Back in the 90s, I was very lucky to be a part of television when the content, the characters, the story was paramount. Whether it was a Hasratein or a Banegi Apni Baat or Aur Shamma Jalti Rahi, or Daraar – these were really strong stories, well directed beautiful characters.
A lot of these 90s shows, they were amazing shows with amazing story lines, talking about stuff that was probably taboo at that point of time. These weren’t shows where the TRPs decided what happened to a character, whether he lives or dies, or they should introduce some other animals in the show, or make somebody into a Naagin.
I mean the production value of shows really upped their game. They’re equivalent to films and their costume and all of it. But that is the icing. I mean there is no cake. I do not think I am capable of doing that. It’s probably not my strength, let’s put it that way.
I really cannot go back to it. And thanks to the kind of roles I was offered, that I decided to do and even OTTs to a large extent, I never had to. It started trickling in with Juice, and then Once Again, and then Delhi Crime, which changed everything for me.
OTTs definitely have a huge role to play; not just for me, but even for the change in mindsets. There is definitely a lot more representation of such societal notions, changes, and it happens. Whatever is shown, whether it’s talking about an extra marital affair, it’s not breaking the sanctity of a marriage, but it’s not that marriage isn’t enriching the two people, is it worth going on is a question that deserves to be discussed and talked about.
There is a stronger representation of the actual reality that goes around, whether people want to talk about it, accept it, not accept it, well, it’s up to them. Everyone has a point of view and they justify it with what they think or feel. But, I don’t think they can close their eyes and pretend it doesn’t happen.
We are getting to a place where we don’t look at someone’s age or gender as a factor. Age does not matter, period. There’s no shelf life. When I pick a role, I’m not expecting to be a 22-year-old running around. I’m very proud of being 47 and I’m very proud of the work that I’m getting, which is in respect to my age.
Which brings me to my role in a certain movie that starred Akshay Kumar as my son and Amitabh Bachchan as my husband.
Waqt: A Race Against Time was based on a play that one of my very dear friends directed and when I saw it, I loved the film and I loved the role. I did not give the role of Sumitra Thakur much thought. There are mostly no thoughts. You see, I don’t think with my brain, I feel with my heart. So if a role or a film appeals to me, I will do it. Even if it maybe a wrong decision.
For instance, in 1995, I did an interview where I spoke about my character of Savi, in Hasratein – who is portrayed to be having an extra marital affair. I had said that, at that point of time, I wouldn’t support the views of Savi who walked out of her marriage.
But, I don’t feel the same way as I did back then, because you’re never in anybody’s shoes to decide what the character decides. You don’t know. It’s very easy to sit outside and make a judgment and if I did make a judgment then I was stupid. Because you can never know what the person is going through because you’re not standing in their shoes. So I definitely think I feel differently.
Playing the role of Akshay Kumar’s mother in Waqt did put me into a category, unfortunately. Which is strange, because I think the whole point of being an actor is to be able to do stuff that you actually aren’t. Whether it’s the caste, creed, colour, orientation, gender, age. I mean that’s what is exciting as an actor, right? I mean, I would play a sofa if I had to and if it excites me.
Also, it was not about playing a mother. During that time, what was happening with Indian cinema was that they just had a hero and a heroine. Everything else was frills. And they were just put into pockets – heroine ki behen, hero ka dost, villain, villain ka henchman, x ki mother, y ka father. They weren’t individual strong characters which was silly.
But that has changed a lot now. And yes, picking Waqt at that point of time has certainly hampered, probably, the work I would have gotten. But, I do not regret it. It was something that appealed to me and I did it. And I’ve changed the course now. I’ve chosen to change that course and I’ve been able to change the tide, which is great.
In fact, even after Dil Dhadakne Do, I got offered films which were great banners, fantastic scripts, wonderful directors. One was Neerja and one was Kapoor & Sons. And I made the choice of saying ‘No’. Because I thought I would fall into the same category as Neelam Mehra. And I loved both the films. And I absolutely loved the directors, I loved the scripts. But, it was just a conscious decision that I took. Also because I don’t want to keep repeating what I do.
Post Dil Dhadakne Do, I was trying to unwind, I was trying to go back and change that course of line for myself. Where I said ‘Yes, I can be a Neelam Mehra and yes, I can be a Tara from Once Again. And Tara itself is also a mother. Vartika from Delhi Crime is also a Mom. I could be Juice. And that’s what prompted everything that I did. It worked, touch wood, for me. And that prompted more directors to say that ‘Okay, this is her age, let’s accept it, no matter what she’s done before. Let’s just go by her talent and visualise her in something else’.
And so, today, I have a range of playing mid-30s to whatever I choose to be.
Sure, at one point, women were perceived as only having a shelf life till they were young and pretty and thin. That has been broken. Now they’re talking about real women, real and very strong characters who carry the film on their shoulders.
Movies like Andhadhun, Tumhari Sulu and Badhai Ho have done that. They have all helped break the stereotype around women in the film industry.
And that’s how it should be.
Once a prominent name on 90s Indian television, Shefali Shah is a critically-acclaimed Bollywood actress. Her most recent film Ankahi is part of Netflix’s Ajeeb Daastaans where she plays the role of a mother to a hearing-impaired daughter. Shah has been garnering critical and popular praise for her role in Ajeeb Daastaans. Shah also essayed the role of DCP Vartika Chaturvedi in the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series, Delhi Crime. She made her directorial debut with Someday, a short film that was shortlisted for the 51st USA Film Festival in the International Short Film and Video Competition category.