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The eyes, chico, they never lie — It’s Shefali Shah’s era and we are just living it

In a world of male character actors in OTT, be it Manoj Bajpayee, Pankaj Tripathi or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shefali Shah has quietly blazed her way to the top.

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Switch on your OTT channels, and you’ll see Shefali Shah playing either a cop, a home chef, a mother, or a domestic worker. What stands out in all of the roles is the way Shefali’s eyes catch you unawares and draw you in, no matter which role she is playing. If reams have been written about Irrfan Khan’s eyes, then Shefali’s deserve accolades too.

In the world of male character actors who have firmly occupied their place in OTT, be it Manoj Bajpayee, Pankaj Tripathi or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, there is Shah who quietly blazed her way to the top of charts and hearts with her recent performances. Whether as Shamsunissa of Darlings, Rukhsana of Jalsa or DCP Vartika Chaturvedi of Delhi Crimethere’s no stopping the actor now.

But what makes Shah stand out? It is both the kind of roles she has chosen and how she has undone the concept of critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies being mutually exclusive.

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7-minute powerhouse

Indian weddings, especially in Hindi-speaking regions, often follow a certain trajectory—the song and dance session starts with the latest party hits and slowly makes its way to the ’90s. One song from the ’90s that inevitably gets played is Sapne Mein Milti Hai from Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998). Asha Bhosle’s memorable voice is made even more memorable by a young Shefali Shah.

Shah had all of 7 minutes in the film, a lot of which was in the song. Shah played Pyaari Mhatre, wife of Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpayee), who also had his breakthrough moment through OTT. Shah almost overshadowed Urmila Matondkar, who played the female lead in the critically acclaimed film.

That is the power of a Shefali Shah—the Mumbai-born defies the screen time of a role. Even before OTTs finally saw the exemplary talent in her, she could make you forget everyone else on the screen.

Almost a decade later, came another powerful performance by Shah as Rhea Verma in Golden Lion-winner Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding (2000). Shah played the role of a child sexual abuse survivor, and the revelation of her experience impacts the family dynamics and relationships in the film. Once again, in an ensemble cast with talents such as Vijay Raaz, Lillete Dubey, Tillotama Shome and Naseeruddin Shah, she clutches at your heart and makes you feel both pain and rage at her family welcoming and showering paeans on her abuser, played by the other golden man of character actors, Rajat Kapoor.

In Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), Shah showed that she still maintained her prowess in ensemble movies with big names. As she suffers her husband Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor)’s indiscretions, there is a quiet power that simmers underneath her dialogues. It is a silent force.

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Shefali 2.0

In 2017, a short YouTube film quietly gained acclaim. It was Neeraj Ghaywan’s Juice, where Shefali Shah plays a wife who finally breaks her silence on the way women are expected to serve men every day without an iota of gratitude. Once again, it’s Shah’s eyes that do most of the work.

In 2021, Shah as Natasha and Manav Kaul as Kabir broke everyone’s heart with their performance in Kayoze Irani’s Ankahi in the four-part Amazon Prime Video anthology, Ajeeb Daastaans. Shah played the mother of a teenage daughter struggling with hearing loss, and the wife of a man insensitive to her plight. A love affair blossoms between hearing-impaired artist Kabir and Natasha through sign language. That is probably where Shah shone the most through her gestures and expressions. It made everyone sit up and take notice.

Then came 2022—the year of Shefali Shah.

She had already played DCP Vartika Chaturvedi in Delhi Crime’s first season in 2019 and won Best Actress for her performance at the Asian Academy Creative Awards. The series was awarded the best drama series at the 48th International Emmy awards. It is the utter restraint with which she portrays ‘Madam Sir’ that keeps you coming back to the series. The balancing act between vulnerability and someone who knows how to get the job done, is probably what acting aspirants should watch as part of research.

“If you have power, you don’t have to scream from rooftops,” said Shah in an interview with ThePrint about her character Vartika in Delhi Crime.

Also read: Indian women on TV get a raw deal—from Ankita in news to Anupamaa in TV shows

Fiercely flawed

It was dark comedy Darlings with Alia Bhatt and Vijay Varma that had Shefali Shah finally show her comic, wicked side. As Shamshunissa, she is the counsel to her daughter Badrunissa on everything from marriage to murder. She is also an aspiring home chef and her supporter is a younger man, Zulfi, played by Roshan Mathew. The vulnerability shines through the cracks of her poker faced-expression when she tells Badru how to torture her husband. In a world of dark comedy, she knows the resistance it takes for women to survive.

But the fundamental aspect that Shah makes palatable for an often unforgiving Indian audience is that women are flawed characters. Vartika and Shamshu are prone to mistakes of their own, as is Natasha. They mess up, but they own up to it too. Shah makes women of all ages, not just 25-year-olds appealing. She makes the everyday woman memorable because she reminds us that they are not just everyday women.

Shefali Shah marks the resurgence of strong-yet-flawed female leads on OTT. There is no deus ex machina that rescues the characters she plays. Shah de-glamourises the pedestaling of female characters as mothers and lovers.

“The eyes, chico, they never lie” probably finally finds its best expression in Shefali Shah. She’s 49, has a National Award, two Filmfare Awards, and her era has just begun.

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This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.

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