I think some people hire me only for my eyes: Shefali Shah on craft, passion and the Delhi Crime Emmy win
“I believe something that can be said in two words should not use four, and if something can be said without a word, don’t use any,” says actor Shefali Shah.
The 47-year-old has made a career of letting her big, expressive eyes do the talking. Last year, she put those eyes to use in her role as the strong, upright, vulnerable policewoman Vartika Chaturvedi on the Netflix show Delhi Crime, based on the aftermath of the 2012 gangrape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in Delhi. Late last month, the show won the International Emmy for Best Drama Series.
“I sometimes think people hire me only for my eyes,” she says, laughing. “If they could, they’d probably say, please leave your eyes on the set, we don’t need the rest of you.”
Delhi Crime wasn’t an easy story to become immersed in. “When you’re doing something based on a real-life incident like that, there’s a lot of responsibility. Sensitivity is required. So it was not just a simple matter of acting or storytelling,” Shah says.
It helped that director Richie Mehta made it clear from the start that he wanted “not just an actor, but a collaborator”. “I don’t know any other way of doing a show besides being completely consumed by it and the character. I remember when we attended the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where the show premiered, I heard a couple of people asking the organisers, ‘Is she the real cop who cracked the case?’ I felt that was a win.”
Shah describes herself as a person who routinely gets consumed by passion — for life, her family, her two huskies and her craft. It’s part of the reason her filmography isn’t pages long, though she began her acting career in 1993.
“Initially it used to bother me that I wasn’t working 365 days a year. But after a point I realised that the kind of work I want to do comes around rarely. And I would rather wait for it. Because whatever I do next, needs to top what I did last, or at least match up to it.”
In the projects she chooses, subtlety and silence often play a big role. She was Pyaari Mhatre, the strong, feisty wife of gangster Bhiku Mhatre in Satya (1998); the heartbreakingly vulnerable Ria, the survivor of child abuse in Monsoon Wedding (2001); and Neelam Mehra, the lonely high-society housewife in denial about her cheating husband, in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015).
Can subtlety feel like a liability in Bollywood? Not if you pick your projects very carefully, she says. “I also enjoy being over-the-top when a role demands it. Like when I played the brothel madam Jyothi in Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Lakshmi (2014). The character had these shades of grey, she was loud, and I loved playing her,” Shah says.
She does reject a lot of offers, the actor says. “My sons criticise me for that. They say I don’t have any business acumen and don’t know how to run my career.” But, having left TV in 1997, switched to movies and now come full circle, in a sense, to streaming platforms for small screens, Shah says she’s enjoying her work like she never did before.
“The OTT platforms have completely opened up the horizon for everyone creative. We are finally seeing women-led projects. It’s not about a hero or a heroine any more, each character has importance,” Shah says. “This allows you to explore and experiment. And the audience is also lapping it up! I’m glad to be 47 in a time when age doesn’t matter in the context of good content.”
Before Delhi Crime, Shah played the female lead in the film Once Again (2018), released on Netflix, about an accidental phone call that connects a lonely actor and a widowed restaurateur. Right now she’s excited about a doing a streaming show called Humans, a medical thriller about human medical trials, which her husband Vipul Shah is directing and producing. She is always excited to explore new genres, she says.
“I’m a greedy actor. I loved the show Fleabag. It was wicked. People don’t think I’m capable of doing comedy, but I would love to do something like Fleabag. I would also love to do a romance, or a role like Sybil, the real-life woman with multiple personality disorder, written about in the book by Flora Rheta Schreiber. She had 16 personalities, of which two were men. A role like that would be very exciting.”