah gets deeply involved in what she has to perform, so much so that it’s not just acting anymore, says Mozez Singh, who co-directed Human along with Vipul Shah. “She makes it personal. It’s like that particular scene gets embedded in her DNA,” he says. “Because she completely submits herself to the part, what comes out of her is true and pure.”

Filmmaker Suresh Triveni, who directed Shah in Jalsa, recollects the climax of the film, where the sun was setting, and he had wanted Shah to shed tears in a way that it could be captured by the camera on her right-hand side. “And she gave me that. Not once, but three times. She can cry at will, it’s incredible,” he says. That said, he adds that Shah has to feel what she’s required to emote. And in order to get under the skin of the character and understand their motivations, Shah keeps asking questions. “She is a question box. The amount of questions she has is unbelievable,” Triveni says.

Shah’s Delhi Crime co-star Rajesh Tailang says that sometimes when she raises so many questions while reading the script, it brings out various perspectives that help them improve their collective creative outcome. “Her questions also help us understand our characters and perform better,” he says.

Singh remembers how he gave Shah a script of about 450 pages for all 10 episodes of Human, and at the end, “there was not a single unmarked page”. She had meticulously written down her notes, suggestions, feelings, observations about the script, he says.

In fact, Shah tells me, her negative character Gauri Nath in Human was written as a strong, dynamic and fierce woman.

“I told Vipul and Mozez I want a meeting with them, and they just smiled at each other, saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to have another of those ‘Shefali meetings’,” she says, laughing. It was her idea to make the character of Gauri Nath soft-spoken, gentle and poised, which makes her negativity appear even more diabolical and warped.

“Shefali constantly wanted to turn the madness and psychosis of the character up by many notches,” Singh recollects. “As a filmmaker and writer, I want to keep pushing the envelope with the characters I write, and she was totally on the ball for that,” he says.

Triveni says he is amazed by the level of detailing Shah brings to the table. “When I narrated her role of Ruksana for Jalsa, she was just out of Darlings, in which her character comes from a similar space. But Shefali was sure she did not want to repeat herself. So when we went to her office for a look test, she gave me all kinds of options. She even suggested wearing contact lenses and changing the grade of her eyes. That’s the level of detailing she had gotten into.”

Rasika Dugal, Shah’s co-star in Delhi Crime who also has a role in Once Again, is in awe of how the actor takes charge of a scene, while respecting the space of her director, co-actors and other people on the team. “These are tricky things in any creative collaboration. I often find myself struggling to understand where to assert myself and when to hold back. But she strides these thin lines with so much grace and respect, it’s wonderful to watch,” she says. “Whenever I’m doing a scene with Shefali, I know she will find a way to make it work.”

Shefali Shah: You cannot ignore her, 'darlings'

Behind the Personality

It is easy to assume that an actor who gravitates towards grim and serious roles will be the same in person. Shah’s directors and co-stars, however, describe her to be the exact opposite. “There is not an iota of stardom in her,” says Triveni, referring to how, while filming Jalsa, Shah was excited about every little thing and was friendly. “She will enter the set, and give you the biggest hug. She will walk around, spend time with the crew, and never work in isolation, unless the scene demands it,” he says.

Dugal describes Shah as “full of fun and so much craziness”, while Tailang adds that the fact that she is “passionate, friendly and funny” makes it easy for co-stars to connect with her, and that comfort can then effortlessly translate on to the screen.

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Shah sums it up herself when she speaks about her work ethic. “I take what I do very seriously. I don’t take myself seriously. And that’s the difference,” says the actor, who counts Meryl Streep and Olivia Colman as her inspiration.

While she is a busybody who might be hard on herself from time to time, and is constantly on her toes, Shah also knows how to let go and enjoy a moment. At the Forbes India photoshoot, she widens her eyes with child-like enthusiasm and breaks into giggles in the middle of posing for the camera in a high-octane red trail gown. She twirls and jumps in the air with her arms outstretched. “I’m reaching for the stars,” the actor says.

She couldn’t have put it better.

(This story appears in the 13 January, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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