It’s been only eight years since the film fraternity was introduced to Neeraj Kabi and his acting. He has shown terrific talent in all the opportunities that have come his way, with films like Ship of Theseus, Talvar, Sacred Games, Hichki, Once Again, and more. In his latest web show, Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime, he plays a prime-time journalist, with an assassination target on his back.
As an actor who has also done theatre (acting and direction), what’s your process? Do you still go through first-day anxieties, given you have done so much in a short span?
I ensure I do my homework for the role, which includes discussions with the writers and directors. I carry all my notes with me to the location. When I step on to the set, it does feel like I’m about to appear for an exam, but there is no room for anxiety, because I’m always prepared. Though certain things are not mentioned in the script, you discover them as you play the character. I like being immersed in my work. When I’m performing a role, it’s a love affair between me and my character that I’m exploring, and that’s the reason I avoid socialising on sets.
You are also an acting coach. Have you passed on any acting tips picked up from your co-actors, to your students?
I do give examples of my co-actors and their acting process in my class, but my course structure is mostly based on my personal research and discoveries. My coaching career began by taking workshops with kids on topics of speech and puppetry, and I’ve been making my notes about acting and performances ever since. Whenever I discover anything new, I make a note of it and pass it on to my students, and I also throw them into my performance. The notes keep increasing with my discoveries. I have never taught anything that I have not experienced firsthand as an actor myself.
How did you prepare for the role of Sanjeev Mehra in Paatal Lok?
Did you research on any specific journalist? No, I did not research a specific journalist, because the web series is not a biopic. When you are portraying a character of a specific profession, you must never look at just one real-life example, because then the portrayal would appear half baked. It’s my responsibility as an actor to represent the journalist community as a whole. I researched about the journalism of the ‘90s, and the great journalists back in the day. I also researched on how the news reaches our living rooms. I needed to know what Sanjeev’s day looks like, at his workplace. All this research helped me form the skeletal structure of the character. My writer and director gave me a two-page back story of the character, and I began to flesh out the character in my mind.
Your character is referred to as ‘The King’ in the promotions of the show. How does it feel to play such an important role?
(Laughs) When the promos came out, the use of the word ‘King’ for my character took me by surprise as well. It gave a big boost to my ego (laughs). I’ve always done exciting roles, and I choose my roles very carefully. There comes a point in your career where you don’t want to compromise, and want to have certain things on your terms. I’m at that point in my life, and if I’m offered a small role, I might not do it.
You’ve also done some romantic roles in web shows, even Paatal Lok has some romantic moments. Do you wish to do more such roles?
I really wish to do more such roles, and I’m sure people would also love to see me. Middle-aged love stories are not easy. They have their own set of complexities. In younger love stories, the characters react impulsively to situations. But in middleaged and older couple love stories, the portrayal and reaction to situations is more mature. I had received a lot of offers post Once Again and Taj Mahal 1989, but things didn’t work out because of the budget. The romantic roles also give me a break from serious roles.
OTT platforms have given a new lease of life to artistes. How does the future of OTT look like to you?
Very bright. It is growing leaps and bounds with every passing year. All kinds of artistes are turning to OTT now. When it began, there were only a few big players, like Netflix and Amazon, but now, we have so many streaming services, with a variety of content to watch.
Movies are premiering directly on OTT platforms, given the current situation. Do you think cinema and theatre plays will be able to survive the onslaught of OTT?
OTT platforms are helping all kinds of stories come alive on screen, but there’s no way that would impact cinema, theatre plays, or television. Right now, OTT might look like a winner, but the scales will soon be balanced. There will always be an audience for theatre plays, and it has never decreased, even with the onset of new mediums like films, television, VHS or DVDs. All these mediums have different identities and any sort of comparison between them would be like comparing apples and oranges.
You shared screen space with Irrfan Khan, in Talvar. What is your fondest memory of him?
I had seen Irrfan Khan act on stage nearly 25 years ago, but I didn’t know him then. In contemporary times, Irrfan Khan was one of the greatest actors in the Hindi film industry. He was way ahead of all of us, in terms of his craft. It is one thing to be part of world projects, and another thing to be part of great world projects, with great roles, and leave a mark internationally. One wishes that when we leave the world, we leave a mark just like he did, and stay in people’s hearts forever