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“Delhi Crime changed the way I work”

Shefali Shah talks to Padma Iyer about Delhi Crime, her new web series, how she prepared for the character of DCP Vartika Chaturvedi and more

Shefali, how did you become part of Delhi Crime?

Richie Mehta, our director, had done a lot of research on the subject. So when he met me he said, ‘I don’t need an actress, I need a collaborator. I want someone who can walk halfway through and together we can create Vartika.’ He said the story was from a man’s point of view and he wanted a woman’s point of view. He didn’t even narrate the story.

Three minutes into telling me what he was looking at, I said, ‘I am on.’ He gave me the eight episodes and I asked for a couple of days to get back to him. I went home, read the first episode and in an hour, I finished reading all eight. I messaged him saying I just had to be part of it. It was a no-brainer. It was like karna hi hai, iss mein kya sochna.

The character of Vartika Chaturvedi is extremely layered. She is not just a cop, she is also a mother, a wife and a woman. There is a constant conflict between her different avatars while she is trying to do her job. How did you work through those layers?

There is no point playing a character if I can’t make it multi-layered. And none of us is uni-dimensional. The way we have been brought up, our thought processes, our past, present and future, our dreams and our aspirations, the people we have interacted with, the incidents that have taken place in our lives, every single thing goes into making every one of us layered. There is no way I would approach any character any other way.

Delhi Crime was a learning curve for me. It has changed the way I work. I have always worked on the character. Many people work on the scene, but I work on the character. So I react to situations in the way Vartika would react to them. The scene is a window for the audience to get a peek into her life. If I know her completely, only then can I react like Vartika would. If I am only approaching the scene, then I may react as Shefali. That’s just how I work.  

Also there were a lot of discussions and meetings between Richie and me. He had it all; I cannot deny that. He had the blueprint ready. He had interacted with the cops when he was writing this. Then I had the chance to meet the DCP and ask her questions. She was kind enough to answer them. 

Then comes your perception, your understanding, your instinct and your depiction or translation of that perception. Emotionally, I am not even getting into her because emotions cannot be choreographed. They have to come on their own, they cannot be rehearsed. But the other kind of work that you do is how she walks, how she talks, her inherent grain. She is very strong, but she is also emotional and vulnerable as any woman is. But she decides to set all that aside and channelise her focus into this single-minded focus of nabbing these guys. She doesn’t let her emotions shadow her investigation. And that is what she aims at doing.

The series is spread across five days. When I used to go on the set, the first question I used to ask is ‘what is the time’, not in terms of the actual time but the time based on the timeline of the story. I wanted to understand how many hours she was awake as her energy levels could be dipping. But when there is a slight victory or breakthrough, her adrenalin shoots up.

She had spoken to her daughter, say, in the first episode. What note did that end on? And if she is talking to her in the third episode, is she carrying that forward? Meanwhile, what must have gone on in her own mind? There are various themes that have gone into the series.

When you are watching it, you should feel that there is no effort here, that she is just Vartika, not Shefali being Vartika. The audience has to forget that there is an actor. Also, the way it has been shot, it actually looks like you are present there. The camera is from your point of view. We have just one tripod shot in the entire show; all eight hours have been shot entirely hand-held. So when you get up as Vartika, the cameraman also gets up. We were doing like 12 pages at a go, like theatre. We would rehearse it, but it was a natural process.

A role like this can be emotionally challenging. How do you handle that? How do you keep your personal emotions separate from those of the character?

If I cannot be emotionally consumed by a role, I won’t be able to do it at all. That is the only way I know how to approach my roles. As far as Vartika is concerned, it has been the most consuming and enriching experience I have ever had. It has been really something playing this character. When you are doing something like this, you never really come back home, I don’t mean physically home. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean you constantly move around like that.

We would have a coffee or crack a joke; we would have gone crazy if we were in the same mode. But at that point, it is exactly what Vartika thinks. Her absolute focus is this; there is nothing else. That is exactly the way I work. There is just this and nothing else. So when I am dealing with this, I am not going to let anything affect me. And nothing does because I am consumed by it. There is no other way to do it other than being completely consumed by it.

Telling a story like Delhi Crime would have been challenging if it was on cinema or TV, because sometime these platforms may make a sensitive story melodramatic. How do you look at the growth of platforms
like Netflix?

Fantastic. I mean, it is a boon. There are stories being told. It is not only about a hero and a heroine. It is about characters. Each character is important and a hero in their own space. Creativity doesn’t suffer based on box-office numbers, what the collections will be, how many screens it will release in, what censorship will do to it, etc. It is honest and pure, which is great.

And when Delhi Crime dropped on March 22, it did in 190 countries simultaneously. Cinema does not have that kind of reach. And look at the quality of the content! They are not going to compromise on quality, so you have no option but to give it your best. You can watch it at your convenience. You don’t have to buy a ticket or wait for it to come on your TV. You can watch it on your phone.

The cast for a series like this critical to the overall impact. How was the experience of working with such a diverse cast?

Delhi Crime has a fantastic cast. But unfortunately we didn’t get to do any workshops or rehearsals together. It doesn’t look like that, but we didn’t. We had just one workshop where we read the entire script through. What happened between Bhupinder and Vartika was organic. And more than what happens between then, it is the respect they have for each other, what they think about each other and what they have shared over the years. There is so much respect and trust between them. All the actors have done such a fantastic job.

You have had a very interesting career thus far. How do you look back at the journey? And will we be seeing you in films again soon?

Of course, I would love to do films, provided it is something that excites me enough. I can go to work 300 days a year but that is not the purpose of doing something you love.

Actually, I never knew that I wanted to be an actress. But I realised that if I do this on a regular basis and get paid for it, then this is my job. That’s how it happened. Someone from theatre told someone from television, why don’t you work with her? And I landed up doing a show. From there, someone recommended me for a film and films happened. There was absolutely no planning.

I don’t remember ever asking for work. I don’t have a lot of work on my resume in terms of films, but what I have is very special work. Every actor thinks their work is special. But when you talk about a Monsoon Wedding or a Satya or Last Lear or Dil Dhadakne Do to Juice and Once Again, it is a rich body of work and I have been lucky to have got these opportunities.

Being an actor is such a rewarding and enriching experience. You are living life vicariously through other people’s stories.

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