An interview I did for India Today.
Actor Neeraj Kabi came into the limelight with Ship of Theseus (2013). His work has since been appreciated in content as different as Hichki and Sacred Games. He spoke with India Today about the stage, films and streaming TV.
For film audiences, you burst onto the scene as the ailing Jain monk in Ship of Theseus (2013). Tell us something about your life before that.
I'm from Jamshedpur. My father is Oriya, my mother Parsi. I finished college from Pune and came to Bombay in 1991. I did all kinds of work for survival. In 1997, I did an Oriya feature film called The Last Vision, by AK Bir. It won a National Award. But nothing happened till 2010. I did form my own theatre group. Veenapani Chawla's Brihannala lit a spark in me. I directed plays; I did a Hamlet which drew on Yakshagana and Dhrupad. But I don't like to discuss that 'struggle' period much. What I went through is my strength.
Do you see film and stage as different kinds of acting?
In theatre, you're there from start to finish; you understand context, subtext. In films, you might shoot Scene 56 today and Scene 1 tomorrow. Actors who've never done theatre can end up with a mishmash. My training in theatre helps me stay centred, to produce continuity of character in a film. You have to be larger than life to be on stage. In films, you can get by without. Everything I did as a theatre actor was defined by physicality. It was stylised. I was not in the realist zone. I played Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where I was on stilts. Another time I did a Moliere play, all jumps and somersaults, landing on the knees. When I came into films, it became all about realism, getting deeper into the psyche of the character.
What inspires you as an actor?
I have this madness of falling into character when I'm outside, in public. Say, if I'm limping right now because I've hurt my leg, can I add a limp to one of my current characters? Maybe a character has a psychological limp: can I can translate that into something physical? The set or the stage, that's my office. But I'm living as an actor all the time. Like you have a way of the warrior, you have a way of the actor. If you do this, nothing in your life is a waste. You don't crib about it. You use it. Life and acting cannot be separated. You can't perform by reading books on acting!
Any books ever seemed useful?
[Shakes his head dismissively]
Do you miss the physicality of the stage?
Is a different kind of performance needed in an independent film like Ship of Theseus versus a Hichki or a Byomkesh Bakshy?
Thankfully, not yet. Maybe because the directors have been people like Meghna [Gulzar] or Dibakar [Banerjee]? And our audiences are not so insensitive that they only understand flamboyant acting. Both coexist: entertainment films and parallel films. I am a fan of all the Khans. For my entertainment, as Neeraj, I love it! And Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar, Aditya Chopra, Abhishek Chaubey make great entertainment films, which I'd love to be in as well. But for an industry to make only entertainment films is to numb an audience. It misrepresents Indian cinema to the world. Asked about actors, we name entertainers. With all due respect, they're not actors: they are stars. If you seem the same on screen as in real life, you haven't used the craft of acting at all.
Any trends in the Hindi film industry that look exciting to you?
One, audiences are transforming. It's slow, but they're starting to accept everything. There's no formula any more that guarantees a hit. Two, entertainment content is becoming slightly better. Films like Raazi, or Vishal Bhardwaj's work, these are somewhere in between, written to appeal to a larger audience.
Is streaming allowing for different kinds of content – aesthetically, socially, politically?
Absolutely. One, the format of cinema is two hours: you can't say everything. The web series format allows more space and freedom. Also, there is no censorship, so people are trying every damn thing they can do over here. It's like a new school has opened, where there's no principal. It'll settle down soon. But yes, right now that fire is there.
You've done many grey roles. Did playing the romantic lead exercise different muscles?
I was very excited. I'm a diehard romantic, I'll be that until I'm 90. But I came into the industry in my 40s, and the love stories are written for 25-30 year olds.
Unless you're Shah Rukh Khan.
All the Khans, even the Kumars have an audience that's seen them at 25. They can do this till they're 70. People will still accept them. But I'm doing this mature love story; I wanted to look good! Ship of Theseus, I was a monk in a dhoti; Byomkesh I had a massive beard; Talvar, I had a paunch; twice I've played Gandhi with head shaved: I thought a change would be nice. I'd like the audience to love me, even fall in love with me.
Do awards matter to you?
When you're acting, no. Critics and awards are the cherry on the top, after it's done. I used to get excited about award nominations. Now I don't care as much. I'm more keen on getting my audiences in place. I plan to create a theatre residency soon. I want to direct my own kind of films. I don't want to feed the audience what they say they want. I want to give them what I think they deserve.
A shorter version of this interview was published in India Today, 15 Sep 2018.