“I Am Just An Instrument”
There is very little that the 32-year-old Shilpa Shukla has in common with her character Sarika in BA Pass, barring the Rudraksh beads they both wear. The Buddhist Shukla is the antithesis of her reel alter ego, Sarika – the calculating vixen who lures a young boy into an adulterous relationship based primarily on carnal pleasures.
While the string of Rudraksh seems a bit of an anomaly on Sarika, Shukla on the other hand, is the very embodiment of the prayer beads she wears and treasures because they were blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sarika spends her time training young men to become proficient gigolos. Shilpa spends her free time making shoes, doing decoupage on furniture and teaching in a village school her father founded near Vaishali, Bihar.
Shukla’s career choices befuddle when you think of the other role that shot her to public view – Bindiya of Chak De! India – a jealous, insecure and competitive sportswoman who will not hesitate to seduce the coach to ensure she is made captain.
“The art is separate from the artist,” Shukla says. “I alienate myself from my work and see myself just as an instrument in the storytelling process.” In fact, her spiritual beliefs she says, give her the ability to empathise with a character. “In Buddhism we are taught not to judge. I never approach a character from the point of view of negative or positive. I knew that for a woman to turn as cold as Sarika, she must have been hurt and gone through a lot.”
Her acting, she says, is instinctive. She reads the dialogue multiple times and allows the character to flow through her. But it wasn’t always as effortless. “I did not know I could act,” Shukla says, “but I did know I was thin-skinned, felt a lot, observed everything and those were the banks of information I had access to.”
A clean sweep at all the award functions for BA Pass means that several Critics Awards now grace her mantelpiece in a sparse home that recently witnessed a horrendous fire. Her brother who went to MIT, Boston and then became a Buddhist monk who now runs the Centre for Ethics and Transformative Value at MIT, told her that a fire represents spiritual purification and despite losing everything to it, she has chosen to view it that way.
It’s hard not to marvel at her parents and their liberalness – to have one child be an ordained monk who the Dalai Lama actually wrote and asked for, and the other child an actor known for her bold performances.
“My parents are very open-minded and have given us a lot of freedom,” she says.
They have been equally supportive about the fact that Shukla married when she was very young and while her husband and she are best friends, they don’t have a very conventional marriage. “He lives in Delhi and I live in Mumbai. I wouldn’t call it an open marriage but we give each other a lot of space, don’t really interfere in each other’s lives and do our own thing,” she says carefully.
As Shukla’s father, an income tax officer, was posted all over the country, she spent her childhood is several small towns. A fact she attributes to how grounded she is. In fact it was the first big move to a giant public school in Delhi that really undermined Shukla’s confidence. “Meeting such a mix of people really intimidated me and I found that I had begun to confine myself just to the classroom,” she said.
Not to be defeated by her own fear, she auditioned for the DPS school annual play and got the part, starting a long love affair with the stage and eventually the film camera. Ironically the same teacher, Edwin Williams, who auditioned her for the school play, went on to work in the film industry and called her 12 years later to audition for the part in BA Pass.
Always artistically inclined, Shukla would make her own shoes and dresses as a child. The long four-year hiatus she took from mainstream work after Chak De! India was spent exploring her creativity and spirituality.
The break was needed she says because Bollywood had sunk its claws into her self-esteem. A long period of awards but no work where she tried fitting into the Bollywood actress mould – straightening her hair, losing weight, attending every film party to network and be seen, wearing the right clothes, right shoes – made her realise she was getting unhappier and more lost in a bewildering world which had a set of rules that were hard to fathom. “I was disillusioned, trying to find myself, not sure if acting in the Hindi film industry was my calling. My instinct said it was important for me to go in search of that answer,” she says introspectively.
That resulted in her taking a decision to sort herself out and to that end she travelled to Sarnath and sold Buddha heads and candles outside the Dharmic Stupa during the day and wrote at night. From there she went to Benares and then eventually ended up at a six-day conference of Buddhist monks in Bihar, where she says she received a set of teachings that changed her life.
She met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and became a follower of the path. “There is nothing more liberating than knowing yourself,” she says. “It gives you a lot of depth, which shows in your work. It made me understand that I’m meant to be an actor and to give myself completely to my work, so that the financial abundance that comes with acting can be channelled where it is truly needed.”
Shukla has since dived headfirst into three new projects including a comedy film and says quite candidly, “I love acting and plan to be open and go where the Universe leads me, because at the end of all this, who knows I may just want to give it all up and join a monastery.”
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