She’s calm, much like the centre of a storm. Wondering what a storm and Shefali Shah might have in common? It’s the unnerving calm right at the centre of both, and the calm in her eyes. Her deep, piercing, penetrating eyes can see through you. No wonder every role that she portrays seems tailor-made for her. She seems to have seen them for what they are, and conquered them. And she’s not done yet, she’s still in-the-making, still striving hard to make an impact with every character she owns on-screen and otherwise. Shefali Shah can’t settle. She wants more, and the world has much to offer someone as skilled, determined, focused and talented as she is.
All the roles that she has portrayed embody different shades of womanhood. Yet the strength of the characters is not the reason Shefali has been able to bring them alive on screen. It is because she strives for connection. “I have always picked roles that I instinctively connect with, whether it’s been on television or in films or OTT,” she tells us. “Yes, there is strength in all these women. Yes, they are all making some point, but that’s not why I am inclined toward these roles. I think they were so layered, and I think there is something so vulnerable about these women, but it’s not like I have decided - achha yahi karna hai.”
Shefali is known for effortlessly navigating the reel and the real, keeping well away from clichés, no matter what role she is playing. Whether it be the headstrong DCP Vartika from the Emmy-winning Delhi Crime or a caring frontline worker in Someday, the actor is vivacious and unapologetically herself, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
She stole the show in her recent hit Darlings starring Alia Bhatt, Vijay Varma and Roshan Mathew. A rollercoaster of dark humour, giving us a perspective into the harsh domestic truth of our patriarchal society, Darlings emphasises that, when it comes to domestic violence, there are no grey areas. Surprisingly, she describes Shamsunnisa – her character in Darlings – as child-like; it is a revelation that we didn’t know we needed. Shefali tells us why the character impressed her. Shamshu believed that “I have nothing to lose, so I will go all out to enjoy this, embrace it, and protect my child.” Her kohled eyes, her printed kurtas, the way she merged the goofy character with candour and clarity of thought lead Shefali to say, “Shamshu is a cracker of a character. I have not seen such a patakha character on-screen. She’s a woman. She’s feisty, she’s fiery, she is full of zest, she has a lot of pizzazz, she’s wicked, and she has a straight-up deadpan sense of humour. That’s the way she talks. She protects her child fiercely, and she will go to any lengths to protect her.”
However, Shamshu’s spunk is in complete contrast to Delhi Crime’s DCP Vartika Chaturvedi, who helmed and solved some of the most tragic cases in the show, which is a portrayal of Delhi’s dark underbelly. Shefali plays the top cop and a female in a male-dominated department (remember Madam Sir?). Season 2 is one of the top watched shows on the OTT streams, but season 1 had a particular finesse, and introduced DCP Chaturvedi, whose character is inspired by real-life incidents; the show is based on the tragic Nirbhaya case. Shefali describes how the series affected her: “When the gruesome incident happened, there was anger, there was pain, there was angst, there was a need for justice, and there was a cry for justice. In fact, strangely, when I played Vartika, it was like coming full circle. Because I got to know that the question that all of us have asked since it happened is why no one is doing anything about it. And when I read the script, I realised that something was being done about it: she caught all those guys in five days flat, and she is a woman. There are moments when you have to feel it; you have to let it take you over. That’s the way I work. I feel it.”
Her inspiration is her passion and that shows in every character she plays. She calls herself restless. “I have to constantly keep doing something,” she explains. “I live in extremes and I have to keep doing something or the other, and that just makes me richer as a person. If there was one thing I would do in life on a permanent basis, it’s travel. My thing in life is, Kya hoga, I’ll try, I’ll fail, na? Usse jyada toh kuch nahi ho sakta. So why not? Do it! And there’s so much to learn. All I am saying is that life is so exciting.”
She is equally effusive in describing her joy of working in this industry: “I can have different professions; I can have different husbands; I can have different lovers; I can have different children; sometimes I don’t even have children! How exciting is all of it put together? I just love the fact that I can be so many people!” Her job allows her to create people out of her imagination, and, while it is impossible to sum up Shefali’s contribution and presence in cinema today, we are privileged to witness her histrionic brilliance in every new character she brings to life on screen.