Acclaim didn't translate into screen time for Shefali Shah. Now the actor is finally getting her due.
Shefali Shah in Delhi Crime, Jalsa, Darlings
Last Updated: 09.53 PM, Sep 20, 2022
Within the space of just 45 days, Shefali Shah has had pivotal/lead roles in three well-regarded projects. There was Darlings that came out at the start of August, followed by season 2 of the critically acclaimed Delhi Crime, and on Tuesday morning — September 20 — the trailer of Dr G (also starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Rakul Preet Singh) in which Shah plays a senior gynaecologist.
To say that Shah is in the prime of her acting life would be stating the obvious. To say that the renaissance in her onscreen career post-2017 is an actress of Shah’s calibre finally — finally! — getting her due, would be even more so. In an industry that is only just beginning to shed its ageism towards female actors, crafting meaningful stories around the more experienced among them, Shah is at the vanguard. It’s taken her nearly two-and-a-half decades to get there.
“Better late than never,” Shah says wryly, admitting that there has been a “rediscovery” of her as an actor. She doesn’t pretend that hers has been an easy road to be on. But “you have to work hard, you have to be passionate, you have to believe in it no matter the setbacks, and you have to just keep at it,” she says. “For me, [it has been difficult]… especially the fact that the recognition and appreciation translating into the kind of work I want to do has come so late. Still, you have some wins and you have some failures: you have to get up, bandage your bruises, and then move ahead.”
Shah’s film and television resume — even before this recent boost — was enviable. She had a National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Last Lear (2007) and a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress for Satya (1998) among a slew of others, and was named Best Actress at the Indian Film Festival Melbourne for her work in Jalsa (2022). She still calls Delhi Crime (dir. Richie Mehta) a turning point. With its two seasons, Darlings, and the web series Human on her OTT slate, she says there’s been a lot of learning from the medium:
“Because I did Delhi Crime, which was an eight-hour film so to speak, it changed my way of working. It’s been a learning curve for me to maintain consistency and yet be unpredictable… Holding the audience's attention for such a long time is not easy. There are so many nuances, so many layers that you can actually discover and venture into, but it’s a lot of hard work… a lot of hard work,” Shah muses.
A thoughtful pause later, she enumerates a few principles that guide her approach. First, Shah says, filmmaking is a collective effort. Second, she takes her work extremely seriously — but never herself. And third, she aims to become a character such that she is identified as the character rather than as “Shefali Shah who has done a role well”. To that, she adds a healthy dose of self-critique: “I never have a day where I feel ‘Oh, I know this’ and ‘I got this right’. I never, ever go to work with that belief. And honestly, it works for me. Because I start from the bottom every day, and the only way to go from there is up.”
That approach is evidently paying rich dividends for the actor today. Shah, however, negates the idea that her present acclaimed position is the result of some well-thought-out plan. Instead, she’s chosen to play it by instinct. “Whatever work I picked up, I have done so based on my gut and it has worked for me,” she says. “With the kind of work I did, I realised that whatever I do next has to match up to it or go higher. And I have also realised that this kind of work doesn’t come along every day, so I would have to wait.”
The waiting paid off, with more author-backed roles coming her way than ever before. “It’s been such a boon that more films are being written with women in mind,” Shah notes. “The fact that so many conversations are revolving around women, issues are being raised… the fact that these conversations have been initiated and acknowledged, that there is a need, call and desire for change… and that a lot of people are working towards it: these stories have to be told. It’s fantastic, and amazing.”