Shefali Shah: 'Delhi Crime was extremely consuming, it demanded every ounce of me'
Shefali Shah on winning at the Emmys, writing scripts during the lockdown and being a hands-on mom
In her acting career spanning one-quarter of a century, Shefali Shah has done a handful of roles that speak volumes about her as a performer. This includes shining in a less than a 10-minute role in Satya that saw her performing on Sapne Mein Milti Hai, bringing Kasturba Gandhi to life in Gandhi, My Father, playing a mother to a 15-year-old at the age of 22 for television serial Hasratein and later, getting in the similar mould of a mother for Waqt: The Race Again Time.
However, the last five years have seen her coming back into the limelight. Although it started with Neelam Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do, it was Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice that took her to every drawing-room and made people utterly comfortable as they relooked at the patriarchy and misogyny within their homes. What followed was a beautiful performance as Tara in Once Again and a strong performance as DCP Vartika Chaturvedi in Delhi Crime. The latter saw Shefali at the helm of the investigation in a case that shook the entire country — the gang rape and brutal assault of a 23-yearold physiotherapy intern in Delhi in 2012. Written and directed by Richie Mehta, the series gave us a peek into the investigation of the case while simultaneously bringing to the screen the reality of those few days that saw everybody taking to the street demanding justice.
Days after the series went on to win international Emmy Awards for Best Drama Series, we spoke to Shefali about the challenges of bringing the story to our screens while also retracing her journey so far. Excerpts:
Q: How did Delhi Crime happen? What made you come on board?
Honestly, when Richie Mehta met me for the first time and we spoke about what he was planning to do, there was no narration at that point, I just said yes. I didn’t even take five minutes to agree to be a part of it because it is such an important story, and it had to be told. The incident had affected all of us and we needed certain answers.
Q: It was emotionally draining for us, but what did it demand from you as an actor? How long did it take for you to detach yourself from that character?
Everything. It demanded every ounce of me. It was extremely consuming, drilling, emotionally exhausting and yet the most fulfilling experience of my life. It is one incident we can’t detach ourselves from, even today. When I wrapped up the shoot and came back home, I had serious withdrawal issues... I wanted to go back and be on the set. Vartika has never left me even once and she is never going to leave me. She is very deeply embedded inside me.
Q: What was your first reaction when you got to know that Delhi Crime has won at the Emmys?
I was completely over the moon and was screaming like a lunatic. I was feeling ecstatic, euphoric... and that feeling and emotion haven’t changed yet.
Q: What does the win at Emmys mean for you?
Even if I weren’t a part of Delhi Crime, it would still be a very proud moment for all of us. It has created history. I would be equally thrilled. But, of course, being a part of it, I feel extremely lucky, honoured and proud. But honestly, right from the day that I came on board, I was proud of being a part of something that is extremely special. I have always thought and believed that Delhi Crime is a winner.
Q: Do you consider Neeraj Ghaywan’s Juice a turning point in your life? Did you expect it to get the attention that it received and rightly so?
There were three turning points — Juice, Once Again and Delhi Crime. So, yes, Juice definitely was a big turning point. I respect Neeraj tremendously and when I saw the film, I was like ‘oh my god I am so proud that I am a part of it’. It is a very strong film, it touched not only every woman but also men and the younger generation. It is a very pertinent, strong and relatable film. The subject spoke about all the points that we are constantly fighting about, whether it is patriarchy or misogyny.
Q: Once Again saw you playing Tara who falls in love in her late 40s or early 50s. What about this film excited you?
I am a hardcore romantic. I want to do love stories and it was such a delicate film. Tara is so beautiful that she is like a miracle. It is coming of age romance and I just had to be a part of it.
Q: Your career started about 25 years ago with Rangeela. Although you have done films like Satya and Gandhi, My Father and The Last Lear, we didn’t see you enough. Why?
Some years ago, I made a choice to do projects that really touch me in my heart and kick me in my gut. And, everything that I did became a benchmark for myself, the next project had to match it and excite me enough. While there was a time where the fact that I was not receiving enough work would bother me, I eventually realised that the work I actually want to do is going to come rarely, and with that, I landed at a point where I was okay to wait for two years if that’s what it would take. But I knew I would go to work only when something lifts me up.
Q: Although your work in Waqt: The Race Against Time was appreciated, it always comes up in discussions. considering the fact that Akshay is older than you. What are your thoughts on this?
I took it up because I wanted to. Vipul (Shefali’s husband) was directing this film and he consciously didn’t want to cast me because he thought this was a wrong decision for me to make in my career. He actually considered me after Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) said why don’t you get Shefali for this role, and I was aware of the story, I loved the role and I wanted to be a part of it. After I did it, I had to bear the consequences, one of which was being put into the mother brand.
But, when I started my career, at the age of 20, I played 45 in one of the shows that I did and I think the point of being an actor is to be able to play roles that you are not whether it is age, caste, creed, gender or whatever. That’s the exciting part of acting so that’s how I saw it. But yes, it had its consequences. It set me back, in a way that people thought I couldn’t be cast as one of the lead. It did bother me for some time and then I made a conscious decision to not do it. Of course, I played Kasturba in Gandhi, My Father but I would have been stupid to not do it and it was about a story which went from when she was 20-25 to the time she died.
Q: Satya received a cult status over the years and Sapne Mein Milti Hai was a rage and it continues to be one. What was the response you got at that point?
Satya was a cult film. I had a seven-minute role and the appreciation I received was tremendous. I got one critics’ award and another for best-supporting actress. Even today, people remember me from Satya. There are times when I would go somewhere and people would play Sapne Mein Milti Hai, it is very annoying but there was a lot of fresh talent in that film and I am glad to have been a part of it. In fact, Monsoon Wedding happened because Mira Nair saw me in Satya.
Q: What does a day in Shefali Shah’s life look like when she is not working?
Oh, I have a beautiful life. I have my family, my friends, two two-legged babies and two four-legged babies, and I am a homemaker and proudly so. I am extremely involved in my children’s and husband’s lives like every woman is... I love writing, reading, watching films and travelling. If I could, I would travel all the time. Besides, I am a very hands-on person. I know exactly what kind of tissue I want in my bathroom. I am that hands-on and I am very particular.
Q: How has life in lockdown been for you? And, have you resumed work?
Initially, it was like a holiday because the entire family was together. Then it started getting to all of us. It was also not being able to meet people whom I love, like my parents or friends that was affecting me. We had no help but thankfully, I am used to cooking and cleaning, I do it but it became a lot and then at the same time, I got two pups, so it became very taxing. But, by the second half of the lockdown, my creative side kicked in and I wrote two scripts and even directed them.
Q: Tell us more about those scripts and what’s next as an actor?
As an actor, I am doing two films, one is a lead cast, and they both are very exciting projects. Then I am doing a webseries directed by Vipul. It is a medical thriller called Human, it talks about the underbelly of the medical world and the character that I am playing is onethat I have never done before. I have directed two films. One of them has been submitted to a film festival and the other will release sometime next year. The first one is yet to be titled and second one is called Happy Birthday Mummy Ji.