Shefali Shah on playing different shades of an 'everywoman', and using silence as her weapon of choice
Shefali Shah confesses she is not keeping well. By her own admission, she suffers from multiple personality disorder ("as my prolific professional choices may suggest," she adds), and foot-in-mouth disease ("not meant to offend anyone since it's my foot and my mouth"). But after an interview with the seasoned actress at her office in a Mumbai suburb, I can certainly say these ailments aren't the worst things to have. In fact, far from it.
Before we begin our interaction, Shah breaks the ice with us by admitting that she does not like dressing up. "It's a pain. Had this been only a print interview, I would've been in my track pants," she says, visibly miffed, yet playfully appealing. On hearing this, I am secretly glad that I brought along a photographer-friend, only so she could do justice to Shah's electric presence, and capture her eyes that house a sea of emotions and memories of the lives she has portrayed onscreen.
However, the accidental discovery made by my friend's camera happens to be the majestic gold-and-black painting adorning the wall behind her desk. Shah took to painting in 2010, and says that it helped her come closer to the concept of infinity. It continues to offer her dimensions that she is unaware of, but only when she submits herself to the process completely. I could imagine why she prefers to get all down and dirty with the colours. The process is strikingly similar to her approach to acting. She splashes her characters all over herself before surrendering to a blank canvas. And while traversing that fine realm between imagination and lived-in experiences, she cracks the part.
"I never know when I've cracked it. I never know it. Actors look at monitors all the time to see if they're looking nice or if their clothes are looking nice. I don't do it because I know there's a director, a DoP, a makeup person, a costume designer, and they're all very prolific at their jobs and know that better than me. If I'm going wrong, they'll tell me. So for me, there's no entry point into the character. It just happens," Shah says, sensing my puzzled look and shrugging her shoulders, reiterating how living other people's lives comes to her rather instinctively.
That, however, does not seem like the strength of a woman who has shaped her career on her own terms. The actress maintains that besides Richie Mehta's recent Netflix series, Delhi Crime, she does not consider any of her films as a landmark in her career, right from the time she debuted in Ram Gopal Varma's 1993 film, Rangeela. "Landmark is too strong a word. My work was appreciated in Rangeela and Satya but that's about it. I wasn't the discovery of the decade. It wasn't like that after the release I got all the offers in the world," she says, adding that even the overwhelming response to her role as ACP Vartika in Delhi Crime has not translated into tangible work offers yet. However, she says she is in advanced talks to reunite with her Monsoon Wedding director, Mira Nair, for BBC's adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel, A Suitable Boy.
Shah claims that good work will only come her way when she is offered a wide range of roles, as opposed to carbon copies of her well received characters. "I got offered a ton of roles to play a mother after I played Amit ji's (Amitabh Bachchan) wife in Waqt: Race Against Time. I took up that role because I wanted to do it. I just went by my instinct like I always have," says Shah, who played mother to Akshay Kumar, who's five years older to her, in the film. This practice of younger women playing mothers to older heroes dates back to Mother India (1957), in which Nargis played mother to her real-life future husband Sunil Dutt. It continues even today, with Sonali Kulkarni playing mother to a nine year older Salman Khan, in Ali Abbas Zafar's recent blockbuster Bharat.
"But that's the point of acting. You want to be people who you are not. I don't mind playing a mother. I am a mother of two. But if that's all you have to offer me, then I'm not up for it," Shah says. A spate of mom roles followed her successful act as Priyanka Chopra and Ranveer Singh's mother, Neelam Mehra, in Zoya Akhtar's 2014 family drama, Dil Dhadakne Do. "I'm very proud of my age. I don't want to play an 18-year-old. But if there are roles only for 20-year-olds and 60-year-olds then I think that's a bit unimaginative," she says, laughing.
"I'm the antithesis of a star. Acting is a part of my life. It's not my life. I come from a lower middle class family. My parents worked really hard to make me who I am. And all this is part of who I am, and that adds relatability to my characters," the actress says, explaining that basic life skills like cooking have worked to her advantage, since she has often played an 'everywoman'. "If I was an actress who has never entered the kitchen, I would not look convincing on screen when I played Tara (a restaurateur and chef) in Once Again. Even in her introduction scene, she looks like someone who has been doing kitchen work for years. I may not do it every day or I may have people who do it for me, but I still choose to clean my kitchen. And that shows on screen. There's a scene in which I took something on my finger and chatoed (licked) it. Had another actress played it, she would have gone looking for a spoon. But I've seen my mother do it. I've done it myself. Who goes looking for a spoon yaar!"
Food also plays a part in her character's arc in Dil Dhadakne Do, where Neelam eats to seek comfort while dealing with a husband (Anil Kapoor) who has alienated her. "She eats out of depression. A lot of women do it. She just wants the attention of her man, whether she's fat, thin, tall or short. That's why she tells him in the end, 'Tum mujhe bhool gaye' ('You have forgotten me'). Unfortunately, her life revolves around her husband and her family, so that's why she has nowhere to go to but food when she is sad," Shah explains.
She points out that her culinary skills were also put to use when she played Manju, a frustrated homemaker, in Neeraj Ghaywan's short film Juice. "When you see her working in the kitchen, you know she's been doing it for years. Right in the first scene, because it's a short film, I had to establish her state. People might wonder why she's so irritable right in the first scene. But what they don't realise is that she's been standing in the kitchen for two hours! It's only now that you've started watching her. So a scene is merely a window into the lives of these women. A scene does not determine the character. A character determines the scene. It's not only about that moment, it's about their everyday," Shah says, stretching the last word to denote monotony.
Monotony, however, evades our interaction as much as it does her acting career. When I try to argue that she has played largely similar characters, she shakes her head vigorously. When I call out the similarities between Manju and Neelam (both women are completely dependent on their husbands, yet go on to defy prescribed gender roles), or Neelam and Tara (women desperately seeking love), she continues to shake her head with equal vigour. "I don't study characters in comparison. For me, every character is unique. I don't have a repertoire that I can pull out expression #33 of and use it in another role. That's not how I function. I need to know who she is. Once that's done, it becomes much easier to be her."
When I prod her to mull over what her entry point into a character is (costume? perfume? location? anything?), she reveals her magic trick. "It has to sound right. I don't need to see myself on the monitor to know if I got it right. I just gauge it by the sound, when I'm performing it, whether I've got it right or not. It's very strange but I can't specify what about the sound. It just rings true or it doesn't. It could be the modulation, the pitch, intonation, the pauses, the silence..." Shah trails off.
Silence has been a leitmotif in all her performances, from Rituparno Ghosh's The Last Lear (for which she won a National Award), to that final, hair-raising shot in Juice, the actress has repeatedly used silence to her advantage. Shah agrees. "I feel silence is much more powerful than words. I'm one of the few actors who asks the director to cut all her lines. 'Please ye bhi kaat do, ('Please remove these dialogues')' I keep telling them. I went for a poetry reading thing the other day and I cut down an eight-page poem to two pages! Jitna kum bologe utna achha! (The lesser you say the better) The visual medium gives you the luxury of a camera, a close-up, a visual context. It's not like a radio play. I can see it then why should I say it? And if you can't show it, then I don't think you can be in this profession," Shefali says.
She does agree that a character can be verbose, but also asserts that certain moments demand one to be silent. "For example, Vartika in Delhi Crime dominates with her silences. It's not that she can't speak. When she snaps, she really snaps! But the situation (of tracking down perpetrators of the 2012 Delhi rape case) demands her to be silent. Similarly, Tara in Once Again — she can spend hours talking to Amar (Neeraj Kabi) on phone. But when they meet in person, a kind of silence settles in," Shah says, smiling.
As I pose my next question, the artiste quietly listens to me, her smile still in place. But when she starts speaking, I realise what she often does with her characters: she imbues them with stillness, just to reflect the calm before the storm. "In Delhi Crime, I have certain points where I just lose it. I react instinctively to those, but I usually tell my co-stars or the technicians so that they can record that moment. For instance, When I scream f*ck at a thadi (tea stall) in Delhi Crime, I told the sound guy in advance that I'm going to really scream," she says, her tense face breaking into uninhibited laughter.
Before I leave her alone with her silences, I have one last question to ask. Does her personal bond with her husband, filmmaker Vipul Shah, not come in the way of their actor-director equation? She answers with an anecdote: "On the sets of Waqt, when we were about to shoot for a scene, I started cribbing to Vipul about the curtains, about the paintings he was using for the shot. I kept at it till I heard Amit ji, who was standing behind me all this while, ask me, 'Director toh theek hai ya ye bhi badal de?' ('Do you think the director is okay, or should we change him too?') Since then, he calls me 'maalkin'. It is embarrassing but that incident always helps keep a check on me," Shah concludes.
All photographs by Zahra Amiruddin
Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 09:31:31 IST