Renuka Shahane: The Complete Womanby Vinta Nanda January 29 2021, 11:23 pm Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 30 secs
Vinta Nanda is on a rollercoaster ride with Renuka Shahane. The two begin from where the actor, writer and director is now at this point in her life, and go right back to where it had once started.
Renuka Shahane started her career with the Marathi film Hach Sunbaicha Bhau. She then worked as one of the two anchors of the vastly popular Hindi language TV show produced and co-anchored by Siddharth Kak, Surabhi, a series, which made her a household name in India. Her charming smile won over people’s hearts and made Renuka one of the most popular Indian television personalities ever.
At the peak of her popularity she acted in the movie Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! The film was a huge hit and it is considered to be the highest grosser of Hindi Cinema. Her role was pivotal and her performance was greatly admired. With that she became a personality, popular today as both a television star as well as film actor. Circus was a series that she starred in and which is also regarded as one among the best television shows ever made on Indian television. Shah Rukh Khan, also called King Khan, was lesser known then and he co-starred with Renuka in it. Another one of her stellar performances that followed Circus was Imtihaan, in which she proved that she is versatile and therefore cannot be typecast in stereotypical portrayals on either television or for that matter film.
Renuka is an actor, writer and director. Tribhanga is her first Hindi directorial debut starring Kajol, Tanvi Azmi, Mithila Palkar, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Vaibhav Tatwawaadi, Manav Gohil, Kanwaljeet Singh, Shweta Mehendale and Nishank Verma. The film released two weeks ago as a Netflix Original and the buzz just keeps growing as days pass. Known to be an artist who invests herself deeply in her work, she has offered a story that busts the clutter and positions itself as a genre of its own.
And, above everything else, Renuka does not hesitate to voice her opinion, whether to do with gender issues or with film industry inequities. Oftentimes, when she speaks, the mainstream media lifts off from her sentiment and outrages along with her – thus making her my favorite celebrity - in the sense that she’s one of the ‘very’ few ‘complete’ women I know, who cannot be assigned to a particular silo.
Here I’m talking to her about her experience working on Tribhanga – Tedhi Medhi Crazy and all the other stuff that makes her a very powerful person. Over to her then…
I'll like to begin with where you're at right now; two weeks into the release of your film Tribhanga - Tedhi Medhi Crazy, which you have written and directed as well. How are you feeling about it and how did this come about?
The release of Tribhanga and the outstanding response to it has really been very gratifying and humbling. The number of blogs, sketches and open letters that have been written to the characters, and that I have seen and read, moves me. It’s been a long journey. The script itself, with the ‘n’ number of drafts took many years. I wrote a 10 pager because I wanted to be mentored at the Sundance Mumbai Mantra Screenwriters Lab 2013. That 10 pager included the characters of Nayan, Anu, Masha, Robindro, Aji, Raina and a few scenes. Luckily it was one of eight potential scripts selected for the Lab.
The script has been shaped by the immersive experience I had at the Lab, where we discussed all possible aspects of screenwriting in general and even particular to our scripts. Bill Wheeler, Mallia Scotch Marmo, Anjum Rajabali and Asif Kapadia really gave my script a direction. One of my mentors, Joshua Marston didn’t like anything about what I had written. But I got such an insight as to what the various problems could be if the characters did not immediately draw in a person. I find criticism to be as important as praise for a healthy arc of learning. So armed with all this knowledge I took another three years to complete the script.
It was selected for the NFDC Co-Production Market of 2016, which was another invaluable experience. I took one more year to get the script to a stage where I could pitch it to potential producers. That was a difficult phase because sometimes things came to a point of almost working out and then the Producer would back out.
Things started looking up when I met Siddharth Malhotra at the premier of “Bucket List”. He was keen on producing films under his new banner “Alchemy Films Private Limited”. I narrated Tribhanga to him and he loved the script. He immediately decided to produce the film. I consider myself very lucky for the way he has championed the film. He was also instrumental in insisting that Anu can only be played by Kajol. I was overwhelmed when Kajol loved the script and came on board. That’s when everything fell into place and the cherry on the icing was that it was made as a Netflix original film.
What was it like working with powerful actors like Kajol, Tanvi and Mithila - as a powerful actor yourself, where were the lines drawn by you personally - where was it something you could leverage and something you needed to separate yourself from?
I was really happy to have such a fantastic group of actors for Tribhanga. Kajol is a spontaneous, intense, instinctive actor who gives her all once she decides to play a part. She also has a wicked sense of humor and we’ve had a blast working together. Both Tanvi and Mithila, I’ve been fond of for a long time. So we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. I think my actors have a relationship of trust with me since I’ve been an actor myself. There are also certain tweaks or tricks I could suggest to enhance their already wonderful performances.
It is such an exciting process. Everybody, the cast as well as crew, really gelled very well on the sets of Tribhanga. I always feel that the atmosphere off screen is as important on a film set, as is the atmosphere on screen. Work has to be pleasant. Everyone has to feel comfortable to put his or her best foot forward. And I was lucky to have that kind of camaraderie on my set. The best part was that there were no egos.
From the Marathi film Hach Sunbhaicha Bhau to Surabhi - and then Circus - how did this part of your journey unfold?
Acting in front of the camera happened for me as an extension of my being part of the Marathi/Hindi amateur theatre scene in Mumbai. At that time television was at a nascent stage. Hach Sunbaicha Bhau was my first Marathi film directed by Purushottam Berde who I knew from theatre. But before that I had already faced the camera for TV in 1987 for a breakfast show called PC Aur Mausi starring Farida Jalalji, Pankaj Berry and I. After that I got the opportunity to assist Dr. Vijaya Mehta in the TV serial Lifeline, in which I acted as well. During this time I was studying for my BA degree in Psychology from St Xavier’s College, followed by my MA in Clinical Psychology from Kalina University. At the end of my MA I decided to take a gap of a year before going on to do my PhD. But I got cast in Circus and Aziz uncle (Mirza) insisted that I should continue acting professionally instead of going back to my PhD. I took his advice and the next assignment to come my way was “Surabhi”.
The popularity that I got with Surabhi sealed the deal and I never went back to my PhD. At that time I got the offer for a Gujarati film called Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, directed by Sanjeev Shah & produced by Sanjeev Shah and NFDC, where I played a mysterious, romantic lead to Dilip Joshi’s Hunshi. I then received an offer for the Telugu feature film called Money, which was directed by Siva Nageshwar Rao under Ram Gopal Varma’s banner. Haach Sunbaicha Bhau came after both these films. Immediately after that I got the epic offer of the blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun and both Surabhi and Hum Aapke Hain Koun have been my most remembered and loved works.
And then Hum Aapke Hain Kaun - the blockbuster that brought you up and close to becoming a mega star - do talk about the experience and also what it did for you as a person as well as a professional?
Hum Aapke Hain Koun was shot over a period of two years 1992-93. We shot for a total of 150 days. The experience of shooting it was one of the most exciting ones for me. I got to work with huge stars like Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan. I got to work with Soorajji and Rajshri Productions. Soorajji knew I was very keen on directing. He allowed me to be a part of his discussions with his assistants of the mise-en-scene of every day.
He is the stuff legends are made of. The amount of discipline, eye for detail and characterizations in the film really taught me a lot. As an actor it was a dream debut to have in Hindi. I couldn’t have got a better role, co-actors, director and producer. And the best part was how much people loved our film, and still do. It is so gratifying to be a part of a film that has made history, established many records and more than anything else continues to entertain audiences even today. It is a huge blessing to be a part of such an iconic film.
As a person what I learnt from Soorajji and Raj Babuji holds me in good stead even today. Professionally, I couldn’t have asked for a better calling card. I keep getting new fans as newer generations view the film and fall in love with it. And with the very creative memes being made of Pooja rolling down the stairs, that scene, and with it, I have been kept alive in the audience’s memory in a very different way.
You've of course acted in many Marathi and Hindi films - also Money with Ramu if I'm correct - then came your directorial debut with the film Rita, which was an adaptation of your mother Shanta Gokhle's novel - how did you deal with the subjectivity as well as objectivity of giving life to the creative work of your own mother?
Maintaining the objectivity was very easy. My mother who is such a good critic of the performing arts has taught me to look at my own work in a brutally honest way. As a child I was always encouraged to analyze books, films or plays, which I had read or watched with an objective eye.
I learnt to experience everything subjectively but to discuss them objectively. I apply this to my own acting, writing and directing as well. I am terribly honest and critical of my own flaws vis-à-vis my work. So when it came to the film Rita, I chose to explore that angle in the novel, which was most important to me subjectively but then I wrote it in an objective manner. This is important to do because subjectivity clouds reason and balance. Adapting a novel into a screenplay is a difficult task because there are many parts of it one has to leave out. The screenplay has a different structure than a novel. So I brought both subjectivity and objectivity to arrive at a golden mean. Of course there is nothing in a creative process that is completely objective. The choices one makes during every stage - of writing, filmmaking and editing, are all very subjectively objective, in the sense that they are uniquely your own.
You have an illustrious mother - she's an author, a writer of films and documentaries, she's been a journalist and she's lived her life on her own terms - she's also admired for it. What 'was' it and what 'is' it like being her daughter?
Being my mother’s daughter has been and is the greatest privilege I have been born to. Every day I am just thankful for that privilege. I would attribute who I am to what she has taught me - the values she’s passed on, the things she introduced me to in the field of arts, the habit of reading she inculcated in me, the thirst for learning that she imbibed in me, the unconditional love she gave me, the sense of gender justice and equality that she brought me up with. She has been not only the best mother to have but she is also my best friend, confidante, travel companion and the world’s best nani to my kids.
My admiration for her strength, resolve, guts, patience and resilience increased a hundredfold after I became a mother. If I could be even a hundredth of a mother to my kids as she has been to me, my kids will be well and truly sorted.
How did marriage to one of the most intense actors, Ashutosh Rana, influence you personally as well as creatively?
Marriage to Ranaji has been very gratifying. The fact that we are extremely great friends makes marriage very comforting. Personally it has been life changing. Both of us are very surprised and thankful at how our lives have complimented and enhanced each other’s personalities. Both of us had never imagined that marriage would suit us so much. Professionally it is a huge advantage to have your partner know the rigors and stresses of our line of work. My mother and he are the first ones I brainstorm with - I discuss ideas, read out first drafts. In terms of acting, I discuss whatever acting assignments I am offered, with him. There are times when things don’t go as planned and he always brings in his drive and passion about acting to help me with my doubts. Both of us are very creative people and we also respect each other’s need to have space to think. It is really a huge blessing to have a life partner who is sensitive and understanding of one’s needs.
How do you juggle your work and your personal life while bringing up your two beautiful sons? What are the challenges there and the highs, which add to your work-life experiences?
To tell you frankly, I have not been able to balance my work life and personal life. My being a mother is my full time occupation and work life has often taken a back seat when it comes to my family life. It is very challenging being a mother today because one has to face the onslaught of what children are constantly bombarded with on the net, on TV, on OTT platforms. I have to think of their security and at the same time teach them to be fearless, trusting, sensitive individuals. There are so many isms that have to be introduced to them, many that were unheard of in my growing years. I have to be their buddy and yet try to discipline them. It is a tightrope walk. They have taught me so much about myself, patience being one of the best virtues I have learnt out of the experience of being a mother. It has widened my vision and that reflects in all the work I do, all the stories I want to tell.
You are an incredible inspiration to women, you have supported several movements like the Me Too movement and been active on many fronts - you voice yourself unhesitant and fearlessly - and oftentimes your posts on social media go viral and get wider media coverage too - what goes on within you when you take a stand, speak with confidence and put yourself out where few would dare to?
I am really glad if my voice can highlight certain reprehensible ills or happenings in our society. As a person associated with the performing arts I feel very unimportant in the scheme of things. After all, I am not changing lives on the ground. But I can use my voice in ways that will draw attention to certain tenets of democracy, equality, irrespective of gender, caste and class that I hold very dear to me. I can use my privilege to support certain charities I believe in. That’s the least I can do.
As a person who believes very firmly in our Constitution and our Democracy I believe that discussion and dialogue with even people who you might not agree with is very important so I welcome a healthy debate with people who might disagree with my views. But I don’t waste my energy on trolls. I have been brutally trolled very often. I pity trolls. There is no point fearing trolls because they will criticize anything under the Sun. Often they don’t even know what they are trolling people for. They are just doing what their employers have paid them for. One should ignore them and not give them the satisfaction of any response. If any troll uses abusive language I immediately file a complaint with the Cyber Crime Police Cell.
Lastly - where to from here? What is it that you dream of doing and why?
I am writing a book. Hopefully, I’ll be able to finish it by the end of this year. I’ll also continue to work as an actor in interesting projects, write screenplays and make them into films. Nothing concrete that I can discuss right now. I am so happy with the heartening response I’ve got for Tribhanga. I am soaking in all the love coming my way. It’s so humbling that my film has touched a lot of people. I am in a happy space.