The Superlative Brilliance of Shefali Shah

Pop Culture

The Superlative Brilliance of Shefali Shah

Illustration: Arati Gujar

It was while watching the second season of the International Emmy Award-winning series, Delhi Crime, in which Shah plays DCP Vartika Chaturvedi that I came to realise what made all of Shah’s performances so spellbinding in nature. Eyes are the windows to one’s soul, we often hear, and it’s rather true. After all, some of the most interesting performers on-screen have a gaze that sets them apart. It’s a gaze that pulls you into their make-believe world and compels you to not take your eyes off them. The late actor Irrfan Khan had it, the King of Romance, Shah Rukh Khan has it, and the blue-eyed boy of television, Nakuul Mehta has it as well.

It’s this same gaze, only filled with a lot more rage and serpentine charm, that allows Shefali Shah to be a peerless actor. Those penetrative, piercing and pensive eyes that tell a story of their own are the magic trick. It’s a privilege truly, to witness Shah’s quiet wrath, turmoil, and internal dialogue, that doesn’t require the aid of monologues. It’s not something everyone can pull off. But Shah does so with élan.

It’s this same gaze, only filled with a lot more rage and serpentine charm, that allows Shefali Shah to be a peerless actor. Those penetrative, piercing and pensive eyes that tell a story of their own are the magic trick.

To emote with the eyes is to make an audience live your story, instead of just telling it to them, and to say that Shah has mastered that art, is an understatement. The actor has been on a phenomenal roll lately with projects like Jalsa, Ajeeb Dastaans, Humans, Dil Dhadakane Do, Darlings, and now Delhi Crime Season 2, a show that has been pivotal for a career, that has been privy to some fascinating cinema, right from her television show Hasratein, to her early work in films such as Satya, Monsoon Wedding, and Rangeela. However, it’s rather recently that she has begun to receive both, her due as an actor, as well as roles that are worth the aptitude and finesse she brings with herself.

Shah who has been extremely vocal about the ageism and sexism in the industry, and has bided her time by only choosing roles that had some character to them, instead of jumping to do everything and anything that came her way. Even in Waqt, in which she plays Amitabh Bachchan’s wife and Akshay Kumar’s mother, despite being five years younger than him in real life, Shah claims, that the only motivating factor behind the choice was the script, and how if a character is interesting, then she’ll do it, irrespective of their age, sexuality, profession, whatsoever.

Unsurprisingly, Shah’s work radiates the same thought and energy, each time she performs like an ageless wonder, who can do it all. She can play a charming lover, an affectionate mother, a righteous cop and a conniving doctor, all with equal but beguiling nuanced conviction. In an industry hell-bent on typecasting actors into a role or genre, Shah remains an anomaly, embodying diverse characters and raising the bar with each one she plays.

She can play a charming lover, an affectionate mother, a righteous cop and a conniving doctor, all with equal but beguiling nuanced conviction.

In Juice, a short film by Neeraj Ghaywan, Shah lets her body language and eyes do the talking, so much so that her dialogues may have escaped you. It speaks louder than any words would have at that moment – it speaks of all the injustice, pain, and anger that can’t find a language to express themselves, because they’ve been entrenched by a framework, where expression is a sign of rebellion, and Shah captivatingly captures that angst through her screeching silence.

She has done the silent act, time and again – in Dil Dhadakane Do, while eating a chocolate cake, the actor communicates without speaking. However, Shah is not just her quiet, but expressive gaze and the song Sapne Mein Milti Hai from Satya is perhaps the perfect example of it. If sophistication was an act that she could sleepwalk in, then she makes dancing as the brassy Pyaari Mhatre, look like child’s play.  There’s a method even to her spontaneity as an actor, and it’s intangible because to have consistency, in versatility is to be able to switch between wavelengths. In Ajeeb Daastans’ Ankahi, Shah plays a mother to a specially-abled child, who uses sign language to communicate. In an industry struggling to do basic romance right, Shah passes off as the most torn of lovers.

 There’s a method even to her spontaneity as an actor, and it’s intangible because to have consistency, in versatility is to be able to switch between wavelengths.

Of course, it helps, to be in the company of actors like Manav Kaul, Vidya Balan, Neeraj Kabi, and Kirti Kulhari, who not only stand their ground in the presence of her prolific talent but also engage in accentuating their contemporary’s performance through exchange. The second season of Delhi Crime is possibly the finest example of good actors – not stars- collectively elevating material that in feeble hands could so easily look lesser than it actually is. In one scene she sits next of a colleague who has been shot. Her eyes speak of body-breaking tiredness, but they also scream resilience. It’s kind of our loss really that Shah simply wasn’t around for a lot of the last two decades. It’s probably our luck then that something changed, for her, and a result for history and the future of this industry.

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