I wouldn’t call Neeraj Kabi a talkative man — at least, not to his august face — but he has been talking about Hamlet for ten minutes now, and I want him to hold forth on something else. How about his 22-year-long struggle, in which he was desperately looking for film work, and no film-maker, save Anand Gandhi, was looking at him? The topic makes him clam up. “There were a lot of odd jobs,” he says. “I don’t want to get into this because it’s been a very personal journey on that end. But, odd jobs I would never want to talk about.”
“There’s verbal text, the physical text, the subtext and the context. Within these four texts, the actor operates.”
While growing up in Jamshedpur, Kabi, like most sensible people, did not think of Hindi cinema as a career option. “We belong to a family of doctors,” he says. “I found [Hindi cinema] very entertaining, but ultimately, I saw it as so frivolous that I would be ashamed of doing that: dancing around trees and wearing those kinds of costumes. I’d rather be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer. Until I came to college, and we did a play in the first year.” Kabi was a model student in Symbiosis College, Pune (and he has the trophy to prove it), but while he was thinking of ways and means to enter the corporate world, he played the lead in an original Hindi play called Ek Refugee Camp Mein. In the course of it, he lost his heart to acting, and to his future wife, fashion designer Deepali Kosta.
You can say his luck ran out right about that time. What followed was a spate of rejections, which began with the National School of Drama in 1990, and ended when Ship of Theseus released in 2013. “How many auditions I must have given in my lifetime?” he says “Just nothing worked. Nobody called me. It went on and on, endlessly, relentlessly… I’ve [taken up jobs such as] production work, AD, spotboy, all kinds of things. I was the junior copywriter in certain ad agencies. I used to sell books from door-todoor for many, many years. I gave tuitions, home to home, all over the city. All kinds of tuitions: elocution, speech, mathematics, English. And that’s where I learnt a very important thing in my life: humility. My ego got crushed because I was pulped to the ground by everything that was happening to me. You never [imagine] that doors would be slammed on your face, you will be abused, you will be pushed, you will be kicked, so many things will happen to you. And, not for one year, two years, but for ten, 15, 18 long years. That’s where the survival issue came in, and I started to teach [acting]. Because when you get so abused all the time, you lose faith in yourself. And, you think, ‘If you don’t get out now, you’ll fall sick.’ Because you can’t take it every single day of your life.”
“The physical text can only be intelligent if you train in martial arts, classical dance and yoga.”
In this absolute pits of a phase, Kabi found ways to keep himself occupied. He taught himself acting; he apprenticed with theatre legend Veenapani Chawla; he became dimly learned in a few of India’s classical and folk arts such as Kathak and chhau; he directed an inspired production of Hamlet (see above), in which he braided Shakespeare with yakshagana and dhrupad; he started a theatre lab called Pravah, in which he devised a new kind of acting which is “not taken from any book” but involves “a lot of personal experiences, memories from real life;” and he undertook workshops with young adults and white-collar workers so that they could improve themselves through theatre. He also turned his back on the Hindi film industry.
“[My method] is not so much on improvisation or imagination; it’s a lot on logic, honesty and experiences. Everything is felt and experienced, not improvised or imagined.”
Because life has a queer sense of humour, this is when film-maker Anand Gandhi approached him to play Maitreya in Ship of Theseus, an articulate monk who has to choose between a compromised life and certain death. “My instant reaction was ‘no,’” says Kabi. “I told him, ‘I have done too many auditions. I’m tired now. Ab toh main nahi karunga.’ He called up again, and said, ‘Can I meet you? Just listen to me.’ The moment I met him, I was completely sold, because he just made sense to me completely. The money didn’t make sense to me, [but] he was just starting off. And, he asked me to shrink my body. I was struggling at that time to make both ends meet. At that time I took a call that I would do this.” What Kabi lost in weight (17 kilos) to play the role, he gained in admirers. Dibakar Banerjee cast him in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Shyam Benegal in Samvidhaan and Meghna Gulzar in Talvar.
“My technique is multi-layered. So when I’m performing my whole system is working. The system is the body, the breath, the face, the voice and the mind. Everything is working separately and then I put them together.”
Because of his pickiness, you’re more likely to catch a Kabi film at a film festival than at a theatre near you. The makers of two of his films — Taabeer with Prosenjit Chatterjee and Once Again with Shefali Shah — are currently looking high and low for distributors. Two other films, which I caught at MAMI last year — In the Shadows with Manoj Bajpayee and The Hungry with Naseeruddin Shah — are unlikely to find a wide release. And, The Field, co-starring Abhay Deol, is aiming directly for an international release. At least his upcoming performances in Hichki, alongside Rani Mukerji, and in Sacred Games, alongside Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, will be seen by more than a handful of people. He says, “I did Ship of Theseus when I was 42 years old. Because I didn’t get any work [for 22 years], I was even more adamant and angry that I will never go back to this industry. [I’m so selective] because of the respect I give to those 22 long years. To what I did and what I went through.”