Archita Kashyap - 75 weeks ago
An applauded performer, Shefali Shah has been an actor whose talent got compromised by a star struck Hindi film industry. With Delhi Crime, the actor reiterates her prowess. She looks back on her journey of being an unusual success story.
Shefali Shah is an indie film connoisseur’s delight. This attractive and magnetic actor always opted for roles that were non typical and off the mainstream path, despite being courted by commercial cinema in her youth. She preferred to pick unusual parts even as a young TV actor, which she now believes cost her the advantage of opportunity and plenty. Yet it’s no irony that Shah is now back in the limelight, basking in the glory of positive reviews and impressive feedback globally and here at home because of her performance in a series. As DCP Vertika Chaturvedi, caught in the vortex of the unimaginably brutal and heinous rape and assault to a young girl in Delhi, Shah has delivered a controlled, tenacious character in Delhi Crime that will remain with audiences for a long time. Not hyper masculinised, nor clichéd, this is a female police officer that feels real and powerful in equal measure. In more ways than one, Shefali Shah’s career has come of age in the era of streaming. An actor like her, who chose to age onscreen prematurely, and chose to start a family, is often forced into early retirement in Indian cinema or is reduced to stereotyped roles in mediocre Indian TV shows. Her resurgence, like that of Toni Collette, can be likened to a new era of entertainment where independent content leads the way.
(Shefali Shah and Denzil Smith in a still from Delhi Crime (Image courtesy - Netflix)
The evolution of Delhi Crime, and its presence on Netflix is a story of the originality and value that independent content brings. Famously known as the Nirbhaya rape case, where a young girl was sexually assaulted, physically abused in a manner that almost feels beyond human capacities, this incident had woken somnambulant civic consciousness of India’s capital city, gotten its youth up in heckles against its government and blown the lid of women sexual abuse cases in Delhi. It got international attention, even as the city’s beleaguered and stretched police force tried to maintain public order and solve the rape case. As media glare turned negative on city cops with each passing day, a female deputy commissioner of police and her crack team of six officers worked round the clock for six days to nab the culprits. “When I was on set, I would think back as to what time is it from December 12. That’s the way I would build upon Vertika’s state of mind. When was the last time she had had a breakthrough? When was the last time she suffered a setback in her investigation? Where did she leave a conversation with a certain colleague? To me, Vertika is someone who focuses entirely on getting the job done, keeping emotions aside,” Shah recalls.
It’s important to understand how Delhi Crime came to feature on Netflix. A team of outsiders, as in writers and creators from outside India, combed through Delhi police files to build this show. It’s factual accuracy and detail is worth lauding. The show runner and director, Richie Mehta, a Canadian-Indian, has worked closely with real officers to write his narrative. It’s writing credits include Laurence Bowen, who is credited with the first season of The New Pope, a swish, quirky comedy on the perils of being a young leader of the Catholic Church in changing times. An Indie collaboration of varied people from different parts of the world, Delhi Crime is a winner for the streaming giant in India.
Often a performer who has won accolades, Shefali Shah didn’t quite make it to the heroine role in Hindi cinema. She played characters across the spectrum of age and background, and somewhere, got marked as a character actor alone. “I never planned my career. I did what touched me, instinctive and impulsively. When I was in my Twenties, I did Hasretein (TV show) where I played a 35-plus character. Onscreen, I put myself into a different age bracket. I still believe that as actor the whole point is to play somebody who is completely not you - be it cast, colour, age and gender. If I get a chance to play a man or an extra-terrestrial, I should be able to do it. But my choice to age onscreen for this role had repercussions. And then I did Waqt, which again had repercussions. At the same time, I never planned my career to be a heroine,” says Shah.
(Shefali Shah in a still from Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do (Image courtesy - Excel Entertainment)
Having made her debut in the Nineties, Shefali stands out for powerful roles of real like women in films that defined the course of storytelling in Hindi cinema. Be it Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, or Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear, or Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, she stood out. Her most recent roles - In Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do and the indie love story, once again reminded audiences of her presence after a hiatus. “I have never had to go and ask for work. I am fortunate that roles have always come to me. I did Satya and it just came to me. I did Monsoon Wedding, which won me praise but I was getting married (to Vipul Shah) right after that. Then I wanted to have babies. It was a choice that I made. I wouldn’t change my decision for anything. If I had to make these choices again, I would choose exactly the same,” argues Shah, “These are choices I have made and I don’t regret them. Sometime ago, I would feel that I wanted to work a lot but people put you into a box and category. But in the past few years, I began to think this through and realised that I could do three films in a year or I would like to wait for three years for one worthwhile project. It’s worth the wait. I love my work, I love doing what I do and I want to do something that consumes you. It isn’t just a job nor is it about just being busy. I don’t want to do a film just because I need to keep busy. I don’t have a huge repertoire of films or shows, but the ones that I have are extremely special, she concludes.
In the pipeline are more shows and films, beyond the realm of Bollywood. Delhi Crime dropped in 120 countries simultaneously, won praise from reviewers in the US, Britain and here in India too. For Shefali this is the first time that she is playing a lead role, one that has met the threshold of international acceptance. No doubt, there’s lots more of her that one will get to see on streaming platforms and smaller screens.
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