Interview Hindi

Birthday special: Renuka Shahane on her journey from Surabhi to Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!

On her 51st birthday (7 October), the actress gets candid on her theatre and television journey that eventually led her to cinema.

In Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!

Keyur Seta

There are artistes who have to do a host of films to get recognized. And then there are others who achieve similar fame with just a few roles. Actress Renuka Shahane became a household name for her role in Sooraj Barjatya’s runaway blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (1994). But even before the film came about, Shahane was already a well-known face thanks to popular television shows like Surabhi and Circus.

Today, 7 October, on her 51st birthday, Shahane gets candid on her theatre and television journey that eventually led her to films. Excerpts from an interview:

You studied psychology and did your post-graduation in the subject. So, how did you end up in the field of acting? Both fields are so diverse. 

It’s very diverse. I started doing experimental Marathi theatre in 1986. I did Avishkar’s plays and we had a group called Antarnatya. I did a lot of plays for Antarnatya. We used to perform in Chhabildas [a well-known school in Dadar, central Mumbai] and rarely at Prithvi and NCPA Experimental. At that time, I was not interested just in acting. I was ready to do anything in theatre, including backstage. I was so fond of theatre as a medium. 

So how did your stint with television happen?

In 1987, I was auditioned for a five-episode serial on Doordarshan called PC Aur Mausi. Farida Jalalji did the main role.

PC was the personal computer which falls in love with the mausi. She was actually against the PC as she was from an older generation. She stayed with her nephew and I played the nephew's wife. As we were a young couple, we wanted a computer and Mausi wanted a fridge. They showed it in five episodes that the computer becomes Mausi’s fan and falls in love with her. It was a sweet, romantic and different type of comedy. That was my first experience of facing the camera for television. 

Yet, I continued studying as that was more important to me at that time. This was just a hobby. After doing MA, I took a break for a year. I wanted to do research on the subject [child psychology] and find a guide for my PhD. I wanted to do it in child development. But I wanted to be sure what topic I wanted. I thought that after these many years of educating yourself, you need a break. During that break I got two offers that changed my destiny and didn’t allow me to go back to the PhD (laughs).

Which were those projects?

One was Circus [a popular serial on Doordarshan], though it was released after the second project, Surabhi. Circus was shot first. In fact, Surabhi was a product of me having done Circus. I would consider Aziz Mirza my mentor. Whatever I am today is because of his trust and faith in me. There were three directors on the show — Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Kundan Shah and Aziz Mirza.

During that time, Aziz uncle trained me for TV acting. This is because people from theatre wear their emotions on their sleeves. That’s not necessary for the camera. He was the one who gave me the confidence of becoming a professional actor. 

With Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!

He said that I can do PhD but I have it in me to act and I should try calling myself a professional actor and see the magic. He asked me to get a portfolio done. Soon after that I got a call for Surabhi’s auditions.

I went for the audition and called Aziz uncle, because I knew nobody from the industry. My father was in the navy and my mother was a professor and then became a journalist. They sent me a two-page script for Brihadeshwar Mandir. It was written in chaste Hindi. I kept fumbling. But I kept going ahead and kept laughing (laughs). I had nothing to lose, so there was no nervousness.

This is what they liked; how I was handling it. They wanted someone who would laugh to balance Siddharth Kak’s seriousness.

The television days have changed drastically for the worse, despite the fact that we have hundreds of channels today.

What I loved about the old days of Doordarshan was that there was no other channel at all. So, Doordarshan had to play the role that all channels are playing today.

It used to balance each and every community and requirement in one channel. I, as a child growing up at that time, was exposed to the best of all languages.

So, when I grew up, I had knowledge about even people from Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, the Northeast, because it was all part of Doordarshan. There were even English, Sindhi and Gujarati programmes. Although I didn’t understand a few languages, I used to love watching. It was an exposure to the kind of diversity India has.

This is what I miss most, because now you have so many channels; some of them are niche. They cater to a particular language. You see only that culture throughout that channel.

So, people who are watching only that channel are exposed to only that kind of culture, which is not a reflection of what India is. But we got such education about our country free, indirectly through Doordarshan. It played an immense role.

I don’t think today any kid would get such education free at home. But, I would like to say that the world has become a village because the digital medium has opened up so much. You can find anything about any place under the sun. Now, people have virtual reality where you feel you are at some other place. This is their magic now. For us, Doordarshan itself was magic (laughs).

Earlier, the best of our filmmakers were doing television shows. Like Govind Nihalani’s Tamas. I still remember that serial. I can’t get it out of my mind. Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj and Katha Sagar. Even a serial like Lifeline, that I was a part of. Others like Malgudi Days and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. 

Your biggest claim to fame was Hum Aapke Hai Koun...! (1994). How did you come to be cast in the film?

Art director Bijon Das Gupta, who was part of a lot of ads, suggested my name to Ram Gopal Varma for a Telugu film, Money. I also did its sequel, Money Money. At that time, Soorajji [director Sooraj R Barjatya] was looking for someone to play Madhuri’s sister in Hum Aapke Hai Koun...! He was looking for someone with a similar face and background. He auditioned many girls but couldn’t find the right person. Bijonda suggested me for the role. 

The same day their make-up man, Jayanti dada, also suggested my name. His production controller PK Gupta, who is still with them, too went on to suggest my name the same day. Soorajji had never seen me; he hadn’t seen Surabhi either. So he was very surprised to see three individuals recommending one girl (laughs). He said I did look a typical Indian girl in Surabhi but he couldn’t place me in Circus as I was playing a Christian. 

Renuka Shahane in a scene from Circus

Soorajji narrated the film to me along with Ajit Vachani and Dilip Joshiji. It took around four and a half hours. He narrated with music and background score. The film was already made in his head. He was so perfect with it. We were stunned after listening to it. We were so involved with the characters that we all had tears, especially during Bhabhi’s death. I was then told I am being considered for the role of Bhabhi. My jaw dropped (laughs).

Oh my god, what an important and lovely role it was. But he said I will have to first give an audition with costumes. They liked my audition, which I gave thrice. Those people are so sweet. I have never met such people ever. 

Despite getting such appreciation in Hum Aapke Hai Koun...! , you haven’t done too many films. 

Yes, I did very few films. I did more television. Films have now evolved into a very nice space. Now there are characters for women. I mean, real women, which is what I am looking for. I am basically someone coming from experimental theatre. I have not done commercial theatre. So, my mindset is not a commercial mindset. I always go for things that would give me a great experience, which will help me learn and work with good people. 

After Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!, all the offers I got were of a good bhabhi or sister. But this is what I had already done. So, what would attract me to those roles again?

I was not interested in this profession for glamour or fame. I was getting enough of that from TV. I was getting different kinds of roles there. To try the kind of nuances one wanted to try out. So, I was not really thirsty for film roles. I used to get staccato characters. Like women who didn’t have a main role. Character actors used to get pretty staccato and cardboard roles then. That’s why I ended up doing very little in films.

Now it would be nice to work in films because now millions of characters have opened up. And there are character-driven films. So now it’s the time for films and not the time for television (laughs).