She’s always been one of our most versatile actresses, but Shefali Shah’s time is now. Shefali, who has just wrapped up a few films and has recently opened her first restaurant in Ahmedabad, now stars as the lead in Human. The series, set to stream on Disney+Hotstar from January 14 and also starring Kirti Kulhari, Ram Kapoor and Vishal Jethwa, focuses on the murky business of human drug trials and has Shefali playing the part of a ruthless doctor named Gauri Nath. The Telegraph caught up with Shefali over a Zoom call to chat about Human and more.
There has been a variety of work coming from you over the last few years. What about Human appealed to you?
There are always three things that I look at. First, of course, is the script. Then is the director and finally, my character. This (the subject of Human) is something that I was largely unaware of. One hears about (human drug) trials and one reads about them, but I had no idea this was so vast till the time I sat and spoke to (co-directors) Vipul (Amrutlal Shah, who is also Shefali’s husband) and Mozez (Singh). It’s a completely different world... and it’s shocking! It’s really, really shocking!
The script is extremely gripping, fast-paced and it talks at length about the underbelly of the medical world. It was something that I had to do! And then, of course, is the character. She’s unlike anything I have ever played before....
From the trailer, she looks very complex and layered....
She’s hugely complicated! I have lived her for so long while shooting Human but I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around her. I have never met anyone like her before... I have never heard of anyone like her....
So what was it like playing Gauri Nath?
It was difficult, she’s not easy. The role was written in a certain way, and we all had to be on the same page about how I would play her. I read the script, we had discussions... and I remember reading it again and again, and then I had a meeting with the two directors. I told them: ‘Listen guys, I don’t want to play her like this.’ So, she’s written like a lioness and I decided to play her like Bambi (smiles). The script, of course, didn’t change... my approach to it did.
So you wanted her to be more deceptive?
You actually can’t tell who she is, you can’t make out. If I had played her the way she was written, it would have been a safe home run. But I decided to take this chance. I don’t know whether it will work or not, but I think it’s more exciting to play her like this. It’s also disturbing. Just yesterday I was speaking to someone from the marketing team who has watched the show, and she told me: ‘The way you talk, the pace you talk at, the way you move is very disturbing.’ You will keep wondering, at least in the first two episodes, why I am like this. I am someone whose voice is very identifiable, but in the show, I have changed my voice and hence, the pace at which I talk has also changed in that. You will be like, ‘What is going on?!’
So you have nothing in common with her?
(Pauses awhile) What she goes through, in terms of her grief, I wouldn’t want to be in that situation. Her pain is real, her grief is real. And what she has gone through, I wouldn’t want anyone to go through that.
Human, courtesy of your husband being its creator, is a home project for you, so to speak. Do you have the same kind of freedom of interpreting your characters as you want to when you work on other projects?
Absolutely! I have worked with some really amazing directors who are open to interpretation. That’s why an actor is brought on board... that’s why one particular actor is chosen to play a part, right? They have written something and then they want the actor they have chosen to put some form to it and make the material fly, take it above the script. All my directors so far have been collaborative. There has never been a dictatorship on set, and thank God for that!
Some other actor playing Gauri Nath would have perhaps played her differently. But then, no actor can work in isolation, no one can work in their selfish space. One has to work keeping a larger picture in mind. Otherwise, no matter how well you play a part, it won’t work in the larger scheme of things.
You said that this was a story that shocked you. Was there anything in particular that blew your mind completely?
All of it! When you buy a cosmetic product, you will see, ‘Not tested on animals’ written on it. In general, we all have very little understanding of how pharma companies work. There are phases of trials and a lot of these companies, just to get the drug into the market, skip those phases. For human trials, uneducated, poor people come under the net of these pharma companies.
This series is actually inspired by a human drug trial that took place in Africa, and it destroyed so many lives. Vipul saw that and started researching as to what happens in India. It started out as a film script and then over the years, he realised that two hours isn’t enough to tell this story. Mozez came on board and together, they worked on developing it into a show. The fact that uneducated, poor people are ready to put their lives at risk, either out of ignorance or out of desperation for money, is really scary.
How would you describe the working relationship that Vipul and you share?
Irrespective of whether we work together or not, when I am offered a project, he’s the first one I talk to... we discuss it and I always want to know what he thinks. When he works on a script, I am one of the first ones to read it. We have a give-and-take working relationship and we respect each others’ work a lot. We also respect each others’ opinion, but then we both do what we think is best for us (smiles).
Is there a part that Shefali Shah really wants to play?
Oh so many... I am a greedy actor! I want to play complex, simple, funny... I want to do everything.
There is a book called Sybil which I read when I was about 16 and it’s about this woman who had dissociative identity disorder... she had about 16 or 18 personalities within her, of which two were men! I really want to play something like this, but I don’t even know if I will be able to do it. It’s crazy!
This is a question I have been wanting to ask you for months. Given the amount of work you are doing, do you have 48 hours in a day?! Films to shows to recently opening your restaurant Jalsa....
That’s just me (smiles). I thrive under pressure, I like multitasking. Yes, even I would have liked a few days off to just put my feet up and relax.... Year 2021 has been something... the amount of work I have done in this one year, I haven’t done in my entire life! (Laughs) I have done six projects in 2020-21, moving from one to the next to the next.
I think I have ADHD or something. I can’t sit still... I constantly have to keep doing something or the other. Sometimes, I tell the three men (Vipul and her two sons) in my life, ‘Please let’s go somewhere, let’s vegetate!’ But now, of course, because of the rising cases, one really can’t go anywhere.
My favourite Shefali Shah role is... Tell email@example.com
Alia Bhatt’s maiden home production has Shefali in a pivotal role, alongside Alia herself, Roshan Mathew and Vijay Varma.
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Shefali shares screen space with Ayushmann Khurrana and Rakul Preet Singh in this film directed by film-maker Anurag Kashyap’s sister Anubhuti Kashyap.
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Shefali returns to play top cop Vartika Chaturvedi in this International Emmy-winning Netflix series.