Shefali Shah: 'My career as an actor has been more about waiting than working

Shefali Shah: 'My career as an actor has been more about waiting than working

Celebrated actress Shefali Shah is one of the busiest women in Bollywood. Creating more work than ever as an actor, director and painter – the proud mother of two sons Aryaman and Maurya walks us through her creative journey, motherhood, her idea of equality and inclusivity

Priyanka ChandaniUpdated: Friday, May 12, 2023, 06:09 PM IST
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Shefali Shah is a celebrated actor who has an acting career spanning almost three decades with many interesting characters across diverse platforms. At 49, Shefali is enjoying the most exciting phase of her acting career with roles that are written for her. She is unabashedly herself as says she 'can't make everyone happy'. A mother of two surprised everyone when she shared her artwork on social media during the COVID-19 lockdown and when she wrote four films and directed two of them. One of her directorial 'Someday' toured film festivals across the world, another Happy Birthday Mummyji is a refreshing take on isolation which draws inspiration from her own personal life. In our recent conversation with her, she took us through her inspiring journey as an actor, growing old in the glam industry, being real and how her children are helping her look at life differently. 

The last few years have been rewarding for you. How do you see this phase of your career?

I say, thank god, finally, it's happening. I waited really long for this to happen. The last few years have been very rewarding. I am doing the kind of work I always wanted to do and aspired to do.

You have been doing some really powerful and different roles. How do you choose your script?

Instinctively. If a story, the character, the role turns me inside out when I read it, I say yes to it. And of course, the director is important.

Does being intuitive at times fall back when a movie doesn't work

Yes, it does! But I enjoy the process of making that film so much that after I finish shooting for it, I am done with the movie. It doesn't really affect me much because I have enjoyed the process. For me, just creating it and being part of it, having discussions, going in front of the camera and personifying that person I am playing, it's the high point of being part of that film. I genuinely believe that every film is like a baby born with its own destiny. You don't have any control over it so this is something I don't dread about.  

Do you think Hindi cinema has evolved with much better roles for female actors?

I think in the 70s there were a lot of films that had some amazing women characters. They were written around women. For instance, Aradhana (1969), Aandhi (1975), you even talk about Chandni (1989) and ChaalBaaz (1989), Seeta Aur Geeta (1972). Then there was a gap where women were seen as an accessory to the male in the film. Again things started changing, and the change is very pronounced now, which is great. One of my directors, who is a man, said we have been telling stories of men for so long, it's time to tell stories of women. So things have changed for female actors.

How do you process getting older in a business which is notoriously ageist?

You can't do anything about it. I don't think anyone has a choice of not growing older. You just have to be there and enjoy it. Luckily, we have started moving away in a very big way. I have to admit that now the stories are not about 18-22-year-old girls but for every age. Women are being celebrated no matter what their age is. I am glad that I am in the centre of it.

Just like roles, you have been choosing your endorsements very carefully. 

If I don't connect with something, I won't be a part of it because I don't know about other things but I can tell this about myself that I am absolutely real and genuine. I don't have a script and I can't fake it. It's too much of an effort. So if I don't believe in it, I will not be a part of it.

Does being real and portraying your true self even on social media come with criticism? How do you deal with it? 

My children give me a lot of advice on it. They think my social media is nonsense. They are like you are putting up pictures where your hair are looking bad and you are wearing Kaftan, some random stuff you put out, this doesn't look professional. I am like I don't know more than that. Honestly, I think it becomes a competition. There's a lot to put out. It's a lot of pressure. When I am working I have a lot of pictures to give, I have a lot to talk about but otherwise, I like to disappear into my own world and I will come back for another film. But when I am not doing films, I can't dress up every day and get pictures clicked. I don't have the time, energy or money to do it. I can't waste it. 

You have also recently spoken at P&G’s gender diversity summit - #WeSeeEqual Summit, how has your experience been so far and what has motivated you to become involved in advocating for gender diversity? Do you think we are moving towards being more inclusive?

Yes, definitely moving forward. But yet again it's been years and years and generations of conditioning, it's not going to change overnight. It's going to be one step and one day at a time. Every individual takes in their own way. I have spoken about disrespect in a relationship. And I say this for both women and men. It comes from humour where we say, 'voh aise hi karti hai' but we also say 'voh to aise hi bolta hai'. A lot of people missed out on that part. It's not only about women. The respect goes equally to both of them. I really hope in the next many years we are not just talking about inclusivity but living with it.

When we talk about equality, women seldom have the liberty to take a day off from their household chores. How do you see that imbalance?

I can tell you how it works in my house. A lot of the time the question is Khana Kya Banega. My husband has found out a very good solution so nobody asks me this question in the house. I am very happy about it. He finds YouTube videos of recipes and sends them to the cook. Unfortunately, not all women have this luxury.

Along with many films, we see you creating a lot of paintings. Did the time when you were not working much in films help you reinvent?

My children were tutoring under an amazing art teacher and I loved the way she was teaching them. It was a very out-of-the-box way of tutoring them. I asked her if I could join, and she said absolutely. That's when it started. And that was the time when I didn't have a lot of work. My career as an actor has been more about waiting than working. So all I was doing was waiting and I was so frustrated because I wanted a creative outlet. And art became a solace for me. And the more I did it, the more interested I was. The teacher then moved out of India so I couldn't study more. Then I started learning from YouTube. Then I went for a proper art course. I did the four-month course and took a break and then did another four-month course when I went to an art school. I lived like a student. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life when I moved out of my comfort zone. You have gone to a new place, you don't know the language, you don't know the people. You don't know where to start.

What are your takeaways from the time you were waiting for work?

I realised that I should always follow my gut instincts and do what really excites me and what am I going to give to the character to make it hundred percent right. Don't do it just because of the number calculations, that's not going to work. It has not worked for me and it will not work for me, I have figured that out. Even if a project is getting me positioning or money, if I don't agree and I don't connect, I won't do it. I know I will not be good at it and I won't enjoy the entire process. So even if it means waiting, I will wait. But I won't do anything just because I have to make money or go to work. 

Do you think painting has helped you in your performance on screen?

I think everything helps you. You may not be able to quantify it. You may not be able to pinpoint what helped me where, subconsciously it gets registered and stored somewhere. And I don't know how it takes form when I am doing the next part.

What is the most difficult thing about being an actor in today’s time? 

A lot of things. There's an expected persona of you. Everything you say is scrutinised, though, I am not afraid of being real. I have realised that I can not make everyone happy. I can't please everyone at all points in life. There will be people who won't agree with me and won't like me and I respect it. 

When there's so much scrutiny and trolling around celebrities, especially with social media, how do you keep yourself sane?

I tend to block it up because I would be lying if I say it doesn't affect me because it does. But I block the person, message or just don't see the phone for a long time. It's impossible to make everyone happy.

But as an actor, is there a desire to be liked by people?

The desire is to be appreciated for what they do. It's not only for an actor but for everyone who works anywhere. They want to be appreciated for what they do and what they are. And when there's this respect and admiration or acceptability, you are even more open to criticism.

How would you say you’ve evolved as a person and as an actor over the years?

I think everyone evolves in day-to-day life and for me, I have become much easier. I have stopped worrying about things that I used to. I have learned if some things are not going to work, I have to let that go. But that doesn't mean I don't care or I don't worry or overthink. I overthink a lot but after a point of time, I think can I do anything about it then do it or leave it? There’s no point in being miserable about it.

As a mother, what is the one piece of advice you gave to your kids?

So many! But one thing I keep telling my children is that if you are in a conversation and you have an opposite point of view, start with a compliment because your conversation will always go easy. Your contradiction will be accepted.

Is there anything you have learned from your kids being Gen Z?

Oh my god, a lot! I am a mother because of my children. They are my biggest achievements. I am proud of them. Children are extremely resilient. They are constantly evolving. They can be zen and can also be brats. They fall down, they get up again and run again, which is amazing. Of course technology. They know better than me.

An actor's diary

As an actor, what did you feel you could almost sink your teeth into?

I am a very greedy actor. I want to do many, many roles. I want to chew them and swallow them all.

The book you are reading 

I am reading one by Jaffery Archer

Your dream vacation

Anyplace with a water body. I am a water baby. Anywhere there's nature I am in.

Any specific location you like to revisit

Any location in India with a great interior and Europe 

A day in your life looks like

Morning is followed by a cup of tea and then coffee. If not going to work then playing with my dogs. I read or paint or watch something. If I feel like cooking then cook.

What is your style statement?

Comfort

Given a chance, where will you like to travel - past or future?

Maybe in the past and correct some stuff. Don't want to go in the future because I am enjoying this phase. Every day I think, I grew up too fast. 

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