There is a lilt in her voice as Shefali Shah accepts the many compliments coming her way for her portrayal of single mother Tara in the Netflix film Once Again. Kanwal Sethi’s movie, starring Shah and Neeraj Kabi as middle-aged people who find love and companionship in Mumbai, was released on the streaming platform on Monday.
“I am an incurable romantic at heart,” Shah told Scroll.in. “I have always wanted to do an out-and-out romantic film. When I heard about the story line, it did not take me a second to say yes to the project.”
Shah described the film in endearing terms: “It is extremely subtle, nuanced portrayal of a mature romance between two lonely souls. It has been dealt with a great deal of sensitivity, maturity. What I really like about the film is that a lot remains unsaid.”
The age of the protagonists is incidental, she said. “It could happen to anybody, anywhere.”
According to Shah, apart from Tara, a widow independently running a restaurant and bringing up two children, and Amar (Kabi), a popular actor who rarely has a moment to himself, the film has a third protagonist – the city of Mumbai. The gradual unfolding of their relationship acquires a special significance in the backdrop of a city known for its frenetic and noisy life.
Tara has been so busy fulfilling her obligations as wife, mother and businesswoman that she is well-versed in the art of denial, Shah said. She realises how much she has missed only when she meets Amar.
“It is this exploration of desire between the two characters that drew me to the film,” she said. “Tara wants to feel like a woman again, and she is unapologetic about it. There is a lot of stigma attached to a middle-aged single mother having an intimate affair, and the film looks at how the rest of the society looks at the relationship.”
Shah is particularly fond of the scenes in which the couple does not say a word. “But their chemistry is so crackling and the desire they feel for each other is so real that you can take a knife and cut through it,” she said. “You look at the couple and you want them to be together.”
Aware of the parallels being drawn with Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013), Shah said the team was prepared for them, but that other than the food theme, there was nothing much in common between the films.
Shah found the experience of working with Kabi for the first time in Once Again special. “We come from very different backgrounds. Neeraj is theatre veteran, who is extremely methodical and structured. He has spent a lifetime teaching this discipline as a coach and mentor,” she said. “On the other hand, I have always been more of an intuitive, spontaneous person.”
These contrasts helped their on-screen rapport, she said. “A lot of the energy and chemistry that you see in the film comes from this contradiction – we are the exact opposites both as Tara and Amar and [in] real life too. And I think the film manages to capture this quite well.”
Shah, who was last seen in Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice, said it is a great time to be an actress with a certain experience and hunger for roles that draw one out of the comfort zones.
In Juice, Shah plays a middle-aged housewife. Through her mundane experiences, the film navigates everyday misogyny and sexism. “It is one of my best works, till date,” said Shah, who has received many accolades for her performance. “I think over the past few years with films such as Piku or Juice, you can see a trend. There are no character actors really. Just actors playing real, everyday, instantly relatable characters.”
Shah is happy with the scripts coming her way. Up next is yet another digital release, an Indo-Canadian joint venture about real-life crimes. “A work that I am again very proud of,” she said.