Being Vartika: An exclusive, 1-am interview with Shefali Shah post her show, Delhi Crime’s historic Emmy win!
Photo: Gargi Mukherjee/Couture Lense

It was around 11 pm and we had just wrapped up the edition. I was blankly scrolling through my Instagram feed when Shefali Shah’s post caught my eye. I scream out loud startling myself out of the daily ennui-induced coma. Delhi Crime has WON the Drama Series award at 2020 International Emmy Awards! And in doing so, it has become the first Indian show to win an Emmy. Shefali plays the lead role of Vartika Chaturvedi in the Richie Mehta directorial that boasts a stellar ensemble cast including Rasika Dugal, Adil Hussain, Rajesh Tailang, among others.

Within an hour, I was talking to Shefali (one of the many reasons why I love nocturnal humans is that 1 am interviews are not frowned upon) over the phone standing on the staircase of my building so as to not wake my parents up. Here is what transpired in the dark, echoey space!

“I am all jumpy and goosebumping and Oh My Godding in my head! I am euphoric and all the possible synonyms of that feeling!” Shefali quipped. The actor was 50 shades of ecstatic and counting. “I was thinking about this, irrespective of me being part of it, if Delhi Crime deserved to win today, and it definitely did.” The win is a surprise but if the show had not got a nomination, it would have been shocking, admits Shefali before taking a quick break to inform her pup Simba about her win, who seemed mighty astonished by the sudden excitement in the house at the middle of the night and needed some attention from mumma. “We watched it together, Vipul (her husband, producer Vipul Shah), my younger one (Maurya; 17) and I, and of course were ecstatic! I called up my older one (Aryaman; 18), who studies in the UK and he was overjoyed. I am still in a daze… I don’t know how I will sleep tonight! I am still like…Oh My God!!!!!”

The gritty, gripping Netflix series chronicles the painstaking and detailed investigation carried out by Delhi Police post the brutal gang-rape and murder of 23-year-old student (who became ‘Nirbhaya’ to the nation) which led to all accused, being nabbed within a span of just 5 days.

“I can honestly and unabashedly say that it is the best show that has come out from Netflix in India. When I signed up for it, I didn’t know it would be on Netflix or that it would premiere at Sundance, I had no clue about its destiny but while creating the character I knew it very well that I would be mighty proud of this show. Vartika became way bigger than I could have ever imagined,” admits the actor.

Being Vartika

Vartika Chaturvedi is depicted as a strong, independent, and diligent officer who stops at nothing to get justice for Singh. Her character was modelled on former Deputy Commissioner of Police of South Delhi, Chhaya Sharma, the firebrand cop who cracked the case. But according to Shefali, there was no attempt at replicating Sharma, be it her walk, her way of talking or her mannerisms. “My director, Richie Mehta, had a detailed blueprint of everything pertaining to the case and had done elaborate research on Chhaya and I did meet Chhaya ma’am but it was just for about two hours over some coffee. It is not possible to gauge a person in totality in that short a time, but the emotion she felt when the Nirbhaya case happened was the same as we all felt, the anger, the angst and the need to see justice being served was common to every citizen of the country. We were all crying for justice, but the only difference was that this woman went ahead and got it for all of us.” According to Shefali, the idea was to imbibe the former Delhi DCP’s emotions and the complete and total dedication to bring justice to Nirbhaya, but Vartika had to become her own person. “Richie was clear from the very beginning that he was not looking for just an actor but a collaborator. The idea was not to be ‘like’ Chhaya Sharma, but become Vartika Chaturvedi.”

And that is what made Vartika Chaturvedi such a distinct character. She neither becomes Chhaya Sharma nor does she become Shefali Shah at any point. “I had to feel all of it and let the camera see it and capture it. You cannot act out a character like this. The moment you act, it is gone, it is not real anymore. There is a difference between you showing off your craft and you becoming the character. Actors can be very vain… they feel the need to show that they are the best. It is not a competition. I realised very early on, when I did Monsoon Wedding in fact, that you need not show anything, you just need to be the character. If being the character means becoming a piece of furniture in the background, then be it. It is not about you, there are a lot of people involved in making a movie or a series and it is not about any of those individuals either. The show has to work in its entirety. The show is bigger than everyone else.

“Also, I am a very instinctive person. There is a lot of homework I do but when I am in front of the camera, I am just the character. I become the person, living that moment as her. There is no other way I could do it,” says the National Award-winning actor adding: “I wanted people to talk about Vartika and not about Shefali-playing-Vartika. I as an actor should not show, and I am glad it didn’t. It remains Vartika and not Shefali trying to give a performance of a lifetime. If it looked like a performance then it is a failure on my part as an actor. ”

The woman of action

Shefali admits that she didn’t know the investigation side of the Nirbhaya case until she was approached for the show.

“The first time Richie told me about this, he didn’t really narrate the script, he just spoke to me, and I didn’t know this side of the story, how rigorous the investigation was and how the perpetrators were arrested, I was overwhelmed. I immediately knew I had to do this.

“When the incident had happened, it scarred us for life. And the next overwhelming feeling we had was a feeling of helplessness… “why nobody is taking any action? Why was nothing being done?” But, while we sat and outraged, there were people who were doing a might good job of taking action. In fact, she got all those men in 5/6 days flat.

I was seething in anger during the interrogation scene, but there was a sense of empowerment of sorts to be able to tell the story of this other woman who worked so hard to ensure that justice is served,” recounts Shefali, who even agreed to go through two rounds of auditions for the role. “I did an audition…two in fact. Because these were international producers who had no clue who I was or what kind of work I had done,” she says adding that she has no qualms auditioning for a role if that is actually required. “Of course, I won’t be up for an audition for a shampoo commercial! But this was an international show and Vartika’s was the pivotal role.”

But it was a tedious and taxing process and Shefali chose to inhabit the world of Delhi Crime for the entire duration of the shoot. “The shoot happened in Delhi. For those three months, I would be on the set, shoot, and go back to my hotel, shower, start working with the script for the next day, sleep and repeat. It was taxing but worked very well for the character. It was essentially a story of 5 days in the life of Vartika. The exertion, the exhaustion, that complete madness of being driven by just one thing in mind, worked very well for the character,” she explains.

5 Ws (and an H)

Elaborating on her process, she says: “The story is of 5 days. Every moment has a back and forth to it. Every day before the shoot, I would put down meticulous notes… What time is it, what is the level of her exhaustion, how many hours has she not slept, when was her last trip, when was the last breakthrough in the case because that would give her some adrenaline rush, what is the last conversation she had with X character, I would jot down everything. It required me to have all this information down pat, and it was a lot of information to have down pat!”

But it was the first fight scene at the hospital that really tested her nerves: “What I really struggled with was the first fight outside the hospital. It was a 12/13 pages of dialogue where she just barks instructions. Richie wanted to shoot it in one go. Twelve pages of just one person talking… is rather frightening. In the vanity van I was almost in tears. I even requested the director to ask all the co-actors to go away, I was terrified of making a fool of myself in front of so many people. And then in the final version he has made cuts in it… I was like, then why did you put me through all that when we could have shot the scene in bits!”

But, Shefali wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. To her, Delhi Crime proved to be a turning point in her life as an actor. “It was a very different process… I don’t think I would be able to go back to the way I used to work before after this. Also, even a few years back, I could not have imagined such a role or such a show happening in India. For female actors my age, there was nothing except playing someone’s mother!”

Beyond Hollywood

According to Shefali, the OTT platforms have opened up a whole new world for actors. “There is no hero-heroine block. These are character-driven shows. Every character was important and stood out, each were their own person.” She also credits OTT platforms for getting an international audience. “The quality of the show was international. Also, it released in 191 countries at one go. That is an amazing reach. People across the globe watched and appreciated it.” Not only that, she also points out that with so much interesting work happening around the globe, now as actors, international projects are not confined to just Hollywood. “I was always open to international projects. But I will not do a Hollywood film just for the heck of it,” she is categorical.

For now, Shefali has teamed up with her husband Vipul Shah for a Hotstar show and is also working on her second directorial, Happy Birthday Mummy Ji. She had first donned the

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