What a time to be Neeraj Kabi, with so many releases in a span of two years. Last year’s list: Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry. This year, we’re seeing you in Siddharth Malhotra’s Hichki, Dipesh Jain’s In the Shadows, Rohit Batra’s The Field and Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane’s Sacred Games.
Yes, and I finished shooting Nirang Desai’s Tabeer with Prosenjit Chatterjee last year. In the Shadows has been taken up by Reliance — so there’ll be an international release. I’m very excited about The Field; it’s the kind of work I have not done before. He’s not a villain yet you’ll see him as that; he’s not violent, yet you’ll sense that. He’s a lost guy who is finding himself. He can’t identify who he is, that’s why he’s doing certain things.
Since Ship of Theseus (2012), you’ve been known to get into the physical aspect of the character as much as possible. Would you call yourself a method actor?
I’m not a method actor. The techniques that I follow have been created and practiced in my own journey, ones that I have researched, formed and invented. In all these years of doing theatre, I’ve been a very physical performer — physically demonstrative, yet sticking to the realism of the piece. The content and the form have to balance each other. I like to enter my characters through a physical form first. The first thing I find is the regime of the character — when he wakes up tomorrow, what activities does this person engage in — that’s my entry point. Once I get that, then it becomes easy for me.
Is Professor Wadia in Hichki your most commercial role yet?
Yes, by far. Since it’s a Yash Raj film, I had hoped there’d be some songs in it. I told Siddharth that since there’s Rani Mukherjee in it, I’d like to do something. He was very embarrassed and tried to explain that it’s not an out-and-out entertainer. So, I got up on my chair in the middle of the restaurant we were at, and I did the whole thing (mimics Shah Rukh Khan’s beckoning arms perfectly). I said, ‘Dekho, main kar sakta hoon,’ and everybody was staring while he was just trying to look away. I’m still looking for a film where I can sing etc.
You want to be a romantic lead?
I’ve been one in Once Again, a film I shot with Shefali Shah last year. But it has no songs. No dance, no baarish either.
So how did you explore physicality in a seemingly staid character like Professor Wadia?
I didn’t want to repeat certain elements that I’d explored in my previous work. I don’t want to be easily recognised when I come on screen. Wadia is educated outside India, he’s a Parsi. We didn’t want to saddle him with Parsi lingo, even though I’m half-Parsi, half-Odia. So, I defined his bawa-ness in terms of elegance, and clarity of speech in both Hindi and English. For Wadia, I began to do exercises that would befit him: walks, jogs, a workout that doesn’t make him sweat too much. It’s a very controlled but lonely mind at work, and makes you think about what his life might have been. I don’t want to caricature a character like Wadia, or stereotype his community — I want the audience to see his soul and psyche, and recognise that while he is a racist teacher in a posh school, he is part of this society as well.
At this point in your career, you’re entrenched in theatre as well as Bollywood, almost equally.
I don’t call it Bollywood, it is the Hindi film industry. It has not happened to me, I wasn’t waiting for this to come my way. For me, theatre and cinema are both pillars of an actor’s life; I’d feel very half-baked if I was only doing one and not the other. Theatre is the actor’s medium — once he/she is on stage, they define that space, they are untouchable. In film, there are multiple actors and factors. You’re working in a crowd that is not conducive to acting at all. It’s not linear. Both forms are crucial, because if you don’t know these mediums, you won’t know how much of yourself to give. Television is somewhere in between, I don’t know if I can say that ‘this is a space for an actor’. I did Samvidhaan (2014) with Shyam Benegal but it was mostly to work with him.
What about your role as DCP Parulkar in Sacred Games that’ll soon be out on Netflix?
Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s been a very intense shoot. Fortunately, I’ve been part of both Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s and Saif Ali Khan’s worlds in the show. I’ve played a cop before in Monsoon Shootout but this is the first time I’ve donned khaki for a role. This is something I had vowed to myself I’d never do, wear khaki, because everybody — from Amitabh Bachchan to Naseeruddin Shah — has done it. The day I wore it for the shoot, I thought to myself, ‘Aaj main gaya, sold to Bollywood.’
Is there a recent Hindi film that you wanted to be in?
Aligarh (2016). I feel that way about a lot of films Manoj Bajpai does, or Rajkummar Rao, Irrfan and Nawaz’s roles in The Lunchbox (2013). In the entertainment segment of the industry, I always like what Farhan Akhtar does, and I’d love to work with Zoya Akhtar. I want to work with Imtiaz Ali, Abhishek Kapoor — they’re great entertainers.
You’ve written for theatre. Do you want to write a role for yourself for the big screen?
No, but I will direct films someday. I’m absolutely sure of that.