On top of her game, Shefali Shah is unstoppable

Celebrating Bazaar India's 14th anniversary, the actor talks about changing the narrative, being a romantic, and lots more.

Harper's Bazaar India

Essaying a woman of substance who means business, Shefali Shah, through her roles continues to not only shine, but be strong, confident, and unafraid to make a statement. With the landscape in cinema changing for the better, she's at the top of her game as she aces roles that aren't defined by the relationships that a woman shares with others, but being being themselves, so perfectly imperfect, yet so full of life. 

The versatile actor, speaks to Bazaar India Editor Nandini Bhalla about making peace with herself, evolving in her craft, and believing in the power of the universe.

Nandini Bhalla: Tell us about your very first memory of cinema. 

Shefali Shah: “We rarely watched films... When Doordarshan began streaming black-and-white movies, we would eagerly wait to watch them. My family and I frequently visited Gaiety Galaxy (in Bandra, Mumbai) to watch movies and devour samosas. I distinctly remember going to watch Angoor (1982)...  And while I was not allowed to watch Ghar (1978)—owing to its disturbing scenes—I would sneakily try making sense of the film by listening to the dialogues from the other room.As a child, I was never asked about the films I wanted to watch. I come from a family that aren’t avid film lovers, but there were specific movies we made sure we watched in theatres. Luckily, my mother knew someone in Gaiety who would help us get tickets. When there weren’t any seats available, I would sit on the stairs and watch the film—entirely mesmerised by the scenes.  And strangely enough, I had no aspirations of becoming an actor. I had contemplated becoming a neurosurgeon or a stewardess, a dancer or even a singer...but acting, it was beyond the horizon.”

NB: Do you think that you’ve been pigeonholed into the role of a strong, female protagonist? 

SS: “When you talk about movies like Chandni (1989) or ChaalBaaz (1989), the lead character was a woman. Back in the ’90s, women were heavily sidelined, and while I would have loved to be in movies such as ChaalBaaz, Chandni, or even Aandhi (1975), the role of a conventional heroine wasn’t coming my way. I also think I didn’t meet the stereotype of how a heroine is perceived; I am not fair, thin, tall, or pretty. So I’d never imagined that I would play the role of a quintessential Bollywood heroine.” 

NB: Is there any particular genre of movies you find yourself drawn to? 

SS: “Romance... I am a hardcore romantic. I believe the most beautiful love stories are the ones where the love is unrequited. While it might sound comical, if Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would’ve ended any differently, the story would not have worked as brilliantly as it did. When watching a romantic film, I enjoy experiencing the euphoric highs and crashing lows that come with it.” 

NB: Are you a romantic in real life? 

SS: “I am driven by my heart, and I am passionate about everything I do. Unfortunately, this comes with a price...because it hurts a lot. But over a span of time, I learnt how to make peace with who I am—and I do not wish to change this quality of mine.”

NB: What do people often get wrong about Shefali? 

SS: “People assume that I am very serious and strict. Once, a director told their assistant:‘Don’t speak to her until she asks you a question. Give her the right answers, and don’t mess up.’ When the assistant actually spoke to me, they realised that I am a goofball.”

NB: What kind of films do you feel we need more of?

SS: “Many of my friends, especially directors, share that most stories on-screen are told from a man’s perspective. While there are strong female-centric plots, we have to ensure that we voice what is wrong, and take charge of the narrative.”

image: Tie-up skirt, ₹23,900, and Ace shirt, ₹18,800, both 431-88 by Shweta Kapur; pumps, stylist’s own

NB: Let’s talk about ageism in media and films...

SS: “Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there were many women-centric films, and women spanning ages were featured—think movies such as Guide (1965), Aandhi, and Chupke Chupke (2003). Then,  a while later, female actors were made to believe that they have a shelf life of only 22 years... Women didn’t know what to do with their lives, and went on to become mothers. But that’s certainly not the only path a woman must follow. Fortunately, the industry is switching gears. Years ago, if someone had told me that a woman in her late 40s is going to lead a film—and that it would be me—I would have laughed the loudest. 

I am greedy as an actor, and I want more stories about women to be told...irrespective of whether I am enacting that character or not. It will be one more brick added to the wall that is only going to get stronger.” 

NB: How have you grown as an actor, and as a person, over the last couple of years?

SS: “I never had any aspiration of pursuing acting as a profession. I accidentally landed a role and continued to work, simply because I enjoy acting... I don’t put much thought into it. I am filled with gratitude when people look at my previous work and appreciate it—because when I look back at my work, I never seem to like it. I was also heavily influenced by Sridevi, so much so that I would mimic her, only to realise that I am not good at mimicking. I used to love it when people told me that I look like Sridevi...but it took me some time to understand that I am not her. 

My decision to change the way I work wasn’t a conscious one, it happened over the years. Three years ago, when I did Delhi Crime (2019), it was a great learning curve for me. But that doesn’t mean that I hadn’t evolved throughout my journey... I have learnt important bits with every character I have portrayed. When I did Monsoon Wedding (2001), I remember learning early on that not every moment is about you as an actor. I often notice actors who have a strong urge to prove themselves. But sometimes, it’s not your moment, and that is why, as an actor, it’s imperative to become a piece of furniture and be in the background. Filmmaking is a combined effort...not just one person’s doing. It is important to immerse yourself in the project... I have become far more rigorous, and oppressive, to a point where directors dread me because they know that I come with my script and take notes of every line. I love a dense study.”

NB: Would you agree this is Shefali Shah’s time to shine?

SS: “The kind of work that I have done in the past two years is something I haven’t done in the span of my career. My career has been more about waiting, than actually working. But would I say I believe it is finally here? No, I won’t, because that would mean that I don’t have anything new to learn or grow from. I’d like to believe that this is just the beginning... I want to do a lot of work. I want my work to be in all languages, and also across borders. I want it all, I am hungry for more.” 

image: Ivory tuxedo shirt with an intricate carpet design, black cotton quilted hand-embroidered bolero tuxedo, black wool crepe trousers, all Shahab Durazi, all prices on request,; Signature Eternity and solitaire rings, KC Diamonds, prices on request

NB: How would the people closest to you describe you? 

SS: “Maybe I should ask my husband [director and producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah] or kids to answer this question. I am certain that my kids think I am a wicked mother, just how Cinderella’s stepmother was (laughs)... But I am  extremely passionate, expressive, and honest. 

Once, at a panel discussion, a fellow actor was discussing another actor whose aura was intriguing. Instantly, I wanted to be that person. I tried stepping into that character, but couldn’t keep up with it for long. I am who I am—without any filter or pretense—and that’s known to people. The other day, my husband said to me, ‘I know you want to become best friends with everyone, but please do it professionally’. I am extremely passionate, to a point of getting obsessive about things. I often have moments of self-doubt, but I am honest and extremely critical about my work.”

NB: Clearly, a lot of self-work and acceptance has gone into becoming you... Has that taken a lot of effort, to get to the point of knowing who you really are?

SS: “It has...because I often have bouts of low self-esteem and self-doubt. And all the years I wasn’t working, or not getting enough work, made me question whether I was good enough. But I have had a very strong instinct, and that has worked for me throughout my career. When I started getting roles, I could have worked every day, made money, and become a star in my own right, but I didn’t move ahead with this approach...because if a role, character, or a script didn’t turn me inside-out, then it wasn’t worth it. It would have been unfair to others, because I wouldn’t have been able to give it my all. I knew what I was doing when I declined certain roles and waited for the right one to come my way. Those decisions did hurt, but after a point, I got bored of wallowing in self-pity. I don’t deny that I was privileged enough to refuse certain roles.”

image: Black blazer jacket and classic white shirt, prices on request, both Falguni Shane Peacock; black wool crepe trousers, Shahab Durazi, price on request; Reviere Solitaire Necklace, KC Diamonds, price on request

NB: Do you believe in the power of divine timing?

SS: “It should have happened earlier for me, but I believe in energy. I wish I had got the work I am doing now, earlier. I am often asked if I regret anything in life, and when I look back, there is nothing to regret. The younger Shefali thought her decisions were correct, and was ready to deal with the consequences. I can’t ever be younger. Back then, I could play the role of a 20-year-old. But today, at nearly 50, I can’t go back to playing a 20-year-old...and neither do I want to. I believe there is God, and someone is looking out for me from above. I am not just talking about work, but also my family and my home, which are protected.” 

NB: What brings you pure, unbridled joy in life? 

SS: “I am happiest on my set... I can’t tell you what it does to me. When I get a script and start working on it, I am the happiest.” 

Square image: Double-breasted deconstructed suit, Rishta by Arjun Saluja, ₹50,450; uncut pendant with attached chain crafted on 18-karat yellow gold, price on request, diamond ring crafted in 18-karat rose gold, price on request, both Anmol Jewellers; shoe’s stylist’s own  

Photographs by Vaishnav Praveen, Styling by Sohiny Das and Mohit Rai, Hair: Florian Hurel, Make-Up: Riviera Lynn Vaz. Production: April Studios.