When she is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her. Unfortunately, Shefali Shah has not been given her due in an industry which loves to stifle its actors into brackets. Recently, she made her presence felt again with a Netflix film Once Again. It seems the title is beckoning Shefali to show her mettle again to an unforgiving world where once you play an aging character, it becomes almost impossible to turn the clock back. Directed by Kanwal Sethi, Once Again is a mature love story where Shefali plays Tara, a gorgeous restaurant owner, who develops a bond with an aging film star Amar Kumar (Neeraj Kabi). She is a widow, while he is a divorcee. Both have kids, but the romance that evolves between them has the freshness of monsoon dew and unpredictability of a butterfly.
“I got hooked to Tara the moment Kanwal offered it to me,” says Shefali, as we settle for a leisurely chat on a Sunday evening at The All-American Diner in India Habitat Centre where her film was screened for the Delhi’s discerning audience. “When we sat down to discuss Tara, I had two questions – what is her surname and what kind of restaurant does she run? He said that it is a boutique restaurant. But I didn’t see Tara running a boutique restaurant. I felt it should be more like a Udupi kind of place. My father is a Shetty (she is the daughter of veteran footballer Sudhakar Shetty). So I said that she could be Tara Shetty. I thought I could incorporate a lot of what I have seen in my grandmother’s kitchen,” explains the actor.
Shefali reveals that as Kanwal has been living in Germany for a long time, the script was originally written in German. “It was translated first into English and then into Hindi. By the time the Hindi version was being written, I was already on board. So we worked together on the screenplay. During discussions with Kanwal and Ajit (Pal Singh, the dialogue writer), I was like I don’t think Tara would say that…this was how Tara got created.”
Unlike a conventional Bollywood film, Once Again has a lyrical quality to it. “That was how Kanwal had written it. It is about moments. There is nothing earth-shattering happening. The beauty of this film is that a lot is left unsaid. Love is just hanging in the air for both of them. It is like kuchh toh bolo, be together! It is a very old world, poetic romance. I am a romantic and feel that the most beautiful part of romance is before it is consummated.”
Shefali knows that she would have failed Tara had she not known where she was coming from. “Most actors work on a scene, I try to find out who the character is. So when a scene or a moment comes, I react the way she would react. I don’t know whether it is a boon or a bane but I can’t act. I can just be. To me, that’s the beauty of a performance. Otherwise, there is a falsetto, which sounds jarring.”
She says Tara is looking for love and being a hardcore romantic herself, it was not difficult for her to understand her. “Tara is not somebody who would say something insensitive but she is also not somebody who won’t mince words. She also has a wicked sense of humour. She actually rags Amar.”
Give it to her training in Bharatanatyam, her eyes play an important role in her performances. Do they listen to her? “No, they don’t!” she exclaims. “They are plain, simple and honest. Sometimes, when I try to restrain them according to character, they still talk a little too much,” she complains. As for training in classical dance, Shefali says it was subtly used by Rituparno Ghosh in The Last Lear. She admits there are shades of Vandana in Tara.“Tara also has a lyrical quality and is a trained dancer but in her present condition, she is more matter of fact. It is only when she is with Amar that she becomes something else.”
The film has a distinct colour palette and Tara’s saris play an important role in it. “I am fond of cotton and linen saris. I worked with the costume designer to create the look.”
Shefali knows that people expect her to play strong characters. “But Tara is not that strong. She comes from a conservative background and loves her children to bits. She is brave. There is a thin line between being stupid and brave. She takes that chance.”
But Kanwal doesn’t tell us how the two got started talking over the phone. “A lot of things have been left unsaid and that is the beauty of it. We were told that during his struggle days, Amar used to come to this restaurant. It was because of this attachment that he orders food from Tara’s restaurant every day. Yes, this has not been shared with the audience. We could have a prequel, maybe,” muses Shefali. “But how much younger can you make us look,” she guffaws.
Food is an important cinematic device of the narrative. “You can almost smell it,” she interjects as we welcome fish fingers and cola on the table. “I am a complete foodie and I enjoy cooking. In fact, I was telling Kanwal the other day that what he would have done if he had cast an actress who didn’t know how to work in a kitchen or was a vegetarian. Tara is very easy in the kitchen. I made sure that not once does she look that she is pretending to cook.” Indeed, and Kanwal allowed her to bring her Shetty recipes and tools to sets. Tara uses stone grinders because Shefali’s grandmother used to prepare masalas that way. “We finished all the kitchen scenes in two days but I remember when we had the script reading session with all the actors, I made mango fish curry – gassi – like Tara does in the film.” At another level, Shefali reminds that cooking is empowering for Tara. “It is not that she has to cook; she loves the process. And, in a way that’s why she is in an equal relationship with Amar. Something, he likes.”
Shefali’s mother is a Gujarati and her grandmother hails from Maharashtra. So she is familiar with different cuisines. Married to director-producer Vipul Shah, who is a complete vegetarian, Shefali says at her in-laws plays she sticks to vegetarian food. “But having grown up on coconut rice and fish, I can’t do without them. Whenever I feel like I go to my mother’s place or plan a lunch with friends. My kids are vegetarian till they are old enough to decide for themselves.”
Looking back at her career which started with popular television series Hasratein, Shefali says, “Very early in my career, I played age on screen. I did it because I am an actor. If I have to play a man, I will play a man. But obviously, the industry doesn’t think that way. They kind of put you into a box and brand you. But I must say that I have been lucky with the kind of work I have done. I may not have many films to show, but the work that I have done, I am extremely proud of it. Whether it is Satya, Monsoon Wedding, The Last Lear, Dil Dhadakne Do or Juice. Once you start doing that kind of work, it becomes an addiction. If not more, the work that I do has to match up with these benchmarks. I am ready to wait for it.”
Up next is Richie Mehta’s web series on real crime stories of Delhi. “It is again something that I have never done before,” promises Shefali before rushing to join Neeraj on stage.