The return of Shefali Shetty

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(Stills from the trailer of “Dil Dhadakne Do”)

Once upon a time on a humid day in Delhi, I sat inside a crowded staff room of a university for an admission interview.

The hall was teeming with students eager to display their skills in the extra-curricular activities category. Since they didn’t score well enough to get a seat through merit, creative talent came to their rescue to pursue higher studies. So, there were dancers, painters, athletes, creative writers. I was among those with a passion for stage speaking.

It was my turn to take the interview, which was conducted by a grim-looking panel of professors seated in another room.

“Why did you score so less, beta?” a lady sitting in the centre asked me as I nervously sat in the chair, clutching my leather file containing dozens of merit certificates.

I didn’t react to that. I had had my share of self-flagellation before facing that interview. But once I got over the question, I noticed her exhausted face, which uprooted me from reality and reminded me of snippets of TV shows seen on Doordarshan.

She looked familiar. She could have played someone’s mother, sister, daughter or a working woman on the state broadcaster’s shows.

When my mother saw her leaving the interview room for a loo break, she said, “Yes, I remember that scene in which she consoles her friend and blows her nose very loudly.”

We are still not sure in which show did she actually blow her nose or whether she appeared in any at all.

But the deal with so many second fiddle actors is you can identify them by face but don’t know their names. And the best thing about them – besides their acting, of course – is when they perform they are believable, gripping characters, who have no relation whatsoever to their lives beyond the profession. Thankfully, they don’t come with any star appeal that encumbers or colours their actual on-screen work.

One such actor is Shefali Shetty, who recently played a high society, but unhappy woman in Zoya Akhtar’s latest film “Dil Dhadakne Do”, a family drama set on a cruise.

Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shetty) is married to Kamal (Anil Kapoor) in the film. While suffering a loveless marriage and staring at bankruptcy in family business, they set out to host their 30th wedding anniversary on a cruise with their children (Priyanka Chopra and Ranveer Singh), relatives and friends.

But the façade of a successful marriage doesn’t hold for too long. Kamal is a charming, flamboyant and widely travelled businessman. A known philanderer, he happens to meet a foreigner during a sightseeing trip. The lady gets special attention from him, something that rankles his wife a great deal. As a host, it is my duty to be nice to my guests, Kamal, when questioned, explains to his agitated wife.

In the next scene, a shattered Neelam stuffs chocolate pastries into her mouth, while trying to hold back her tears and fix the smudged lipstick.

During the near-three hour long film, Shetty is a theatrical powerhouse in a story that could have been better written and executed. But the credit to her performance also goes to her boss, Akhtar, who works out the film in such a way that no character oversteps his or her brief, given the fact it is such a star-studded film. [Review here]

Neelam is a socialite, prefers her son over the daughter, and diligently commits herself to create a happy-marriage image in front of the world. Despite a discordant relationship with her husband, she is insensitive to her daughter’s marital problems that eventually lead to a bitter divorce.

And as Akhtar peels off layer after layer in the tumultuous lives of the Mehras, Neelam is made to reveal her vulnerability for the first time, when her anxiety-prone husband is hospitalised. That’s when she expresses a fear of losing him, the man whose wayward ways she got accustomed to endure. But then, there is a knock on the door and she immediately composes herself to become what is she in front of everyone – a façade.

Beyond that hospital room, I do not remember Shetty, except as a largely docile housewife in “Mohabbatein” or in a scene with Rahul Bose probably in Kucch Luv Jaisaa.

One of her best performances is supposed to be in Mira Nair’sMonsoon Wedding”, also a family drama about the lives of the Vermas captured during a Punjabi wedding in their house in Delhi.

As an unmarried and sometimes subdued Ria Verma, Shetty portrays the role of a woman living with the memory of sexual abuse since her childhood. Her tormentor is none other than a family member – a tall, fair, graying and smooth-talking Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor). As he arrives before the wedding of her cousin, the trauma of those “seven afternoons” jolts her again. And yet, she contains her reaction and lives with his lingering presence as he tries to be friendly with another young girl.

In “Monsoon Wedding”, Shetty is subtle and never melodramatic. Those big eyes reveal a lot, more than a dialogue can. In the end, the film becomes her story, when she pours out her agony in front of the entire family.

Before “Dil Dhadakne Do”, her last substantial role was in Nagesh Kukunoor’s “Lakshmi”, which dealt with human trafficking and child prostitution.

At 42, she is leading a satisfied life with her sons and husband Vipul Amrutlal Shah, who is also part of the film industry. She loves to paint, write, cook and watch four films a week, she says in an interview to The Indian Express newspaper.

“Dil Dhadakne Do is one of the best scripts I have read. It doesn’t have huge dramatics but according to me, I have a very powerful role,” she says.

Indeed. I won’t be surprised if she wins an award in a supporting role as Neelam Mehra.

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Published by

Ankush Arora

Delhi boy; dreamer, nature lover, photographer. Development communications professional. Ex-Reuters, NDTV. This is a personal blog.

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