Actor Neeraj Kabi on the synergy that comes from working with talented co-actors, his role in Meghna Gulzar’s upcoming film ‘Talvar’ and why he cannot do an out-and-out commercial film.
Given its subject matter, what made you choose a film such as Talvar?
A major reason why I chose the film was because of the cast and crew, and the fact that Vishal Bhardwaj, who is such a master of his craft and who I missed working with in Haider, was producing it. I remember seeing one of (director) Meghna Gulzar’s films where I saw a certain sensibility, something artistic about it. When I heard that Irrfan and Konkona were going to be part of the film, it got me excited. When I read the script, it was absolutely spot on too. The cast you are working with is important because it involves a give-and-take relationship. For me, when you have strong performers, multiple things happen, the magic of creation happens. That’s where you build the craft. That is how the jugalbandi happens. Sometimes, you can’t do that when you have weaker actors with you. Here, although I go prepared, I am also opening up spaces for other actors who bring with them their own craft, their own school of acting. That is where the jugalbandi happens, that’s how you live in the moment. I have a few scenes with Irrfan. Although I have many scenes with Konkona (Sen Sharma, who plays his wife in the film), there is little interaction between us, since most of the times I am alone and quiet.
How did you approach such a controversial character?
To perform the character was as interesting to me as a complex surgery is to a doctor. To play a character who is alive is always a challenge. The film is based on true incidents, on facts, documents and newsreels. It doesn’t take sides, it doesn’t tell you to feel bad for them. Based on that, we are presenting the audience with certain viewpoints. I had to be very careful about the version we are presenting. It’s a tricky area to be in. I am playing a character who has been portrayed in a certain light by the media and the cops. I am not playing what Rajesh Talwar did because we don’t know what he has done. I have played on the facts that you may have heard or read about. There are many who don’t know about the case properly. Here is a couple whose story is one of the biggest tragedies in human history. If they are not guilty, it’s a greater tragedy. It has to make people think that if, god forbid, they are guilty, what does it mean for humanity? And if they are not, what does it say about law and justice? I not only saw footage of Rajesh Talwar but also of Nupur, because it’s important to understand their relationship, what she means to him.
Your first role after that of a Jain monk in Ship of Theseus (SoT) was that of the supervillain in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (DBB). How was the experience of working on a character like that?
After SoT, I was looking for something at the other end of the spectrum. I got a call right after the film’s premiere from Dibakar Banerjee to keep myself on hold for DBB. While I was looking for depth and meaning, over a quick meeting, Dibakar told me matter-of-factly that it was a commercial film he was looking at, that it was more mainstream. But since it was Dibakar, whose work I’ve always admired, I didn’t think twice. He did a lot of research for the character and I love any kind of research that goes behind a work. His notes on Anukul Guha were meticulous. It gave me a complete backrdrop of who he is, the time period, his geography that has links to China, Japan, Rangoon, Bangladesh and Kolkata.
What sort of improvisations did you bring to the character?
Dibakar had strictly drawn the line for us about not showing any overt Bengaliness, so I brought a subtle flavour in the way he spoke. I am half-Oriya and half-Parsi and I have grown up amidst Bengali culture in Jameshedpur. I have tried to catch their pauses and rhythms — there is a musical rhythm in the way they speak. As an actor, I keep certain things secret, that I only reveal on stage, as I have done many times in theatre. In DBB, it’s the sudden switch from Guha to Yang Guang when he starts laughing like a maniac. I unveiled it at a crucial moment in the graph of the character and it took Dibakar by surprise.
I did quite a bit of research on Anukul Guha, who is a drug emperor but not an addict himself. I saw multiple films, read fiction and non fiction accounts on drugs and drug addictions. I tried to explore what it means for people who are in power. Guha is a hugely powerful guy. He cannot be compared with normal people. Bakshy is almost like a kid to him. Guha could buy countries, buy the British army, buy off Burma and parts of Shanghai to establish his drug empire. I tried to explore what the madness of power must be for people like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others who have caused the biggest massacres in human history.
You have played Gandhi in Shyam Benegal’s TV series Samvidhan, and now you are set to play Gandhi again in Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House. You seem to keep going back to him.
I have stayed away from being typecast, but that’s the only role I haven’t managed to stay away from (laughs). When I was offered this role, my first response was ‘no’. I like to play Gandhi, but I’ve got tired of it, though not bored of it. I have to go through the physicality of losing weight. I have done it for SoT, not too long ago, when I had to lose 19 kg. Then, I had to lose some weight for Samvidhan as well. And I would have to go through it again, even if it’s a small role with a couple of scenes. Then, although I had researched for Benegal’s show two years ago, I would have to revisit all of it again. I can’t cheat, I have to be honest to the character. But Gurinder’s film goes into an aspect of Gandhi I have not explored before. The film is about the last one-and-a-half month of Lord Viceroy’s stay in India, how significant it was and the roles that Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi played.
I don’t know why I get offered to play Gandhi so many times but there are many offers that I’ve rejected. I think I need independece from him. (laughs) Also, I will start shooting for Viceroy on Gandhi Jayanti, the day Talvar also releases.
Will you ever do an out-and-out commercial role?
I have TV roles that offer a lot of money. I got an offer for a second lead in a film starring one of the Khans. I have never seen that kind of money, but I can’t do it. Money is very important to me, but its source is important too. As of now, I can say that I will never ever do films that demands me to sell my craft. I have done multiple odd jobs for almost 24 years to come to where I am today. I have gone through a period that was a black hole, when I was going to give up anytime. When I needed money, I have conducted acting workshops for 19 years now, but I haven’t done anything stupid. I had the chance to, but I chose not to. But
I am hungry for good work. I go for meetings with TV and advertising people, although I know it’s futile. But I still go with the hope what if something great and beautiful comes out of it?
Do you think this is the best phase of your career?
No, I but I am getting close to the kind of filmmakers I want to work with, and the space I want to be in. I don’t want to see my posters everywhere, to have people running to take my autographs, I have never aspired for that. I have not made it yet, I’ll know when I get there.
Tell us about your theatre company Pravah Theatre laboratory.
In Pravah, we interpret texts through an Indian eye. We adapted Hamlet, for example, but we tried to take its philosophy and understand it with an Indian sensibility by fusing dhrupad and yakshagana (a folk theatre form). I plan to open my theatre residency in the next four years, where people will live on site and we shall create productions together. It’s going to be in the outskirts of Mumbai, spread over some acres of land.
There’s an innately Indian aesthetic in you acting. Is that deliberate?
Many years ago, when I was preparing to be an actor, I was looking for the correct training methodology. I have always been averse to Western techniques because our sensibilities are different. All the method acting and Chekovian techniques that we talk about may not suit what I am doing here in India. Then one day, I read how Habib Tanvir left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, a place people would kill to get an admission in. After a year, he went to the principal and told him that the course was redundant for him because he could not use it in India. It hit me hard when I read this. We have so much in our culture — Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Chhau — but we hardly use them. I have learnt a bit of these from many teachers, but I aspire to train in the Natyashastra in future.
I actually want to study further, after I have established myself a little more as an actor. I want to study Kathakali, which is such an amazing form of storytelling. I want to go deep into Chhau. Someday, I would like to open an acting school where I can share these with others.
“The interview had earlier mentioned that Meghna Gulzar met the Talwars. We regret the error and it has been changed.”