Shefali Shah: Breaking Convention

The essay is about the ‘Journey of a Woman of Substance,’ and I say she deserves a standing ovation. For all her hard-hitting movies and roles, she sure is a woman who inspires and motivates me. After subtly making her way into the ‘World of Indian Cinema,’ she captured hearts with her acting mastery and a genuine sense of satire and humour. In 1993, she debuted in Gujarati Theatre, and her latest role in 2022 was in the Hindi movie Darlings. Let me take this moment to compliment her on completing twenty-nine years in an industry where most people find it hard to stay relevant. Shefali Shah is one of the few women in the Indian Film Industry who stood their ground and played parts that impacted people of all forms and with no gender divide.

The 2022 TV Series, ‘Delhi Crime,’ has added one more feather to her cap. Shefali has always played vital female lead roles that break conventional codes. Those from the 1990s will remember her quite well for her many of her roles. For an outsider like myself, it feels like an exciting journey from stage dramas to TV Series to Cinema. Her roles in these series were outstanding- Ant Vagarni Antakshari, Tara, Doctor Tame Pan, Mano Ya Na Mano, Aarohan, Banegi Apni Baat, Kabhie Kabhie, and Hasratein.

One of her earlier roles was a character named Savi in the 1997 television soap Hasratein. The show concentrates on extramarital relationships at a time in India such topics were dreaded to be spoken about. She played the role of Savi with aplomb. This role brought her into the spotlight for portraying a non-conventional position when women in traditional roles were considered ideals. This show was top-rated because it broke all time-honoured codes of relationships at the time. The same year, she played a lawyer Radha Pathak in Kabhie Kabhie. It was a tale about friendship and the professional feud between two friends in the law fraternity who fall in love with the same man. Oops!

Bollywood became her canvas, where she painted her characters successfully. In 2001, Shefali played a pivotal role in the movie Monsoon Wedding as Ria Verma, an abuse survivor. Ria stays in every one of us; we felt her pain and saw through her agony, helplessness, shame, anger, and every emotion one can fathom. Even after twenty-one years, Ria stays with me. The character Shefali portrayed is unforgettable. Another influential role was Pyari Mhatre in the movie Satya, and she got the Best Actress award in the Critics category of the 44th Filmfare Awards in 1999. Shefali has always been highly selective in choosing her roles and has an extensive filmography in her pot. She has won hearts in each of her roles and parts. 

In the Indian Film Industry, Ageism is obvious. The casting of women half the age of the film’s famous mannish protagonist as their mothers or partners is accepted. For Shefali, age was never a bar to recreating any role. In 2005, she played Amitabh Bachchan’s wife and leading man’s mother in Waqt: A Race Against Time. She proved beyond doubt that if you have passion for the craft, being typecast in a specific role will not affect your career. I am sure she must have worked harder than most not to get stereotyped. 

Her role as Kasturba Gandhi in the 2007 biographical drama Gandhi, My Father won international recognition when she bagged the Best Actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Her next movie in 2007 was opposite Amitabh Bachchan, who plays a veteran theatre artist passionate about Shakespeare in the Last Lear, directed by Rituparno Ghosh. Her film with Rahul Bose, Kuch Luv Jaisa, brought out the mixed elements of a frustrated rich housewife whose birthday is forgotten by her family, yet she decides to celebrate solo. Her understated charm and calmness in every character reveal her subtlety in each role she essays. Her character in the film Lakshmi as a brothel owner struggling to get her daughter educated, is significant, especially as she helps the protagonist to expose the world of child trafficking.

Ensemble dramas usually have diverse characters; standing amidst those characters is no mean feat. For example, the 2015 movie Dil Dhadakne Do had an ensemble cast of all stellar actors. Her role as Neelam Kamal Mehra, the wealthy Socialite, stuck in patriarchal matrimony and a stereotypical business family, brought out the inner conflicts of a woman who wanted to liberate her daughter from her toxic marriage. However, she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, because of the elite societal intimidations and peer pressures. Her characterization was impressive. 

The 2017 short film ‘Juice‘ won the Filmfare Short Film Award for Fiction stays with me, especially Manju’s final stare. The short film attempts to stress the gender roles in our homes and how the route to transforming it does not need to be filled with noisy rallies but straightforward silences as hard and penetrating as Manju’s stare. The film disclosed the misogyny hidden in every nook and corner of the male-dominated society. Shefali won Best Actress in a Short Film.

In 2020, she did two short films, Someday (her maiden directorial venture) and Happy Birthday, Mummyji, a women-oriented movie scripted by Shefali. Shefali’s 2021 crime drama Delhi Crime, directed by Richie Mehta, left a deep impression on the audience as she played the real-life cop DCP Vartika Chaturvedi, who investigates the true story behind the gang rape that shocked the world. The seven-episode drama in the first Season won Best series at the 48th Emmy International Awards and four Asian Creative Awards. In addition, Shefali won the Best Actress award. This drama proved to be a turning point in her career.

In the 2021 Anthology film ‘Ajeeb Dastan‘, Shefali plays Natasha in the fourth film Ankahi. She depicts Natasha as a woman who struggles to keep a truce at home and her misery to let go of an accidental friendship that blooms into love and the betrayal she had to give, all with no words. The power of her eyes and how she communicates with them in a few seconds take your breath away.

Other noteworthy mentions are ‘Human‘, a medical TV Series where she plays a ruthless neurosurgeon, and Shefali as Ruksana in ‘Jalsa‘, a slow-burn, suspense-filled, shocking must-watch. Her latest venture, the dark comedy Darlings, has swept the audience off their feet with the two lead women stealing the limelight as a mother-daughter duo.

Apart from acting, she has an artist in her. Shefali once said, “art has made me content.” She is an artist who plays on canvas with acrylic and ink. Black, red and white are her favourite colours. Do check out her work on Shefali Shah.

Shefali Shah, Actor & Artist in Indian Film, Television, and Theatre, has proven that one can make it big, break conventional codes and shine in an industry riddled with whatnot! So let us wish to see more amazing performances and characters that will inspire and navigate us to be a better version of ourselves through her roles and more and more accolades her way, local, national, and international. Shefali Shah, the sky’s the limit. Keep glowing.

Follow Priya Rajendran

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