Steady gaze and a fierce mind – that’s how an articulate actor like Shefali Shah holds your attention both on and off the screen. Just when we were recovering from her stupendous performance as the domestic help Rukhsana in Jalsa – so layered, so complex and so engaging or the medical thriller Human where she embodied her completely different grey character, she comes back yet again with the poignant story of Darlings. Shefali Shah as Shamshunissa is steadfastly anchored to all the tough decisions that life has made her take, but she has the vulnerability of a mother who wants the best for her daughter who is subjected to domestic abuse. With multiple projects filling up her platter of incredible work right now, she chats with Filmfare about what works for her and what doesn’t. Excerpts….
How would you characterise your OTT journey thus far, and how strongly do you believe in the balance of medium and content?
On OTT, you can take a chance of putting the content you want to without having to worry about the burden of a box-office requirement for a hit. You know. This is a great part of it because there is so much content and people are lapping it up. So it’s not like acha, and also it’s available in your house. It’s not star-oriented, it’s not, it doesn’t have to fit into a box of, you know, there should be a hero, there should be a heroine, everybody should be very good looking, there should be a song abroad, there should be a fight sequence, and there should be a song. It doesn’t. It doesn’t work like that. These are real stories, great characters, where you don’t need a, you don’t need a star, you need an actor. I think it’s fantastic. It’s great not just for me, it’s great for all creative people. And content is king. That’s the best part of it.
Darlings has now added dark comedy to your filmography. What is it about the character that made you say yes to the script and the role written for you?
So, like you correctly said, when I read the script, imagine you’ve just seen the teaser. When I read the script, I was blown away. I mean, I thought it was fantastic. It was talking about a very important thing, but it wasn’t like a bitter dose given through a bitter medicine. It was like sugar-coated quinine, and when it’s given like that, it’s far more palatable. It’s humorous, it’s wicked, it’s dark, it’s very funny, it’s poignant, it’s sensitive, I mean some of the lines are brilliant, just so much depth. And the characters, especially Shamshunissa, the character I play. I’ve never played a character like that. She is a cracker-like patakha. So I was like, “Wow, I have to be a part of this film.”
Alia as a debut producer for Darlings and Alia as an ace actor today to collaborate with—how has the experience been?
Well, one of the most important things is that I never saw Alia as a producer at all. And she never, she never presented herself as anything else but an actor and a team player, which is lovely. She is a good actor, but she is also an embracing actor, which is a quality of a good actor, because you might be great as an individual, but if you do not understand that you come from everyone else, then I see that as a problem. And she understands that a film is a cumulative effort of everyone coming together and working towards one dream. Which is great. You know, it’s very easy to have a chip on your shoulder with success. But she has a head on her shoulders, not a chip on her shoulders.
How much easier do you think it is to stand up and have your own back when it comes to problematic and abusive relationships in today’s world?
You know, it really depends. Because unfortunately, it doesn’t just have to do with time, it also has to do with whether you’re emotionally or financially independent to take that stand. Two is, whether you are or you’re not, do you have your family or friends supporting your decisions and saying, you know what, I’ve got your back. I mean, I would. I’d have tremendous respect for women who can take this call on their own, but we all need support. I mean, I’m hoping that today it’s not such a big taboo. I mean, it’s not, it should never have been a taboo. And, honestly, when you’re in an abusive relationship, it’s actually a no-brainer. It never gets better. It never gets better. So the only way out of there is a separation. And I think that the sooner you do it, the less damage you’re causing yourself.
Coming to your filmography, a show like Delhi Crime being recognised on an international platform like Emmy—it’s such a sensitive subject but to be acknowledged for its portrayal and win accolades—what was your reaction?
I was screaming, screaming like a lunatic. I think Delhi Crime deserved it. I think it’s the best show that’s come out of the country and I can proudly say so. And I said this even before it won the Emmy. Incredibly, incredibly proud of.
How selective are you when it comes to giving a nod to a script—any must-haves as an artist?
It has to be age-appropriate, really. I’ll play seventy when I am seventy. Unless you give me a role which is like starting from a certain age to a certain age and it blows my mind, and I say, you know, I’d die for this role. So it’s not that I won’t do it, but for god’s sake, don’t come to me with stuff because you’ve run out of imagination of who to cast as a mother. And I am a mother, proudly so. But don’t make me the mother of a forty-year-old and a thirty-year-old, because I’m not. Okay. The first is that. Second, I want to play leads and parallel leads, and when I say leads and parallel leads, what I mean is playing one of the primary characters. Unfortunately, I need to use the terms “lead” and “parallel lead” because our industry otherwise doesn’t know anything better than this. And give me something that’s worth my while, really. Don’t say things like, “We love your work and you’re one of the finest,” and then come and give me something that is insulting. Don’t do it. Please don’t do it. And I want to work, I want to work with all kinds of directors, I want to work on all kinds of stories.
What is your process like?
So luckily, what has happened is that I’ve always done one project and then moved on to another. I’ve never gone from one set to another. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to function like that, honestly, because I’d be very, like, I really get consumed with what I’m doing. I’ve been emotionally consumed by every character I’ve played. I don’t know any other way to work. I love it. But Gauri Nath from Human is not somebody you want to take home; she’s really injurious to people. So you know, she’s like It’s terrible for people’s safety and all. It’s not like, of course, I get affected, but it’s not like I’m going to carry that back home. But as an actor and as a person, I’m so consumed by that whole project at that point in time that I finish, I go home, shower, I’ll talk with my family, have my dinner, and dive straight back into the script until the next morning, when I have to go to shoot. I love it. That’s how I live through my shoots.