A conversation with Jim Sarbh can go in unexpected directions. One moment, he is earnestly talking about how exciting Marathi theatre is, and the next, in response to a question he does not want to answer, the actor hums loudly. It’s entertaining, but also a little bewildering. Like when, triggered by the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth”, he begins to neigh. Or when, as we pass a pair of shutter-happy tourists on our way towards the cluster of rocks at the northern end of Versova beach, Sarbh urges the duo to “be natural”, and proceeds to strike a few loose-jointed poses. The duo only giggles in response, but Sarbh has already made his point and moved on. Halfway through our conversation, Sarbh, who is the breakout star of Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, instructs me, “When you use the word ‘career’ when writing about me, make sure to put it in quotes”.
It’s hard to pin him down. Is this an actor who is, as he says, merely jumping from one exciting project to another, or is he someone who has always scrupulously chosen variety in order to keep himself from being boxed in? If there is an answer to this question, it probably lies in theatre, where he has distinguished himself not just by his talent, but also by his penchant for diversity.
The grandson of Kali Pundole, one of India’s pioneering gallerists, Mumbai-born Sarbh began acting in earnest when he was studying psychology at the Emory University in Atlanta, US, performing in plays such as Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life and Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead. After graduating, he worked at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, eventually moving back to Mumbai in 2012. Sarbh has been active in the city’s theatre scene since then and whether it is Alyque Padamsee’s Death of a Salesman, Rage Production’s The Glass Menagerie, Kalki Koechlin’s The Living Room or Rajat Kapoor’s What’s Done is Done, he stands out for the intensity he brings to his performance.
Besides being one of the busiest actors on the circuit, Sarbh also made time to write and direct. He has directed two Mike Bartlett plays, Bull and a version of Cock, and he has been working on an adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids. The Hindi translation of the play is done, he announces, but further work will have to be put off. “I’m booked solid, until then,” he sighs.
Sarbh will soon get busy shooting for Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, Death in the Gunj, in which he will act alongside Vikrant Massey, Tillotama Shome, Om Puri, Tanuja, Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki Koechlin and Ranvir Shorey. He is tightlipped about this, though, insisting, “I only have a small role, so I don’t want to talk about it.” But there’s ample evidence that he prioritises diverse, challenging roles in films, just as he does in theatre.
For example, in Ukrainian filmmaker Daria Ghai’s Three and a Half Takes (working title), he plays a socially awkward man who walks into a brothel. The long, 40-minute take was challenging and exciting in equal measure, he says. “ The movie is made up of three-and-a-half long single takes. The first is a conversation between a boy and his grandfather on the boy’s birthday, the second is an interaction between a man and a prostitute, and the third is between an older man and his wife, rediscovering and re-articulating love.” In Jyoti Patil’s Yashodhara, which tells the story of the wife that Siddhartha left behind on his way to becoming the Buddha, he plays, “a Puck-like character, called Khediya, who is a tree-climbing, flute-playing coconut-stealing man.”
Even as Sarbh very convincingly played a raging, near-unhinged terrorist in Neerja, the actor managed to win quite a fan following, comprising young girls and women who, as I’m told, send him “shayaris and such”. Did he expect this adulation? “Nope, not at all,” he says. And what is his strategy for dealing with this outpouring of affection? Staring rather intently at his toes as they dig into the sand, he says “I make fun of them. I think they find it funny when I do that. Or maybe they are heartbroken. I don’t know. I mean, what are they expecting, a marriage proposal?”
Sarbh says all this slightly mockingly, which seems to be his default tone. He narrates how, unlike when he was a “nobody theatre actor”, people now send him scripts, instead of merely commanding his presence at auditions without sharing any information whatsoever. There is no malice here; it just seems to be Sarbh’s way of making sense of the many changes that have suddenly become part of his life.
For one, he gets recognised on the streets a lot now. He recounts, “One night, when I was walking home with a couple of friends, these guys called out to me and said, ‘Hey terrorist, you’d better run away’. Mostly things like that, just to get my attention.”
Then there are the other accoutrements of a career in the movies, such as full-time minders who follow one’s every movement, taking care that one is sticking to a prescribed diet and fitness plan. All through our interview, Sarbh’s spotboy hovers helpfully in the background, on the ready to hand out a T-shirt which may be needed for the photoshoot or making sure the actor finishes his evening snack.
He says, “Any actor who says that they don’t want the attention and that they’re tired of all the interviews and photoshoots, are just pretending.” Having paused to chew on a particularly tough spoonful of paneer, he continues, “If you are being interviewed, just be polite, have fun. I could sit straight and give you all the right answers and sound really smart, but that’s not me. That’s for when I’m acting. Your whole life doesn’t have to be one long, smart monologue.” In other words, Sarbh advocates not taking oneself too seriously.