Actor Renuka Shahane talks to Team Box Office India about her three-decade journey in the industry, her support to the LGBTQ community, the changed scenario for actors and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! completing 25 years
You’ve completed three decades in the industry. How do you look back at your journey?
I’ve completed 32 years in the industry. My first project was PC Aur Mausi which was a breakfast serial for Doordarshan. The first time I faced the camera was in September 1987. It has been a journey of discovery. I never started out with the intention of being an actor. I just got into it because I was doing amateur theatre. I loved the medium of drama. I used to do everything there, jhaadu-pocha, makeup and costumes. (Laughs) I was the lighting and the set assistant too. All of us had to pool in our money to get the evening snack while rehearsing. We used to do these things together as a team and that’s the attitude that I had towards whatever I did eventually. After PC Aur Mausi, I did Lifeline, which was aired on Doordarshan in 1988, it was directed by Dr Vijaya Mehta. I used to be the costume assistant for that show. I was the youngest one on the set. She asked me to start acting simultaneously. That’s how I acted in Lifeline. So acting just happened to me. While doing Lifeline, I realised that direction is my passion and it continues to be to this day. Acting became my profession only after I finished Circus. We had finished shooting for Circus in 1989 but it began airing after Surabhi. Aziz Mirza was the director-producer of Circus. I consider him to be my mentor. He told me to start acting full time and not get into studying for a PhD degree. I took his advice and the next thing that came my way was Surabhi and I took it up. (Smiles)
Speaking of Surabhi, it was a unique concept back then and it made you a household name. Do you think something like that would work in today’s time?
There are so many channels now, be it lifestyle, food or other niche things. Surabhi used to encompass everything. Maybe there is no space for a Surabhi right now. Shows need to fall into a certain niche category today for a channel to pick it up. You’re right when you say that Surabhi had a very unique concept. It could have happened only on Doordarshan because the brief that they gave us was to celebrate unity in diversity. So that’s how we approached the show. Now something like a Surabhi cannot happen because there are so many regional channels and people stick to those channels without being aware that there are other languages and communities existing outside their own. Different cultures are not uniformly represented with the kind of shows that we see today. Surabhi was different and that’s why it continues to stay in people’s mind even today.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! recently finished 25 years for which you had attended the celebratory event. It must have been quite a journey down memory lane with most of your co-stars present there.
It was a complete nostalgia trip for me. Not everybody gets to make a name and a place in people’s hearts because of the things they’ve done. I feel eternally grateful that I got a show like Surabhi and a film like Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!. Even 25 years, I keep meeting children who are as young as 10 and they’ve watched the film on Zee Cinema umpteen times.
Just like most of us!
(Laughs) So that is one of the reasons why we’ve remained in people’s memory. Salman and Madhuri have done so many films after Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! but this film was a special memory for both of them. I toh have not even done so much work, so you can imagine how special it is for me! My character in the film was like a ‘once in a lifetime role’ for me. Coming to the event, it was so beautifully organised. It brought back so many memories. It was truly wonderful. I was so glad that everyone had come. Only Anupamji (Kher), Alokji (Nath) and Dilip Joshi weren’t there. I missed Reemaji (Lagoo) and Lakshya (Laxmikant Berde). I was very close to both of them. I wasn’t as close to Ajitji (Vachani) but I missed him too.
You just mentioned that you have been very selective about your work. Why so?
In Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, I played a bhabhi for the best people and worked with the best people. After this film, I was offered to play a bhabhi but not for the best kind of people. Let us just put it that way! (Chuckles) For me, the process has to be very interesting. I don’t look at acting as a profession, but a place where I will learn things. Acting is not like other jobs. I wanted to do different things, which is why I went to television where I could be offered roles where I could sink my teeth into them and play them in a way that can make a difference to people’s lives. Television, at that point of time, was something that people could relate to. Whether it was Imtihaan, Sailaab or the fun Close-Up Antakshari, my characters could make a place in people’s mind. A lot of young girls used to derive strength from the roles I play because I was always the relatable girl-next-door. Television and I work really well. (Smiles) Somehow films, at that time, were larger-than-life and far removed from reality. Now the tables have turned. Cinema today has more powerful stories to tell as compared to television. Television is facing a rut because in a daily series, you can’t be as much creative as you can be in a finite series, be it a web series or a weekly show. We used to have time back then to develop stories and characters as to what can happen next. There is no time for that today in the television industry. Now if you ask me to take a pick, I would definitely choose films or web series over television.
Is there any web series in the pipeline for you?
I’ve recently fished shooting for What The Folks season three.
We loved it!
Don’t you! (Laughs) My character, Vandana Solanki, is so unique. She’s a modern, working woman. And so her perspective about her son and daughter-in-law is something that I also believe in. Mothers-in-law like these are not well represented enough on television. I feel happy playing her. What The Folks is a light-hearted take on life and shooting for it is also a lot of fun. I get to shoot with young people and that keeps me alive and reconnects me with the current generation.
How do you look at the digital boom? Are you binge-watching something?
Yes, I just finished watching Selection Day. Actually, I have worked with Mr Rajesh Tailang for a short film and he once asked me if I have watched Selection Day. I said I haven’t because it is about cricket and I don’t like cricket. But then he said that it is less about cricket and more about parenting and if it was about parenting then I had to watch it. It is important. (Laughs). So I recently binge watched it. Then there are a lot of murder mysteries I love watching.
I don’t remember the name but I just finished watching a Spanish murder mystery on Netflix. It was a series and I really liked it. Other than that I have watched series like True Detective, Mindhunter… you name it and I have seen it. That’s the genre that I really like. I don’t like horror, I get very scared. If that joker from It just comes on screen or an animal comes anywhere on screen I am just gone. (Laughs)
But if you are given a choice to be a part of some horror film, will you take that up?
I don’t mind scaring people, I just don’t want to get scared. I remember Ranaji (Ashutosh, husband) did Raaz. (Laughs). I watched it because it was his film and until a particular point it was okay but then suddenly he got these grayish white eyes and I started screaming. (Laughs). It was very scary.
Speaking about Ranaji since you mentioned him, why haven’t we seen you together in any film?
Both he and I, since we are parents, we have to be very particular about the things we do together on screen. Also, both of us are looking out for a script that celebrates romance at our age. That hasn’t happened as yet. We are also looking for something like Aandhi, it is intense, deep and personal and it requires subtle acting. Both of us are looking out for such a script. If we find the right script then we are more than happy to work with each other. That will be something really new for us because we have never worked together.
We also recently saw you in the short film called Silent Ties. What prompted you to be part of it?
There was this Marathi show that I did on Zee Marathi called Yala Jeevan Aise Naav. Before that I did not have any idea about the LGBTQ community. I just read about them but I did not have idea of the emotional trauma that they go through or the kind of struggles that they have to undergo within their own families. Nothing really affected me because I didn’t have any gay friends at that time. I have interviewed a gay person, a computer analyst. While I was interviewing, through his life journey, I realised that I am an ally. I support people’s right to love and I respect their choices. They might be different from us but that does not make them less human or less valid. Ever since that I have been a great supporter of LGBTQ rights.
Palash Dutta came up with this idea. He is the producer and he is also acting in the film. He narrated the story to me on the phone and I felt that it really hit the heart in a right way. What I loved the most about the film is that it is work in progress. You can’t change overnight. There are a lot of people who like me would feel empathy for the LGBTQ community but there are also a lot of people who might be very rigid or might have got years and years of conditioned thinking. So it is very difficult for them to accept this different dimension in society. But when a person like me, who is very relatable, endorses the LGBTQ cause, then people even in normal families sit up and take notice, start a conversation and discuss things. It also gives strength for a lot of children in the family to have these conversations with their parents. I feel that in India, family for us is the basis. Whether other people support us or not, but if we don’t have support at home, then it’s a huge stumbling block. That’s why Silent Ties was a great experience. Also because the little packet of joy I call her, Sai Deodhar, was directing it and she has written the script and she directed it so beautifully. It’s a great way of starting a conversation in a family, basing it on Rakshabandhan.
You have sort of seen the industry transforming over the years and young actors and directors have come up over these years. Do you see yourself in them?
Yes, a lot of actors are talented. There is a lot to learn from them because they have to work by exhibiting such great potential every single day of their lives, which I didn’t have to do. If you talk about the freshness that I have maintained even after so many years, it was because there was a gap, because I have not done too much. But there are these youngsters who are doing this day in and day out and are still fresh. On top of that, now there is this extra need to go to the gym, which we didn’t have to succumb to. (Laughs).
Yes, there is so much pressure. We were very happy with the way things were. We were only covered in film magazines. Mainstream papers never actually covered us. Features used to be written in film magazines or television magazines. But now everything you do is mainstream. The phone that you have is one of the most powerful means of communication. Social media has just hit the roof and you have so many different apps. So you have to keep in touch with every single thing. Yet they remain fresh so I really admire them.