Shefali Shah was enjoying the success of Delhi Crime’s first season when I first met her in June 2019. Even though she had been acting since 1995, her portrayal of DCP Vartika Chaturvedi in the Netflix series made her famous in a way that none of her other performances, no matter how moving or significant, had. I then questioned her about whether all the adulation was being met by substantial offers. Nothing transforms overnight, she observed. But at least now, they are looking at me for roles that fit my age range and for the main character in anthologies and short tales.
“I’m praying that it does. I truly hope that all this praise does convert into more of the kind of work that I want to do, but it’s not drastic and the offers are not commensurate to the appreciation,” she continued.
Three years have passed since then, and during that time, Shah has acted in two of the best movies to have been released since COVID-19, sharing the screen with powerhouse performers like Vidya Balan and Alia Bhatt. The first was Jalsa, a thriller by Suresh Triveni that came out earlier this year. She portrays the cook to Balan’s Maya in it. Second, she plays Shamshunissa, the middle-aged single mother of Bhatt’s Badrunissa in the recently released film Darlings.
The older, unmarried cousin of the bride in Monsoon Wedding, or Neelam Mehra, the wife of a fading businessman trying to come to terms with his liaisons, are just a few examples of the small parts that Shah has always been known for making memorable. However, Jalsa and Darlings have solidified her position as a peerless frontrunner who brings unmatched excellence to every part.
In the first ten minutes of Darlings, Shamshu is pinching curry leaves from a neighbor’s potted plant who lives on the floor below her in a modest Mumbai chawl. She explains matter-of-factly that it isn’t about the money when Badru chastises her for it that she gets bored staying home alone all day. Shamshu is merely entertaining herself in that manner. Darlings makes it clear from the outset that she is not your typical mother; she is a little out of it. She is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter from Hamza, her abusive son-in-law, and is willing to beg, beat, poison, imprison, or even kill him. Her large, bottomless eyes convey much less than they conceal.
Three pivotal moments in the movie provide a glimpse into Shamshu’s clever unpredictable nature. The first occurs early on when she and Badru trick Zulfi into giving her a mixer-grinder for one-fourth of the price that was quoted. She then accuses Zulfi in front of the police of abducting Hamza. However, she persuades the cop that he is innocent when he immediately confesses his affection to her. The most daring, rebellious sequence in recent Hindi film history features her kissing Zulfi within the next minute. But the part near the end when she tells Badru about her horrific history is my favourite. The entire scenario, which perfectly transitions into the flashback, is dialogue-free. All that can be heard is the deafening silence and Shah’s magnificent mastery of her trade.
The conclusion of Jalsa is equally tense, profound, and eerie. It raises more issues than it choose to address. It is both silent and devoid of conversation. Just two actors at the height of their abilities. Shah has always thrived in silences, if you look closely. She speaks with them with ease and ease where words almost always fall short. Do you recall the 2017 short film Juice by Neeraj Ghaywan? It is a biting critique on the pervasive misogyny found in the kitchens and living rooms of middle-class homes. Shah rarely speaks a word in this 14-minute movie, but she manages to capture a wide range of suffocating, stinging feelings, from servitude to resignation to frustration to resistance, with such force that it stops you in your tracks. And all of this was spoken silently. Who ever imagined that dragging a chair, sitting in front of a cooler, and drinking juice could be considered a rebellious act?
Then there is her Natasha from Ankahi, a short by Kayoze Irani in the Ajeeb Daastaans anthology film on Netflix from 2021. She has very little conversation throughout the entire short because both her daughter and the love interest in the movie are deaf. It’s an acting masterclass. Shah is simply fantastic as a woman who struggles to understand her failing marriage and finds love with a photographer. Particularly instructive is the final sequence. The best vocalists require the least amount of music and other accoutrements; they are at their most brilliant when left alone, without all the noise and frippery. Shah is a member of the same group of artists. Just let her be; she will prevail.
It gives me such hope to see her conquer the mountain of adoration she has been buried beneath for so long and turn it into a throne. She is currently perched on top of it, royal and unstoppable. She recently spoke with Film Companion and made it very obvious that she is no longer in the mood to watch from the sidelines. She wants to be the unquestioned centre of the action, right in the middle. She stated, “I don’t have a lengthy resume, but I do have a very powerful resume. If you’re not going to put me out there, then I’m making that option to stand up and put myself there. And I’m going to decide on this. Therefore, don’t ignore me; I’m not interested. I do it because I love what I do, not because I love myself. Finally, queen. It’s almost time. On August 26, she will retaliate with the much anticipated second season of Delhi Crime, the best Indian television series ever on Netflix.