I still remember the first time I watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! at Liberty Theatre in Mumbai, clear as day. Didi Tera Dewar played on the screen, and the audience was dancing in the isles. One of the reasons I fell in love with the film was Renuka Shahane’s powerhouse smile, and hearty laughter. When her character, Pooja, died in the film, audiences across the country mourned the loss. The reactions are the same even today, when the film is telecast on TV every Sunday. Lately, she broke the internet when she revealed that the deathly staircase was made of sponge, and she didn’t even get hurt while filming the scene.

Shahane has turned over a new leaf, and made her directorial debut in Hindi with Tribhanga, starring Kajol. Tribhanga is a story of three women who choose to live life on their own terms, and the impact of their choices on each other. The three belong to the same family, but are from different generations. Tribhanga is not her first film as a director. She had made a Marathi film called Rita, based on her mother Shanta Gokhale’s book Rita Welingkar, in 2009. It took her 12 years to direct her next film. “Tribhanga is my first original screenplay, and I began writing it in 2013. I’m slow as a tortoise because it’s challenging to find that balance between work and home,” she confesses. She continues, “Back in 2013, I wrote a few pages of my script and took it to Mumbai Mantra Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, where my script was mentored and honed by senior writers. After coming back from there, I took a while to complete the script as something or other would crop up — work wise, or in the family.”

Renuka Shahane

In 2016, Shahane took the film to NFDC’s co-production market, and a producer showed interest in her script. “We were very close to signing on the dotted line, but everything came crashing down. In 2018, I met Siddharth P Malhotra, who was starting his own film company, and asked me if I had a script. I narrated Tribhanga, and at first I was not sure if this is the kind of script he would want to produce, but he loved the script. In fact, it was his suggestion to cast Kajol as Anu. Post that, everything fell in place, and we got Ajay Devgn, Banijay, and Parag Desai on board,” she recalls. Shahane believes one of the benefits of being an actor-director, is an added sense of trust. “There are certain tricks you can incorporate to get the best performance from your cast. I’ve been an actor too, and I know how the mind of an actor works. Actors are like clay, waiting to be moulded at the hands of the directors,” she explains.

About Tribhanga, there was a rumour that the story is based on the life of Kajol’s mother, Tanuja, and Kajol’s grandmother, Shobhna Samarth. Shahane rubbishes the rumour. “Tribhanga is definitely not about Kajol’s family as I didn’t know her family well enough to write a script based on them back in 2013.” Shahane reveals that it is by design that both her films revolve around the lives of women. She says, “I write things that are very, very dear to me. We don’t see older women characters like Tanvi Azmi as protagonists in films. Women are not represented in mainstream films or otherwise as much as they should be. There are so many shades of a woman that have not yet been tapped. I can’t write stories that don’t appeal to me. All these things were running in my mind when I was writing. I believe I understand women better. So, it was a very conscious decision to make something for women, of women, and by a woman,” she proudly states.

The society expects a woman to live a certain way and be perfect, while Shahane disagrees and says, “There is no such thing as the perfect woman or the perfect man, or even the perfect family. There are many families where women are unconventional. They have made unconventional choices, different from what society expects of a woman, especially when they get married or have kids. My mother (Shanta Gokhale) has been very unconventional. I’m from a family that is supposedly not considered normal. But I didn’t have any dysfunctional relationships or a dysfunctional family atmosphere. All families have some chink in their armour that could give rise to acrimonious relationships within the family if not dealt with. I am very close to my mother, and I had a wonderful childhood. But I draw courage from both my parents. Both of them are very sure of themselves, and they never take any sort of injustice lying down. From a very early age, my brother and I were encouraged to have a voice of our own,” she says.

Renuka Shahane

Renuka Shahane was last seen in a YouTube show called What The Folks, where she played a sassy and lovable mother/mother-in-law. “I loved working on the show because I loved the atmosphere. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was treated equally. There was a sense of freedom to try things out differently. It was a very normal way of talking, and close to how I am in real life. So, that was interesting for me. My kids really enjoyed the show,” she adds. And how is her relationship with her kids? “We share a very good relationship. I’ve invested a lot of time in bringing them up. I kept myself updated with the times. I’ve prepared myself to understand my kids’ psyche to communicate with them openly. My relationship ranges from being their buddy, to a mother, and sometimes, a resident Ogre,” she laughs, and adds, “My sons didn’t watch Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! for the longest time. They were aware that I died in the movie, and that’s why they weren’t looking forward to watching it. Watching their mother get married to someone else isn’t a happy sight for them either. But when my sons reached their teens, their friends mentioned seeing me in the film. My kids felt curious and finally, they watched the film.”

In a career spanning three decades, Shahane has worked on television, in films, on the web, both as an actor and a director. She feels immense gratitude when asked to describe her journey. “I never started off my career thinking I want to be a big star. I was very happy doing my clinical psychology, and acting on the side. I never imagined that I would be one of those people truly loved and adored by the audience. All this love humbles me. Everything I know, I learnt on the job. I know there is a lot more to learn as we evolve every day to be the best versions of ourselves.” She was one of the hosts on Surabhi, a Doordarshan Television Programme, for over a decade. She also hosted a popular TV show, Antakshari, on Zee TV. However, she always preferred acting. “I loved hosting Surabhi as I could bring a piece of my personality on the show, but I love acting, directing, and writing more. I’m blessed that people associate with me by my name instead of my characters’ name,” she explains.

Even though she doesn’t have any acting offers currently, Shahane is open to playing interesting characters, platform no bar. “Acting didn’t happen before because I was just so immersed in my work. I didn’t want to even do anything else at that time. Now that it is over, I do want a little break. I want to gather my thoughts, come down from maybe cloud nine, which is where I am right now,” she says. A slice of Renuka Shahane’s personality can be seen on social media platforms, where people are fans of not just her acting, but also her writing. Her Twitter feed is full of fantastic comments over what is happening around, and her epic takedown of trolls. She says, “With actors, the audience relates to the characters we play, which are written by other people. These characters won’t necessarily be who we are in real life. Social media lets me put my personality, thought, and perception out there.” I had expected to interview Shahane over a Zoom call, as that is the new normal. I wanted to see her smile and laugh. But I ended up interviewing her over a phone call. No one had warned me that Renuka Shahane is so full of life that you can feel her energy even through a phone call. As we spoke about her films, her life, her laughter echoed over the phone. It felt like she was right in front of me, and we are having a conversation in person. Lively.