"Absolutely!" exclaims Shefali Shah, grinning cheerfully like it’s her debut movie or first award. In one way, it really is: Delhi Crime, her phenomenal OTT debut as a steely IPS officer investigating the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, has won the Best Drama series award at the 48th International Emmys — the highest honour for a non-US-production. It’s the first time an Indian series has bagged the prize, a moment of unmitigated pride Shefali confirms with that ‘absolutely’.
Then she leans back and credits her entire team.
“This win isn’t just mine,” she says. “It belongs to every single person who worked on the show: Richie Mehta (director), Johan (Heurlin Aidt, DOP), Andrew (Lockington, composer), Beverley (Mills, editor), Smriti (Chauhan, costumes), all the actors… Even a person who served me a single cup of tea on that set deserves credit.”
Yet, so much of it feels like a markedly Shefali moment. Swinging between thriller and gritty procedural, Delhi Crime hinged totally on Shefali’s powerful central turn. Through her character, DCP Vartika Chaturvedi, we get a glimpse of the myriad pressures and difficulties bearing down on her task force.
The show begins with the assaulted victim and her friend being discovered by the police. Over the 72 hours, Vartika, along with IPS trainee Neeti Singh (Rasika Dugal), leads a predominately-male team into nabbing the perpetrators.
The character was inspired by IPS Chhaya Sharma, the former DCP (South District) of Delhi Police who solved the Nirbhaya case amid nationwide convulsions.
“We looked closely at the jobs (such high-ranking officers) do,” Shefali recalls, “…the protocols they follow, the pitfalls and difficulties they face.” Released last year, Richie Mehta’s show was perceived as both glorifying and scrutinising the Delhi Police. Along with Chhaya Sharma, former commissioner Neeraj Kumar had also aided the research. Shefali attests to the journalistic rigour that went behind the show.
“When you’re dealing with a real-life event, there’s a lot of responsibility and sensitivity required,” the actor says.
“This is a case that affected everyone. And we sat on the outside and we blamed people. We cried for justice and asked why isn’t anyone doing anything. But this show portrays that there were people who worked on this case and they cracked it in five days.”
Dark and unsettling, Delhi Crime premiered on Netflix in March 2019. By December, the Supreme Court of India had rejected the final appeals of the adult perpetrators in the case. They were subsequently hanged on March 20, 2020. The journey, Shefali says, has been deeply emotional.
“I was completely invested in the whole process, right from discovering new facets of the case through the show to the final closure. This has been the most emotionally draining experience of my life.”
Shefali describes the Emmy win as the “beginning of a really high flight”.
Yet, to most of her fans, it’s also a culmination of decades of work. The actor had debuted with a small role in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela (1995), followed by a supporting turn in Satya (1999). Her small-screen career spans the many upheavals in Indian TV.
She appeared in the DD shows Aarohan and Naya Nukkad through the ‘90s. As liberalisation happened and private channels popped up, she did Banegi Apni Baat and Hasratein on ZEE TV.
She resisted the K-serial boom in the new millennium, only returning for a part in the new Ramayana remake in 2008. Now she’s ruling the OTT space.
‘You can’t just put out stuff because you have freedom to titillate’
"I think we need to make a distinction between (network) TV and OTT,” Shefali points out.
“When I started out, television had a commitment to content and characters. Later, there was this (daily soap) boom which did not suit my sensibilities. Everything on those shows depended on looks and TRPs. The storyline, the actors…they all changed according to the whims and fancies of the makers. That’s completely different from a show like Delhi Crime, where you have a manuscript and you stick to it.”
Significant, too, has been the rise of female-led stories in India—and a basic adherence to quality. “Because this is all going out internationally, we can’t slack on content. This is overall a great time not just actors but all technicians and artists.”
Asked about the looming threat of censorship on web shows — the government brought all OTT platforms under the ambit of the I&B ministry — Shefali calls it a ‘double-edged sword’.
“As a part of creating content, I appreciate the freedom we have. But at the same time, I’m also a consumer. My family and kids are consumers too — and I’d like a certain degree of responsibility from the makers. You can’t just put out stuff because you have the freedom to go all out and titillate.”
Shefali has already signed on for Delhi Crime season 2, expected to roll soon. She will also be seen in Humans, a medical thriller series based on human drug trials.
“I’ve also done an anthology for Netflix which should release sometime next year. There are a couple of interesting films I am looking forward to as well.”