Much of the Indian film industry opts for diplomatic spiel and careful politesse, but not actor Ratna Pathak Shah. For instance, ask her about the culture of film criticism in India and you’ll get a cutting assessment: “I know there are a lot of film commentators currently, sure, but film criticism is a serious job. Merely using words like ‘clap-worthy’ and ‘fabulous’ or assigning star-ratings to a film doesn’t suffice. One needs to dedicate themselves properly to this profession, and make sharp observations, which I find missing.”
Ahead of the release of Kutch Express (2022), Shah was no less blunt about why it had taken her till now to appear in a Gujarati film. “Whatever little I had seen of Gujarati cinema in the past decades, none of it aligned with my taste. Most of them were old-fashioned and regressive,” she said. If she’s cutting with her critique, Shah is also generous with her praise. “The attempts made by Gujarati cinema in the last 10 years have been a breath of fresh air,” she said. “With films like Kevi Rite Jaish (2012), Bey Yaar (2014), and Hellaro (2019), the current lot of Gujarati filmmakers have shown great promise in how they aspire to capture the lives of Gujarati people authentically.”
Over an acting career of almost 50 years, Shah has been one of Indian entertainment’s brightest stars. Daughter of the acting legend Dina Pathak, Shah began as a theatre actor in 1974 during her college years. Although she enjoyed the experience, she had mixed feelings about acting as a profession. “I had seen my mother do certain kinds of melodramatic plays, and I was sure I didn’t want to do that kind of work,” she said. “At first I assumed acting would come fairly easily to me, considering I had seen so many actors from close quarters. It was only later that one realises how much skill and training is required to be consistently good at this job.”
In the Eighties, when Indian television programming saw clever, commercially-oriented shows appear on the state-run Doordarshan channels, Shah acted in only two films in the Eighties — Mandi (1983) and Mirch Masala (1987) — and stayed away from films in the Nineties, but she was among the actors whose work helped to make sitcoms like Idhar Udhar (in which Shah starred with her sister Supriya Pathak), Filmi Chakkar and most famously, Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, cultural lodestars. “They saved me from a lifetime of shoddy and melodramatic acting,” Shah said, remembering those years when she worked in television and theatre, with the latter effectively being subsidised by the sitcoms. “I got enough time to do theatre as well as had enough time to have a family, see my children grow — that’s one of the more blissful experiences of my life.” The early television shows also helped her hone her craft so that when writer Aatish Kapadia offered her the role of Maya Sarabhai in his TV show Sarabhai vs Sarabhai in 2004, she felt equipped to handle the madcap comedy. While Sarabhai vs Sarabhai was not a huge success when it first aired, subsequent reruns have resulted in it acquiring a cult following. Almost 20 years later, the show remains a treasure trove and is now often mined for ‘middle class’ memes.
Shah’s generation has given Indian cinema some of its finest actors and she pointed out that currently, there are few real training grounds for actors. “When I was growing up, the National School of Drama (NSD) and Film Television Institute of India (FTII) were the only two places for actors to train themselves. Now, more places have opened up, but without a corresponding number of qualified professionals to run these programs,” she said. “There needs to be proper training of the trainers first.” Shah pointed out the importance of basics, like the need for an actor’s body to be flexible and expressive. “An actor must be able to look like many kinds of people. You cannot play the man on the street with a six-pack physique,” said Shah and also emphasised the importance of analysis and critical thinking. “When we like something, we must know precisely why we like it, and the same reasoning should be clear when we dislike a performance. That’s how you hone your craft.”
Shah’s break-out roles as a film actress came in the 2000s, with films like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008), Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), and Khoobsurat (2014), which was loosely inspired by the 1980 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, with Ratna Pathak Shah reprising the role of a staunch matriarch played by her mother Dina Pathak in Mukherjee’s film. Most often, Shah has chosen films with progressive politics, which straddle that fine line between being commercial and socially-aware. Notable among them are Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad (2020), Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (2016) & Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata (2015). Perhaps her most memorable role in recent years has been in Alankrita Srivastava's Lipstick Under my Burkha (2017), in which she played the widow Usha Parmar who secretly reads erotic fiction. “That part had a lot of complexity and many interesting elements. Besides, the character was very different from how I am personally, so an additional challenge always helps,” said Shah.
Shah has also appeared in streaming shows, like Selection Day (2018) and Unpaused (2020). The streaming platforms’ attempt to tell stories that are rooted in Indian realities gets her approval. “Shows like Panchayat and Mirzapur capture a side of India that not many of us are well familiar with,” she said. Among the films that she’s found interesting are those from the Malayalam and Tamil industries because “there is a lot of churning happening in these spaces and in the long run, this churning will only lead to something useful”.
Recently, Shah made news when she expressed reservations about RRR (2022), which is one of Indian cinema’s few global blockbusters, and during our conversation, she clarified her stance on the film. “I will happily take an RRR as long as it makes enough space for smaller films to thrive in a similar fashion,” she said, adding that while she understands that some are drawn to alpha-male protagonists like those in RRR, she remains concerned about the impact and implications of such a narrative. “Eventually, art is a reflection of our society, and films really are a record of our times. So we really need to think whether these films will stand the test of time 50 years later or hold any value. Sometimes I feel we are in too much of a hurry and don’t pause to think about these things,” she said.
Looking around in the present, Shah remains concerned but optimistic. “Our society is in deep flux, and all the ugliness of the world will show up. But I am hopeful that eventually, things will change for the better, and soon,” she said. Confident about the power of culture to bring about change, she said she believes in contemporary filmmakers and storytellers to rise above the challenges of these testing times and hold up a mirror to society. “It’s not the work of one person alone. In democracy, all of us will have to do our bit,” said Shah. “So I hope many filmmakers come forward and make the efforts to create films that will be a true reflection of our present times.”