The projects Shefali Shah looks out for does not come quickly, but when they do, she leaves a solid impact with her performance.
Whether it’s playing a headstrong woman who speaks against abuse in Monsoon Wedding, a fierce brothel owner in Lakshmi or an affluent yet subdued mother in Dil Dhadakne Do, Shah always portrays versatile and formidable roles.
A winner of Screen, Filmfare, Stardust and National Film awards, Shefali has proven that it is all about quality over quantity when it comes to choosing her projects.
Consequently, her performance as DCP Vartika Chaturvedi in Netflix’s original series Delhi Crime shatters the stereotypical image of an Indian female cop – and Indian cops as a whole.
Directed by Richie Mehta, the 7-episode series is based on the true-life investigation about the brutal gang rape in India which took place in 2012.
As Delhi reels in the aftermath of gang rape, DCP Vartika leads a painstaking search for the culprits.
In a special and detailed interview, Shefali Shah reflects on Delhi Crime, her acting process of becoming Vartika and what drives her to choose certain projects.
Congratulations on the positive reception for Delhi Crime. How satisfied are you with this?
I am very satisfied and very happy. I feel relieved but for me, the success of a project is when I am creating and shooting it.
This is like the cherry on a sundae, it’s a bonus!
Vartika Chaturvedi, as well as an officer, is also a mother and wife. What challenges did you overcome whilst exhibiting this multifaceted role?
Richie had years of research and I had the honour of meeting the DCP who cracked this case.
When I had questions, I had them both to ask and they were kind enough to answer my questions.
Richie and I worked extensively on the script.
He had the blueprint ready but even the first time he met me, the first thing he said was:
“I don’t need an actress on this. I want a collaborator. I want somebody to come halfway through and create Vartika with me.”
He’s written it from the point-of-view of a man and so he wanted a woman’s voice.
It was an amalgamation of everything together.
One thing I knew for sure is that when you’re doing something based on a real character, it’s of paramount importance that there has to be sensitivity, sense of responsibility and precision.
This investigation is a minute-by-minute time these are things that were non-negotiable.
I don’t work on a scene, I work a lot on the character.
I see a scene as a window between the audience and a character’s life.
This particular one has been my learning curve and professional turn.
Once I worked according to who she is, then I react like Vartika.
As you mentioned, you also met up with DCP Chhaya Sharma, whom your role was largely inspired by. What was this interaction like with her?
It was an honour to meet/know her, but I had two hours with her over coffee.
Within two hours, you cannot absorb/soak in a person. It’s not possible.
I had A LOT of questions for Richie and Chhaya Ma’am. She was kind enough to answer them.
It was a constant process.
Revisiting a heinous crime like the Nirbhaya case must’ve been emotionally taxing. How did you zone out when you weren’t on set?
Any character I do, I don’t know how to do it unless I’m completely consumed and one bigger person.
It doesn’t mean that I’m carrying that weight on my head all the time.
While I was shooting for this, I never came back home. By ‘home’, I mean in my mind I never got cut off from it.
Also, it’s a very strange parallel because Vartika is working single-mindedly to catch the perpetrators and I was working single-mindedly to bring out the character.
One cannot take away from the impact the 2012 case had on people and that was constantly at the back of my mind. That can never be wiped out.
After playing a cop in the series, in what way did it change your perception towards the Indian police force?
This entire angle of an incident is something I was completely unaware of.
I didn’t know about it so it came to me as a surprise.
All of us had anger, angst, frustration, rage and disappointment with the investigation into the incident.
There was this thought of “why is no one doing anything about this?”
But when I read the script of the series, I realised there was someone who did something about it and they did a good job.
It’s also eye-opening about the circumstances the IPS officers work under. Almost inhuman.
It is hard to even imagine that the cop doesn’t have a vehicle to go to the crime scene or the lack of electricity in a police station.
They don’t go home for two months, they don’t see their families nor do they sleep for days and yet they still work towards doing their best.
Police roles in Indian TV and Film are stereotypically loud and sturdy. Why do you feel this has been the case?
Maybe because these characters are in films that are larger-than-life/commercial films.
From the way we performed to the direction, what we did was very real, gritty and organic.
It’s like the viewer is present and watches everything play out in front of your eyes.
We were not trying to break stereotypes, which was not our purpose.
Our aim was to create the characters the way we wanted to create it, which we achieved.
It was not even a subject of comparison.
How do you feel the show is relevant to the increasing popularity of digital streaming platforms?
I started with television and I don’t mean to say this in a derogatory fashion, but I feel television is not like how the OTT platform works.
Platforms like Netflix has opened up so many doors for stories and real characters.
All the artists involved can be honest to their craft and what they intended to make without the pressure of box-office result or cinema occupancy.
It’s for posterity… My great-grandchildren can watch this!
When Delhi Crime streamed, it was available in 190 countries in one instance.
Even films don’t have that reach.
Content is paramount but now even more so.
Netflix original Soni was headlined by women cops and so is Delhi Crime. How is the show relevant to today’s prominence of female-centric content?
Yes… Even in films, it has changed which are great.
There are female-oriented movies and if you look back in the 60s Hindi cinema, there were ventures like Guide, Mamta and Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam which were all women-oriented films.
Then there came a patch where the woman was just reduced to being a heroine where she had to look pretty, dance around trees and was the love interest.
But with the last couple of films, this representation is changing, not just on the OTT platform.
When I was doing television at that point in time, most of the scripts and shows were women-oriented.
The films took longer to come to terms with it.
However, I can’t complain because they have come around due to movies such as Tumhari Sulu, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Pink.
We see you in fewer film roles so what catches your eye in a project?
It’s a very instinctive reaction.
Richie spoke to me about Delhi Crime when he just met me and told me what he was thinking of.
I didn’t see Vartika as the centre of it. I just said yes because I wanted to be a part of it.
When the film Once Again came to me, I read one line and agreed to do it.
I work on impulse and instinct, it’s as simple as that.
If I love how a project seems, I’m going to do it.
After that, what happens to it or where is it going to be showcased luckily is something I do not need to worry about.
The director of a film is also a big deciding factor when I choose a project.
I love what I do way too much, so when I’m on set and creating a character, I’m the happiest and everything else is a bonus.
You’ve done television, short film, web-series and feature films. What would you like to explore next as an actor?
Honestly, the medium is not what determines what I want.
This is because there is that much effort that is put into a short-film such as Juice, as much as there is in a web-series like Delhi Crime.
If there’s an honesty, integrity and commitment to the role, then the medium does not matter.
Finally, what change do you hope the series will evoke in society?
To expect change overnight is unrealistic.
In 2012, we put the onus on the system (regarding the Nirbhaya case).
In the same way, if you’re going to put the onus on the series, to change everything then it is not going to happen.
This is because the change has to come from within you rather than putting it on the system.
Be it caste disparity, misogyny or patriarchy and the access of porn without sex education for the youngsters, a lot of topics/issues have been covered on Delhi Crime.
There are years and generations of a certain mindset that needs to be changed.
This change can only come about when you start changing the thinking of a person, which cannot happen overnight.
Delhi Crime is now available to stream on Netflix.