Shefali Shah, the National-Award winning actor who debuted in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela, plays a crucial role in Delhi Crime, the Netflix drama that recently won an International Emmy. An actor with over 25 years in Bollywood, Shah has been part of critically acclaimed films like Vipul Shah’s Waqt: The Race Against Time, Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear, for which she won the National Award for the best supporting actress, and Zoya Akthar’s Dil Dhadakne Do; Shah often plays small but important roles that leave a lasting impression on the audience.
Delhi Crime, directed by Richie Mehta, released in March 2019 to wide critical acclaim. Starring Rasika Dugal, Rajesh Tailang and Adil Hussain, the show drew praise for its dramatized portrayal of the investigation that followed the brutal Delhi gang rape and murder, and subsequent arrest of the six men who perpetrated the crime. Shefali Shah plays the role of Vartika Chaturvedi, the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DCP) of Delhi Police who led the investigation that found the perpetrators in five days.
In November 2020, the series made history by becoming the first Indian show to win the International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series. It was nominated alongside the second season of Charite (Germany), Criminal (UK) and the second season of El Jardin de Bronce (Argentina).
In this interview with Silverscreen India, Shefali Shah talked about the method behind her acting, and her reaction to Delhi Crime winning an Emmy.
Shah credits her stellar choice of roles in her career to her ‘instincts,’ but she relies on more than just instinct as a performer. Her in-depth research into the character’s backstory contributes a lot to her performances, changing her personality to some extent where she becomes the character in front of the camera. “There’s no other way of doing it,” Shah said.
Each new role is a nerve-wracking experience for Shah. Every time she goes to work, thoughts of not being able to perform in front of the camera once the director says ‘action’ always linger in her subconscious. And she tries her best to make each of her roles stand out from the last one.
Her character in Delhi Crime is based on the former Delhi Police DCP Chhaya Sharma, but Shah says that Vartika is not a personification of Sharma. “There was no recreating a character,” she said, adding, “we created a new one. Vartika is her own person with the same values, thoughts and anger as Chhaya ma’am.”
Shah did not join the show with any pre-conceived notions, and the story revealed a lot more about the case to her. For the role, Shah met Sharma in person once and contacted her whenever she faced a block with portraying her character. “Rishi had interacted with her very closely, so the research that went into the script it was a solid blueprint,” said Shah, adding, “She is a rockstar.”
As an actor, Shah ‘cannot mug scripts.’ In Delhi Crime, Shah was terrified about doing a 12-page long scene where her character meets the victim to get a statement, and then exits the hospital room to brief her team on the statement, telling them that the victim’s statement ‘is not just horrific, but insane.’
She remembers going to her van’s bathroom and sitting down, crying. “I was terrified of doing that long a scene with no cuts,” said Shah. Then the crew “dragged me to the set as there was no other way. The scene just happened.”
The whole scene was wrapped in three hours.
Speaking about the show and her character Shah said, “all of us who cried for justice thought nobody was doing anything about it. But Chhaya Sharma was doing something about it and she cracked the case in five days, and she got justice.”
Delhi Crime was originally planned as a feature film, but it was turned into an 8-hour long series, because as Shah said, “it deserved more time than just 2 – 3 hours.” But an OTT series has its own difficulties. “To hold the audience’s attention for eight hours is a lot. This was a show that everyone binge-watched. The audience could not just watch one episode and put it aside, they watched all eight together. That requires the strength of an actor to be able to carry it,” she added.
Female cops, who are not well-represented in popular culture, are usually portrayed as loud, brashy and bold. Shah brought a human touch to female cops in the series. When preparing for the role, she understood the difficulty faced by policewomen in a very patriarchal system. “It’s a woman in a man’s job which is not a man’s job anymore,” she said.
During the Emmy awards ceremony last month, Shah held her breath with her eyes glued to the envelope as the awards for the International Emmy were announced. And after the announcement that her show had won, “I could not stop shouting,” she said. Shah was proud to have been part of the show and believed in the show even before it started receiving critical acclaim. She was confident it would be nominated for an Emmy. “I would have been surprised if it was not nominated,” she said, but winning the Emmy was an overwhelming moment that makes her “jumpy in the stomach” even now.
Delhi Crime, Shah said, has been an emotionally draining, exhausting and enriching experience. “Personally and professionally, it has been my learning curve,” Shah said.
In the last two months, Shah directed two single-actor short films, one of them inspired by the Covid-19 lockdown and the distance it has brought between loved ones. In the future, she wants to direct a feature film, but her hands are full with acting commitments. “I might do it the in future,” she said.