Interview Hindi

Finally doing the kind of work I’ve always wanted to, says Shefali Shah of the web-series Human

Shah discusses what drew her to the character of Dr Gauri Nath in the thriller that was premiered on Disney+ Hotstar last week and the kind of roles she is looking forward to doing next.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The past year has been a busy one for Shefali Shah. She was seen in the anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (2021), wrapped up shooting for the upcoming Darlings, ventured into direction with two short films Someday (2021) and Happy Birthday Mummyji (2021), and completed shooting for the web-series Human (2022). If that was not enough, she channeled her inner foodie and launched her restaurant-cum-creative hub in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, named Jalsa.

With an ensemble cast that includes Kirti Kulhari, Ram Kapoor, Vishal Jethwa, Seema Biswas and Riddhi Kumar, the web-series Human, which was premiered last week on Disney+ Hotstar, has been directed by Mozez Singh and Vipul Amrutlal Shah, Shefali's husband. In an exclusive conversation, Shah spoke about the series and why this is an exciting time to be an artiste.

Explaining what drew her to play the role of Dr Gauri Nath in the series, she said, “With any project, the three things I look at are the script, the role and the director. The same goes for Human. She [Gauri] is unlike anything I have played before. In fact, she is unlike anyone I have met or seen or heard of in real life. She is extremely complicated. Gauri Nath is like a Pandora’s box, you don’t know what is going to happen next with her, and it was really exciting to play somebody who is absolutely not me. It pushed me out of my comfort zone to become a different person altogether for the show. There was no way I would have said no.”

Discussing how she approaches a role where the character is so unlike her, she said her method includes “reading, reading, re-reading the script a million times, then conversations and discussions, debates back and forth with directors. Then I start letting her [the character] take shape. Once I am on that path, she just starts doing her own thing, you start living that person.

"One of the main things about Human is that she [Gauri] is written in a certain way. She is written like a lioness and I decided to play her like Bambi, like a deer, which was unexpected, the way I move, I talk. She is written so strongly and I said what happens if she is completely opposite of the way she is written? So the script stays the same, the scenes stay the same, but her approach is different. What if she is so demure and delicate and fragile and vulnerable, which contradicts her mind and the situation around?”

For most of the series, Shah is seen sans make-up, which was very much part of the construction of the character. “There was an amazing team that put together the way Gauri Nath looks because the way she looks, the way she dresses, is an intrinsic part of who she is," the actress explained. "There was no instruction booklet that came with Gauri. She is unpredictable and even after living her and living the script, I can’t wrap my head around her. She is very complicated.”

Though she is an actress who prepares meticulously for her roles, Shah said spontaneity is very much part of her process, “When the camera rolls, I don’t know what I become," she said. "No matter how much prep I have put into it, when the camera rolls, I have no control over what I am doing. It just comes instinctively.”

After having played a wide range of roles over the years in different films and series, there are still several genres that she wishes to explore, “I am a greedy actor," she said. "There is so much that I want to do. I want to explore comedy, sci-fi, mythology, historical, biographical, a love story, human drama, thriller, all of it! I can’t even list down what all I want to do.”

Besides acting, Shah made her directorial debut with the short film Someday (2021), followed by another short, Happy Birthday Mummyji (2021). Speaking about the move, she said, “I had been wanting to do it for a very long time and during the lockdown I had time to work on these. I dived into it, did a lot of prep. It was exciting and it's addictive and I definitely, definitely want to direct more, but right now I am really enjoying my time as an actor. I am finally doing the kind of work I have wanted to do always.”

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During the countrywide lockdown in 2020, Shah was cooking with a vengeance and sharing videos, so her move to the hospitality business with her new restaurant Jalsa seemed almost like an organic choice, “I enjoy cooking. I love feeding people. I love entertaining. I love doing décor and interiors and this was like a  package altogether and I said, ‘Why not’?" she explained. "The restaurant is not just about food, it’s about an experience.” Although the pandemic has dampened business now, Jalsa opened to an excellent response.

Incidentally, Jalsa is also the name of her upcoming film in which she stars alongside Vidya Balan. “It’s an extremely nuanced script," Shah said. "I’ve wanted to work with [filmmaker] Suresh [Triveni]. I admire his work a lot and I adore Suresh. I adore Vidya and when [the script] came to me, I was very excited. It is woman-centric. It’s about these two women and a situation that happens and how it goes forward from there. Totally loved it!”

The OTT (over-the-top) boom has translated into several web-series with strong women characters, making it a golden period for artistes. “Some of the top shows on OTT, Indian or International shows, are woman-centric," Shefali Shah noted. "Until the 1970s, there were woman-centric films — Aandhi (1975), Aradhana (1969), Mamta (1966), so many of them. Then came a phase when the female lead was just an accessory to a film. But again it’s changing in films, whether it is a Tumhari Sulu (2017), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), Shakuntala Devi (2020) or Sherni (2021). It’s fantastic. Almost all the projects I did last year are woman-centric.”

Always one to follow her heart wherever it leads her, Shah said wistfully when asked about her next horizon, next adventure: “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan.”

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Disney+ Hotstar