After playing a doctor in the web series Human, Shefali Shah sheds the laboratory coat and lamb-like exterior disguising a ruthless businesswoman to slip into a different milieu. In Suresh Triveni’s Jalsa (on Amazon Prime Video from March 18), Shah plays the maid Ruksana, who is pitted against the privilege of her news anchor employer Maya (Vidya Balan).
The role comes at what Shah, who has been facing the camera for at least 25 years, says is the best phase of her career. “I hope the best is yet to come,” she told Scroll.in. “I am very greedy.”
What is the central theme of Jalsa?
It is a human drama thriller. Vidya and I are leading it but it is not a woman-centric film. Rather it is a human-centric film. The conflict is not just between characters but it’s also exploring the internal conflict every character is experiencing. There is collateral damage that happens as a result of this incident, which has a domino effect. Like the films Traffic, Babel or Magnolia, many characters come together in Jalsa. The audience will watch and ask, what if this happened to me? And when you start thinking like that, you drop your judgement.
You play Ruksana, a cook. Are issues of class important to the script?
Not as such. Yes, Ruksana and Maya belong to different classes but that is not the theme of the story. Finally it boils down to two women and two mothers and the change of powerplay. You see how Ruksana, despite where she comes from, decides that she is ready to take a stand, without fear. She thinks straight from her heart, as a mother would.
As an actor, what did you feel you could most sink your teeth into?
When I read the script I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. It ticked off all the right boxes – a fantastic script and character, Suresh Triveni directing and Vidya Balan.
There is an unpredictability to the character. Morality is not a constant in the film. Who Ruksana is when the film begins changes six scenes later and 30 scenes later because there are things happening. Ruksana is raw and real and almost all her decisions and reactions come out of instinct. She is fiercely protective of her kids, which I identify with tremendously. She is aspirational and proud, but not arrogant. It’s so foggy, the lines are so blurred that she is not reacting to the now but thinking ahead. I loved all of that.
We seem to be seeing incredibly nuanced leading roles being written for women.
Yes. This used to happen in phases. There was a decade when a bunch of women-centric films would come out, but now it is very much a part of our cinema.
There is no comparison between Vidya and me because she is a big star and an incredible actor, whereas I am very clear that I am an actor but I don’t have that star value. What used to happen before is that when I was offered a role and I asked what the character was, I was told you are the hero’s sister, mother or aunt. Something random like that.
But that’s a relationship. Women across the globe are known by the relationships they hold – as homemaker, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother. She is rarely known as the woman she is. Hopefully that is changing and it is definitely changing in films where you are seeing full-fledged, rich, nuanced characters that are breaking stereotypes. They are black, white and grey. They falter and they are real.
Is there much more work for you to pick from now?
I thought I would be bombarded with a lot of work. Unfortunately that has not happened. A couple of scripts that came my way didn’t excite me much. Anyway I have been choosy, but after last year, even more so.
I do know that people are writing roles with me in mind and wanting to cast me in leading and parallel lead roles. After playing Gauri Nath in Human, I am sure of one thing – I should always follow my gut and instinct. I get bored very easily and if I don’t take risks and chances, life will be so bland. Some risks may work, sometimes they won’t, but that’s okay.
What else are you working on? After directing a couple of short films, are you planning to direct a feature?
I have Darlings, Doctor G and Delhi Crime season two. There is another feature film called Three of Us directed by Avinash Arun. It is like a haiku – delicate and beautiful.
I want to direct. It is addictive. But Vipul [Shah, husband and filmmaker] said your career as an actor has just taken off and now you will disappear for a year to prep your film. So I do want to direct, but not right now.