The first time I had spoken to Shefali Shah was for a Women’s Day article. It was just a random shot in the dark; I was on a deadline, it was late at night, and I was frantically calling up every name that came to my mind. She had, however, agreed to do it, and the very next morning, there was this article in my mailbox — a scathing, yet bizarrely witty take on Bollywood’s beauty bias and ageism. I wasn’t expecting the Dil Dhadakne Do actor to be that good with words. That led me to her blog, where I was properly introduced to Shah, the writer. The slice-of-life stories, laced with her unique brand of dark humour, were delicious reads. Then, a few months back, just out of the lockdown, she turned director, and churned out a short film before announcing her feature-length directorial, Happy Birthday Mummy Ji. Earlier this year, her Instagram page introduced me to another Shah. The artist. We have seen many actors trying their hand at painting, especially in quarantine last year, but hers didn’t look like yet another lockdown love. This was serious stuff, and reflected years of practice and skilled techniques. What was going on with this woman? I wondered. I needed to get it from the horse’s mouth.
The last time I had called her for an interview, it was 1 am — just a few hours after the announcement of the International Emmy Awards where her Netflix series, Delhi Crime, had bagged the top prize, and the actor was ecstatic at the team’s win, and the phone network was finding it difficult to keep up with the excitement of two sleepless women. For this interview, we decided on a more appropriate time. But I guess some things don’t change. If last time I was pacing down the dark stairs of my parents’ home in Kolkata to find network, this time I almost fell from the balcony of my Goa hotel trying to catch the signal (I could have called this article, ‘tripping over Shefali Shah’ but I would resist the temptation).
My first question that has been a constant to her for the past two years is: When are you writing a book? Usually, the actor laughs it off, but not this time. “I would like to publish at some point of time but then again, it is a lot of work.” I knew a little bit of prodding would reveal more. “Well, there is a story that I have worked on, I have a manuscript. You can say it is a slice-of-life story,” the actor says, reluctantly. “I started blogging about seven to eight years back. It started as a way of self-expression, a sort of a personal diary. I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in reading it, including me,” she laughs. And what about these stunning artworks? “Oh, this started long back. My kids were very little, and I was looking for someone to teach art, and happened to stumble upon a really good one. She wasn’t teaching in a conventional style. I was so intrigued that I asked her if I could join her, and she agreed to take me on,” reveals Shah. However, that was a short stint. Shah then brushed up her skill at an artists’ residency in Bandra run by painter Julius Macwan, called the Last Ship. But it was only four or five years back that she finally enrolled herself in a proper art course. “I always wanted to study art and a few years ago, I went for an art residency programme at an institute called Metàfora in Barcelona. I stayed there for four months. I went there without knowing the language, without having a house or anything,” says the actor, who went back to it after two years for another four months as she couldn’t spare one whole year at a go. Looking back, Shah traces her love for art and all things arts to her childhood. “As a child, I was inclined towards every kind of art. Be it singing, dancing, in fact acting was the only thing I wasn’t inclined towards,” she reminisces. But what comes as a bigger surprise is that according to Shah, she was not among the ‘popular crowd’ while in school.
“As an only child, I was extremely overprotected. For the longest time, my mom was my best friend. In fact, I only started making friends when I was much older, when I was in college. I was probably the least popular in school, nobody liked me. There were times someone would even bully me, they used to call me names, they would pull my plaits, make fun of my well-oiled hair. Also, I came from the lower-middle class or a middle class family, and I used to go to Arya Vidya Mandir, where most students came from very affluent families. Maybe that played a role, but this is just an assumption. I really don’t know why things were how they were, but it really hurt at that point of time. However, now that I look back, I think like yeah okay, whatever,” she says. But did spending so much time alone help her focus more on herself and cultivate talents? “While you are growing up, friends play an integral part in your growth. It is a very important part of your growth, and not having friends is not cool. It’s just not good for anyone, and it wasn’t good for me either,” Shah says, making no attempt to cover up her childhood wounds.
However, this lonesome, overprotected child made her acting debut on the Gujarati stage at the age of 10. “The husband of one of my school teachers was a Gujarati playwright who was casting for a new play, and they needed a girl my age. He asked my mom if I could do the part. Although she wasn’t sure if I would be able to pull it off, she agreed. It was a part of a girl who was possessed by some evil spirit; somewhat like in the movie Omen,” she recollects. Although her parents were protective about their only daughter, there was no dearth of support when she became an actor. “When I was about 15, I was doing a lot of Gujarati theatre. We would travel to various parts of Gujarat to stage the plays, and my grandma would travel along with me.” Shah graduated to inter-college plays and then to Gujarati films, and then Rangeela happened, which was followed by Satya and Monsoon Wedding. And today, the girl bullied for her oiled plaits is a National Award-winning actor, a director, a soon-to-be-published author, an artist, a wife and a somewhat obsessed mother of two teenage sons, Aryaman (19) and Maurya (18). But of all the roles she plays on screen and off it, she has one absolute favourite — that of an obsessive mother. “My life revolves around my family. In fact, when I got married, just after finishing Monsoon Wedding, I knew I wanted a baby, and I started saying no to work. I had no doubt that I wanted to do everything on my own for the baby. I wasn’t going to leave my child to a nurse. In fact, I didn’t put them in diapers because I was afraid it would give them rashes, so I would keep changing their nappies. I was an obsessive parent,” says Shah.
Shefali Shah’s gritty turn as Deputy Commissioner of Police Vartika Chaturvedi, in the International Emmy-winning Netflix series Delhi Crime is still winning hearts and international audience. But the powerhouse actor has moved on. Her next project is with her husband, producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah, and she is mighty excited about the project. Titled Human, the medical thriller is directed by Mozez Singh and will mark the web debut of Vipul. “It is a character I have never ever played before and it is very exciting,” she quips. She is also part of Darlings, a film to be co-produced by Alia Bhatt’s newly-minted production house. She continues, “My one quality that, according to me is my strength, and often becomes a little overbearing to the people around me, is my obsession and passion for life. Whatever I take up, I get completely consumed by it. I take it to a point of obsession. It becomes the end-all and be-all of things. I really don’t know any other way of being a mom or an actor or a writer or anything without being completely consumed by it,” Shah says, signing off.