Vidya Balan destroyed the myth of what a Bollywood heroine should do, says Delhi Crime actor Shefali Shah

Actor talks about ageism in Bollywood, being typecast and how the series redefined her career trajectory

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Somya Mehta

Published: Mon 5 Sep 2022, 5:34 PM

Last updated: Mon 31 Oct 2022, 2:45 PM

A revelation in the 90s, Shefali Shah rose to fame with the television series Hasratein, a show considered to be ahead of its times in its depiction of marital discord and challenges. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that Shah once again became a revelation that she was in the 90s, with the roaring success of Emmy-winning Indian crime drama series Delhi Crime.

Written and directed by Richie Mehta, the first season was set in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and the much-awaited second season, recently released on Netflix, focuses on the criminal group activities of the Chaddi Baniyan Gang. Despite always being considered an actor worth her salt, Shah seldom got the opportunities she desired to showcase her true potential as an actor.

The rise of OTT platforms in recent years, followed by the critical and widespread acclaim of Delhi Crime, has led the industry and the audiences to rediscover Shah and her potential through the renewed variety of roles the actor is finally able to choose from.

Shah, who recently attended Netflix Film’s Day to celebrate the success of her latest film Darlings, starring Alia Bhatt, Vijay Verma and Shah in the lead roles, believes that streaming platforms have brought forward greater representation and opportunities for actors.

“It's absolutely amazing what streaming platforms can do. To be in a room full of such brilliant talents, collaborating on such interesting stories and characters. It’s very empowering as an artiste,” mentioned Shah.

In a recent conversation with City Times, the actor talks about breaking the mould of the typical Bollywood heroine, OTT’s influence on it and how Delhi Crime redefined her career trajectory.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Do you think the audience has been able to rediscover you through your latest body of work on streaming platforms?

Yes, I do think so. It started with Delhi Crime, then there was Ajeeb Daastaan, Human, Jalsa, Darlings. Whats interesting is that the kind of work I have done now reaches audiences across different age groups and the globe.

Why do you think OTT can push content-driven entertainment in a way theatrical releases have not been able to?

I think theatrical got stuck on a specific formula that worked for mainstream films. It was mainly about the hero and the heroine, and whoever came in was only known by their relationship with the main cast. There must be a particular thought when they call them ‘supporting actors’, which is not the greatest way to look at someone’s role. But on OTT because it's a longer format, every character, no matter the length of their role, has their own moment to shine, to become the lead in that particular moment. It's not just about one single person or the hero, which is great because it gives that kind of depth to every character. It is not determined by the box office success or the requirement of having ‘stars’. It works because of the content, it works because of great stories and characters.

Does the mould of the perfect Bollywood heroine still exist?

Well, I've passed that mould. I'm too old for it now. The face of the Bollywood heroine is changing. And it has taken a lot of women before me to pave that path. I'm being recognised for who I am today. But when you look back, Vidya [Balan] did films which were considered unconventional. You see about The Dirty Picture, Sherni, she led those films. They are female-oriented films. She is a Bollywood heroine, but she destroyed the myth of what a Bollywood heroine is expected to do.

Have you experienced the pressure to conform to the norm?

When I started my career, nobody told me this to my face, but me doing Waqt had its repercussions (Shah played the mother to Akshay Kumar's character in the film). I also noticed it after Dil Dhadakne Do when I got a couple of movies – all were excellent films, with good directors – but they were in a similar age group to what I played in Dil Dhadakne Do, and I consciously said no. I wanted to work with those directors, but it just felt like I couldn't be doing this for the rest of my life. I am a mother and a proud mother. My sons are 19 and 20, they're not 35 or 40. And besides being a mother, what is the character about? That is important. She doesn't just have to be recognised for her relationship to the main cast.

In the 90s, you became a household name for the television series Hasratein, considered ahead of its times. Did you always envision your career as it has turned out?

I never had a plan of action. I didn't even know that I was going to be an actor. I accidentally stumbled upon it. I realised I was doing this every day and getting paid 200 rupees for a drama show I was doing at the time. So, after a couple of months, I thought I could call it my profession. As I continued doing it, it became my calling. I never met people. I didn't have a manager. I chose from whatever was offered to me at the time. It was as simple as that. It’s not been a conscious decision. I believe that there is a lot of strength in vulnerability. So, if I'm playing a role where I'm extremely fragile and vulnerable, it doesn't mean there is no strength. There is a different kind of beauty in it.

Your career can almost be segregated as pre- and post-Delhi Crime...

When Delhi Crime was being made, there was no platform attached to it. It was an independent production. When Richie Mehta met me, I said ‘yes’ to it in the third minute of the narration. I said yes and I had not even read the story. He gave me the script, which I think was nine episodes at the time. I asked him to give me a couple of days to read it, but I finished reading all nine episodes in two and a half hours. I immediately said yes. There was no second thought about it.

When the story is based on real-life events, does your process as an actor change? Do you let your own beliefs ever step in the way of how you’d approach a scene?

When you are telling a story based on real-life events, there needs to be a lot of sensitivity with which you need to handle it. You can’t compromise on the technicalities of how it works. There’s a way the Indian Police Service would speak, walk, sit, the way they wear their uniform. I had the honour of meeting Chhaya Sharma, who cracked the Nirbhaya case. I had a lot of technical questions. I only met her for two hours so it’s impossible to encapsulate the entire person in just that much time, but I managed to understand the essence of who she was. Even otherwise, I’m so consumed with the characters I play that I turn into that person till I finish that project. I don't disconnect.

If you were to step into DCP Vartika's shoes, would you be as public in standing up to authority as she is?

She has a position, which makes it easier. But yes, if I believe in something, I’ll go ahead and do it. Even if it may not be politically correct. Being politically correct is not exactly my forte, let's just put it that way. It is boring.

When there’s such exceptional love and appreciation for the first season, did you feel pressure to live up to those expectations in the second season?

There's self-imposed pressure every time I go in front of the camera. Keeping that aside, Delhi Crime and DCP Vartika became unprecedented. I was so excited when season 2 was going to happen, but the character had become daunting. There was no plan of action. I did all the work and chewed my director's brains off. But when I was on camera, it was just instinct and impulse. So, I don't have an instruction manual to follow that I can go back to. I was asking myself, ‘how do I create that again?’ I didn’t know if I’d be able to. But then again, I think she runs in my veins. Wearing that uniform, everything fell in place. Vartika is very personal to me and always will be.

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