Cover story: An actor and now a director, Shefali Shah talks about finding the artist within
Celebrated actress Shefali Shah is a busy woman. Churning out more work than ever — whether as an actor, writer, director or her recent passion, painting — she walks us through her creative journey so
This 48-year-old actress saw her acting career get an exciting shot of new energy with Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice, Kanwal Sethi’s Once Again and Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime. Shefali Shah is now all set to venture into new territory as a writer and director. The celebrated artiste has written four short films, all themed on isolation. While one of them titled Someday is touring film festivals across the world, another titled Happy Birthday Mummyji just released recently on Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films’ YouTube channel. Offering a refreshing take on isolation, the story draws from Shefali’s own personal life and is a visual treat. As an actor, Shefali has had her hands full with films like Alia Bhatt’s maiden production Darlings, Anubhuti Kashyap’s Doctor G, Vipul Shah’s Human (web series) and Season 2 of Delhi Crime, another web series. But, besides cinema, the last six months also saw Shefali creating a new social media account, giving her fans a peep into her world as a painter where she brings her canvases to life with multiple point perspective art to abstracts and nudes. In an exclusive, we spoke to Shefali about creating art during the pandemic, finally having her acting career just where she wanted it and where she is headed from here. Excerpts.
Q: Happy Birthday Mummyji is an interesting take on isolation. What made you write it?
During the first lockdown, I came up with my first script on isolation and distance, Someday (the short film is currently doing rounds at film festivals). But then I thought why not look at isolation from a completely new perspective? And, I came up with Happy Birthday Mummyji. The idea of this film germinated from the thought of wanting a breather during the lockdown; because while the initial romance of having the entire family together was great, it started getting to us after a point and all that one needed was to step out and have a breather.
Q: What made you don the hat of a director with short films? Is it something that has been on your mind for a while?
I have wanted to direct for a very long time. However, I wasn’t sure if I could take the responsibility of directing a feature. But, during the lockdown, when I wrote both these scripts, I knew I was ready to gamble and direct both these films. It was almost an overnight switch from ‘I want to do this’ to ‘I will do this’. And, although Sunshine Pictures (a production company by her husband Vipul Amrutlal Shah) is backing both these films, I had a chat with Vipul saying ‘I want to put in my money and do it on my own’ and that’s exactly how it happened.
Q: We see you creating more art than ever — be it films or paintings. Did the lockdown help you reinvent?
Reinventing is a constant with me. I get bored very easily, and, if I don’t have a creative expression, I will go crazy. Painting is something that I began about a decade ago, and I have been writing for quite some time. But, yes, the lockdown did give me time to push myself and do things that I have only been mulling about; it convinced me to make these two films.
Q: How did painting happen? Run us through your recent creations?
Until this year, I have worked very sporadically. I am very choosy and probably did one film in a year or even in two years. So, for the rest of the time, I had to have a creative expression otherwise I would have gone crazy and I constantly need something to challenge, excite and inspire me. Painting filled that void for me. My current work involves acrylic painting on canvas and charcoal and ink. What really interests me is the perspective. It started with me learning one-point perspective drawing and then two-point perspective (there can be up to five-point perspectives). Somehow I started interconnecting it with architecture. While some pieces feature very modern, basic lines, others have been married to architecture from places that I have visited like Turkey and Spain. Mostly, I use monochrome — it is white behind the grey and a blob of red. I have dabbled with other stuff, including nudes, but the two forms that I really like are perspective and abstract.
Q: We have seen most of your pieces on Instagram, why don’t you exhibit your art in a gallery?
I did one solo show which flopped and that was the end of my exhibitions (laughs). The first one that I got to be a part of was held by Art for Concern at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. I was very thrilled that my painting was going to be put on the walls of Jehangir Art Gallery and then it even got a red dot, which means it got sold and this was beyond my imagination. Then I did a solo show in Pune which didn’t work. And, after that, I haven’t had any exhibitions.
Q: How, as an artist, do you deal with failure?
(When the show flopped) I was obviously miserable. I was miserable for quite some time. But, then you just say, ‘okay, it didn’t work. Let’s try something again’. But, probably that is what is keeping me from holding another exhibition. But, as far as my work as an actor is concerned, I am never satisfied with my work. For me, it is always a new project, like I am starting all over again, like it is the first day of the shoot. I have the same nervousness, palpitation, anxiety and worry of how I am going to do it, and I think it works for me because I am never in a complacent place.
Q: The 20s and 30s are considered to be the age when one is at the prime of their career. But, you are doing wonderful things in your late 40s?
Things have turned around for me, and projects that did it for me are Juice, Once Again and most importantly, Delhi Crime. After all these years in the industry, I am finally doing the work that I wanted to do. I am playing the parallel lead. People are writing parts for me, which is what I have waited for. Honestly, Delhi Crime changed the perspective of a woman carrying the show, irrespective of me. Of course, there have been films like Tumhari Sulu, Lipstick Under My Burkha in between, among others. In fact, if you go back to the ’70s, there were so many women-oriented films, whether Bandini, Aradhana, Aandhi. Then came a patch where actresses were reduced to an accessory in a film but it is changing finally.
Also read | Shefali Shah: 'Delhi Crime was extremely consuming, it demanded every ounce of me'
Q: Tell us about your other short film, Someday.
It is currently doing the rounds at film festivals and is also competing in the final list at a few festivals. Like Happy Birthday Mummyji, it is also a take on isolation but they are different from one another. One of the things that hit me the hardest when the lockdown was announced, which is also the thought behind the film, is that ‘if the disease doesn’t kill you, the distance will’. And, that is where it stems from.
Q: You are also working in Alia Bhatt’s maiden production, Darlings. Tell us what is in store?
It is something I have never done before. People see me as a strong, serious, controlled kind of a person, going by the characters that I have played. But, I have a really wild and wicked side as well, which I feel Darlings will bring out. And, it has a terrific script, director (Jasmeet K Reen) and cast (Apart from Shefali, it has Alia Bhatt, Vijay Varma and Roshan Mathew). It is one of those projects which is almost perfect. And, I am having so much fun shooting it.
Q: Is directing a feature film on cards?
I definitely want to. I have written two-three scripts and I really want to make one of them but not this year for sure because I don’t have that kind of time. Besides, finally, my career as an actor is taking shape in a way that I always wanted. I spent two to three months on a short film. A feature film will definitely take a lot more time and I also want to give it that time so I will do it only when I have the time and mind space to do it. Also, there are two more short film scripts that I have written in the ‘Isolation’ series.
‘Happy Birthday Mummyji’ is streaming on Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films’ YouTube channel.