In an industry where marriage, motherhood or skirting the age of 30 often relegates an actor to the roles of a sister, mother or even grandmother, Shefali Shah stands out as an anomaly. Over two decades ago, after years of acting in television shows, Shah debuted on the big screen, portraying the role of Bhiku Mhatre’s wife Pyaari in the cult film Satya (1998). A decade since, she has played Akshay Kumar’s mother in Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005) and Amitabh Bachchan’s wife in The Last Lear (2007). In 2015, she landed Dil Dhadakne Do, her most commercial film to date, in which she plays Neelam, mother to Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra Jonas (who, in reality, is just 10 years younger to her on-screen mum).
Where most actors stay relevant by ensuring their visibility on screen, Shah took an opposing position by choosing to only inhabit worlds and characters outside of her own reality. “I made certain choices which obviously put me into a much older age bracket,” says Shah, who has always been selective about her projects, a trait she believes is the key to her longevity as an actor. It took years of patience and judiciousness till she got her breakout role in the 2019 Netflix series Delhi Crime, which bagged the best drama series honour at the 48th International Emmy Awards. In the show, Shah plays the lead as police inspector Vartika Chaturvedi, a role that marked a turning point in her career. “Before Delhi Crime, though I played important roles, I was also not getting age-appropriate ones. Vartika is one of the strongest female characters written in film or TV,” says the 48-year-old about her role based on the former Delhi Police DCP Chhaya Sharma, who cracked the case of the brutal 2012 gang-rape in Delhi.
These days, Shah is enjoying the busiest year of her career. Besides completing the second season of Delhi Crime, she will also be seen in the medical drama series Human, as well as three feature films—Darlings (alongside Alia Bhatt), Doctor G (with Ayushmann Khurrana), and Jalsa (with Vidya Balan). “Earlier, an actress’ shelf life was probably up to 25 years of age. Directors and producers didn’t know what to do with actresses older than that, besides casting them as mothers, sisters, and so on.” And while Shah has often played these assigned roles, her biggest peeve is that of defining an actor by one character, which never really offers a complete story. “Take Vartika, who is a working woman and a mother. But women only get recognised as unidimensional: homemaker, mother, working woman… Once you’ve played Amitabh Bachchan’s wife or Akshay Kumar’s mother, there is no scope for being a central character, and playing a heroine is out of the question,” adds Shah, who sees OTT services as a catalyst for change.
For actors who did not easily fit into the Bollywood stereotype, streaming platforms have not only helped them push the creative envelope with their content-based shows, but have also opened up opportunities with a new diversity of age-agnostic, character-driven roles. “With OTT and the way writers are approaching things today, they can see that here is a woman and she is in her prime in her thirties and forties,” says Shah, who broke the mould by becoming the centre of the narrative in Delhi Crime.
American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” And Shah has blazed a trail for women over 40 in an infamously ageist industry. “Characters don’t have an expiry date, and I never aspired to be a star. I don’t have a very long résumé but I do have a strong one,” she says of her impactful filmography. “Where I have reached now, finally, is a resurrection. I am so glad for it, but I am also greedy to do more,” adds the actor, who remains one of the freshest stars on OTT today.
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Shefali Shah on pushing the expiration date for female actors in Bollywood – Vogue India