When you find success after 15 years, you know its value: Heeramandi's Taha Shah

He recalls running behind Karan Johar's car once for an audition


Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali knows everything about our hunger for something larger than ourselves. Humdrum ordinariness is what we are stuck with, while grandeur is what we are made for. Bhansali recreates in reel the reality we are striving for―in the form of grand sets, extravagant costumes, larger-than-life characters, and passionate romance. In this game of thrones, he can turn a pawn into a king, and a striving actor into a royal nawab. And that is exactly what he did for Taha Shah, who once danced behind Katrina Kaif in the film Baar Baar Dekho (2016). From there to being the male lead in a Bhansali project―Heeramandi (which dropped on Netflix on May 1)―Shah has come a long and winding way. Heeramandi has been a new lease of life for him. “When you find success after 15 years in the industry, you know its value,” says Shah, who portrays the nawab Tajdar in the series. And since its release, fame has left its calling card with the actor. He has even been dubbed the ‘national crush of India’ on social media. “It feels a little awkward, but I am overwhelmed by the response,” he says.

[My mother] just wanted me to work hard and not give up. Now she calls people and tells them about me.... I am glad I could bring a smile to her face. ―Taha Shah

Shah had debuted in 2011 with Shraddha Kapoor in the romantic comedy Luv Ka the End. He signed on as it was produced by Y-films, a subsidiary of Yash Raj Films. Although his role was appreciated, the film did not do well. Around the same time, the production company had launched another new face in Band Baaja Baaraat (2010)―Ranveer Singh―who went on to become a star. “Ranveer did an amazing job in the film,” says Shah. “Also, the target audience was much larger. The film's hyper-localisation [with its Delhi slang and locations] changed the way films were being made.”

He recalls running behind Karan Johar’s car once for an audition. “He saw me, stopped the car and offered some water. He called me the next day to audition for the film Gippi (2013) by Dharma Productions. That’s how I got the role,” he says. Gippi, too, did not make his career. This was followed by a string of flops, like Barkhaa (2015), Baar Baar Dekho (2016) and Ranchi Diaries (2017).

All these years while Shah was still finding his feet in the industry, his mother was his constant support, both financially and emotionally. She would often reassure him that he would become a big actor one day, even when his brother advised him to quit acting. “She just wanted me to work hard and not give up,” says Shah. “Now she calls people and tells them about me. I find her secretly searching for articles on me on her phone. I am glad I could bring a smile to her face.”

But good things will always come to those who wait. And to those who chase filmmakers out of hotels, as Shah did with Bhansali around 10 years ago. Although he could not speak to him then, he managed to land a small role in Heeramandi. That's when Bhansali told him, “You've done a lot of work, yet no one knows you.” Around three weeks later, he got a call from the filmmaker's office, informing him that he had been selected for the role of the male lead. Shah was ecstatic. “He (Bhansali) said he saw something in my eyes,” he says.

Shah says that Bhansali is very particular about the way dialogues are delivered and about how an actor captures a character’s mannerisms. “The advantage for me was that I was well-versed with Urdu, because I have been reading it for a long time. So I was familiar with the accent.” The series, entirely shot in Urdu, has brought the language back to the Indian big screen after a long time. “He (Bhansali) wanted Tajdar to be reserved, but also someone who stands up for [his values],” says Shah. “As I spent more time with him, I realised that Mr Bhansali is Tajdar. He was a mix of Devdas and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s Salman Khan. He taught me Tajdar’s gestures and eye movements.”

Now that the actor has proved his mettle, he feels people’s attitude towards him has changed. He was once written off by the industry and second-guessed himself. “It feels like a rebirth to me,” he says. “Anyone who makes a mark is praised. Earlier my performance might not have been up to the mark, but I have gotten this platform through Netflix and Mr Bhansali. I don’t have any complaints.”

In the last few years, unconventional actors from outside the industry have shone on the big screen, be it Vikrant Massey, Kartik Aaryan, Ayushmann Khurrana or Rajkummar Rao, and more recently, the entire cast of Laapataa Ladies (2024). Filmmaker Payal Kapadia winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, too, has reiterated the fact that both independent filmmakers and new actors deserve a platform to showcase their work. Shah seconds this. All superstars in the industry have always been outsiders, he says. He also feels aspiring actors from non-film backgrounds get fewer chances to prove themselves. “But that’s how the industry functions,” he says. “Any businessman would like to hand over their business to their own family members and not to outsiders because they are more talented.”

The actor was recently at the 77th Cannes Film Festival to network with veterans from the entertainment industries of other countries. He also launched the poster of his upcoming film, Paro. “I met around 400 to 500 people from different countries,” he says. “It would help me improve my business acumen and expand my connections if someday I plan to produce a film. People from Spain, Italy, Australia, Pakistan and Norway recognised me as Tajdar. It was an extremely positive experience.”

Next, he would love to be a part of romantic films and films based on the armed forces. Until then, he will soldier on, buoyed by his hard-won success.