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August 5, 1998


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She's dynamite!

V S Srinivasan

Shefali Chhaya.
It's been a long wait for Shefali Chhaya. Unnaturally long.

Partly her own fault, of course, keeping away from Bollywood because she felt disgusted. Something like cutting her nose to spite her face. But then justice was finally done when, with a cameo of what is believed to be Asha Gawli in Ram Gopal Varma's Satya, she stole the honours from even oomphy Urmila.

I met her at the coffee shop at Prithvi theatre Juhu. But since the coffee table is off limits, we decide the adjoining low stone wall is par for the course.

Must warn you that though Shefali is most photogenic, up close she could pass for the cliched girl next door. Of course, it would have been a great improvement if the girl next door to mine looked a bit like that. Shefali is clad in casual wear. Not devastatingly pretty, but all there and reasonably confident.

Which is probably why men from her neighbourhood used to visit her place and tell her with that excessive candour that's the hallmark of the average Bombayite, "Hum aapko dekhne aaye hain (We've come to see you)." And then, with honesty that could easily be confused for crudeness, remark, "Arrey, yeh to theek dikhthi hai. TV par tho itni achhi dikhthi hai (She looks about all right here. On TV, she looked good!)"!

Shefali had stuck to television for long with only a cute cameo of Sridevi in Rangeela to speak of. It was during that shoot she decided she had enough of films, leaving the sets in a huff.

And then, reluctantly, she agreed to Satya. Could go down in cinematic history, that decision.

Shefali had never seen or heard of Asha Gawli on whom her character was modelled. She had heard of the gangster Arun Gawli though.

In Hasratein. Click for bigger pic!
"Yeah, I knew nothing much about Asha Gawli. So I could not give myself any yardstick to work with. I didn't have anyone to ape. I just had to portray the character in a manner befitting the role."

Now I couldn't get Arun Gawli to comment on it, the police and his business having him otherwise occupied, but Shefali managed to produce a character more real than Urmila Matondkar as the simpering glam doll passing for a middle-class girl.

Yeah. A lot of people have told me that I have done well. Even I watched the film at Eros and the response was wonderful. The best thing is that the common people have appreciated me for that role." And two sweet dimples sink those pretty cheeks. Mmm, maybe she just turns the charm on. Devastating, all right.

It was unintentional. For Shefali is discussing the scene that defined her role, the one in which she nags co-star Manoj Bajpai, who plays gangster Bhiku Mhatre. Bajpai slaps her and she slaps him back.

"That scene meant a lot." Though she agrees that the scene was essentially meant to wake up the front-benchers, she feels it also describes a relationship.

"Generally women from the lower strata feel they have to get beaten up by their drunken husbands. But that scene was not about wife-beating. It showed the romance between the two and the fact that I was not going to take things lying down." Which, perhaps, is why almost immediately after the two characters indulge in some courtship behaviour.

Shefali accepted the role was because she felt the role had something in it. And that she took it up at all was something, since she'd sworn off the movies after Rangeela.

"I went to shoot for Rangeela on the first day and then I walked out of the sets in a huff. I never went back there. So my role was very short. I refused to work in a filmi set-up after that.

In Adhikar. Click for bigger pic!
"I had many offers then. There were people who came up to me with roles of the heroine's friend, the hero's sister... I found it too demeaning. Such roles didn't make sense to me. After all, I had also waited long for success on television."

Shefali is a little uncertain how to take her success. For though the audiences have taken to her, Bollywood hasn't.

"Not a single film-maker has approached me for a role after that. I am waiting... I don't have any hassles doing any role as long as I find it has some substance. I want to work with people like Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, Priyadarshan and Ram Gopal Varma, among others who make good films. I want to work with Mani Rathnam....

"Such people make films which you can sit back and enjoy, because the best people are there doing the job."

We rewind a bit to inquire why, after that spat with Varma -- for spat it was, we gather -- did she decide to go back to films, that to with the same director?

"Oh, Varma asked Manoj Bajpai whether he had someone in mind for the role of his wife in the film. Manoj said he had, but told Varma that he might have a problem since I was the girl. Varma told Manoj he had no problem, and if I had any, he was willing to clarify the point.

"Varma called up and apologised for the Rangeela incident. There was no need for him to apologise; but he made it clear that he wanted me in the film and he had no problems getting the message across. No ego hassles with him. Moreover, there was Manoj and Harsh (her husband) who egged, coaxed and cajoled me into doing the role."

Shefali has also done many serials but somehow always managed to evade recognition, playing the bridesmaid. Until Hasratein on Zee TV. There too, she came in to replace a girl who had already done the same character for 126 episodes.

Click for bigger pic!
"There were people to tell me that I was a good actress, but no one was praising me to the skies and giving me a role till... I played Savi in the serial... I played the role the way I perceived it."

Director Ajai Sinha was the accommodating sort, allowing her to play the role of the second woman the way she wanted. It was an improvement.

"I defended her character strongly. I am playing it seriously. I perceived the character as someone who is in love with the man, not one having fun."

Shefali began putting on the greasepaint long before she'd given up on the pigtails. She had this passion of getting photographed and showing off the results in school.

"One of my teachers saw the pictures and asked me if I was interested in acting. It was she who gave my pictures to someone who was into Gujarati theatre.. That's how I entered Gujju theatre when I was studying at Arya Vidya Mandir."

It was also then that she ran into the handsome Harsh Chhaya. A year later, she'd snagged him for life.

Rather roundabout thing this, but it is the second woman in his life she plays in Hasratein. And she did quite a convincing job of it, bagging the Dabur Vatika Zee Woman of the year award for the role. It helped her confidence but apparently she has higher standards for her herself.

"I still think that I am a little down on confidence, but Satya, Hasratein and the awards have instilled some confidence in me." And she smiles. Oooh!

Now the girl has four serials on the air at the same time -- Adhikar, Hasratein, Kabhi Kabhi and Banegi Apni Baat.

And roles in movies? Ah, those? Will tell you once we are through the queue of producers out there.

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