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Shefali Shah: The whole point of acting is to be other people

The actor talks about patience, perfect parts and finally getting her due with the new Disney+Hotstar series 'Human'.

By Kaveree Bamzai

Published: Mon 31 Jan 2022, 12:59 PM

She's been the volatile Pyaari in Ram Gopal Varma's 'Satya' (1998); the desperately hurt Ria in Mira Nair's 'Monsoon Wedding' (2001) and the put-upon rich wife in 'Dil Dhadakne Do' (2015). Almost every time she has played a character, she has done it so well that Bollywood has wanted her to reprise it. When she played the troubled Richa on Zee TV's 'Banegi Apni Baat' (1993-1997), she was flooded with similar parts. When she played wife to Amitabh Bachchan in 'Waqt: Race Against Time' (2005) at the age of 37, she was flooded with offers for encores. When she was mom in 'Dil Dhadakne Do', she was asked to play Ratna Pathak Shah's role in 'Kapoor & Sons' (2016) as well as Shabana Azmi’s in 'Neerja' (2016).

No pushover

At every stage, she has pushed back, and done exactly what she wanted. It has been worth it. Her resume, as Shefali likes to say, is not long, but it is strong. With Disney+Hotstar's 'Human', where she plays a diabolical neuro-surgeon, Dr Gauri Nath, the resume is stronger than ever.

Born to self-made, middle-class parents ("lower middle class, I would say, because for the longest time we didn't have a house of our own"), she was headed for theatre and TV when Ram Gopal Varma gave her the part of Mala Malhotra, the bratty actress with an overbearing "mummy" in 'Rangeela' (1995).

She didn't like that and made her displeasure known. As Pyari she was noticed so much so that she got a call from Nair asking her if she could play Ria Varma in 'Monsoon Wedding'. "She (Mira Nair) didn't even know whether I could speak English," she recalls.

Its impact continues even now. "I was shooting in Delhi and the wife of a retired Indian Army officer came up to me and held my hand, saying: 'It happened to me too. Somewhere you voiced it for us'," she says, referring to the sexual abuse her character suffers in 'Monsoon Wedding'.

The life-altering role

Netflix's 'Delhi Crime' (2019) changed her life, she says, giving her a role that was the heart of the show, as the no-nonsense police officer who had to solve a gruesome rape case, based on Vartika Chaturvedi who was the officer in charge of the Nirbhaya rape case in December 2012.

It was followed by , and last year she shot for six films. She has opened a restaurant in Ahmedabad and also directed two short films. "God was in a good mood that day he made Shefali," says her friend and co-director on 'Human', Mozez Singh.

Awestruck co-stars

Her co-stars are no less in awe of her. Alia Bhatt who stars with her in the dark satire 'Darlings', produced by her own company, says she is outstanding.

In addition to that, she has season 2 of 'Delhi Crime', 'Doctor G' with Ayushmann Khurrana, 'Jalsa' with Vidya Balan, and 'Three of Us' with Jaideep Ahlawat. But Gauri Nath is perhaps her most accomplished role so far, where she plays someone completely diabolical. "Each of our principal characters had a dominant emotion: for Shefali's character, it was grief, that she was not able to save the life of her son who died because of meningitis, despite her expertise in the area," Singh says. Shefali sank her teeth into the role, surprising both her directors (the other director being her husband, Vipul Amrutlal Shah) with the direction she wanted to take the Gauri.

"I wanted her to be fragile, vulnerable, demure, soft spoken and she's not pretending. But her mind is that of a devil. We knew we were taking a chance. And after a point, Gauri Nath started surprising me. I had to become her. That's the only way I know how to do it," she says.

Part of Gauri Nath's aura is also the relationship she has with her businessman husband played by Ram Kapoor, who is equally power-hungry. "It's the kind of marriage one has seen in 's between Frank and Claire,” she says.

‘No mean streak’

Which part of her is so twisted? Vipul says none of it is. ''She doesn't have a mean streak in her at all, but as an actor if it is given to you, but as an actor you want to see where it takes you," her husband says.

The work during the years between 'Monsoon Wedding' and 'Dil Dhadakne Do' was intermittent but with great directors. "It used to bother me at one point," she says, "though people appreciated my work but never cast me. I was not 19 and yet I had also played mother to someone much older than I was. For a long time, the film industry didn't know what to do with me." At least not worth her time. Then she reached a comfortable point where she realised the work, she wanted would come to her rarely. And she decided she would wait. "Vipul and the boys kept telling me that I should be working. But I wanted to play my age, I’m proud of it, in roles that matter. The whole point of acting is to be what I’m not."

Her patience has been rewarded. As for her relationship with Vipul, she says: "We value each other's opinion but we also decide on our own. Also, we do not work with each other as a favour. It's stupid."

Yet acting is a big part of my life, but it's not the only part. "I want to read, write, paint, be with my boys, my friends, my family, and travel. If I could I’d live out of a suitcase," she says. "I've never had a professional calculation or anyone to manage my work, until recently," she adds.

(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of 'The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India')

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