Neeraj Kabi made a quiet re-entry into films with his 2012 release Ship of Theseus and from thereon slowly and steadily began making a mark as an actor to watch out for with films like Talvar and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. But the last eight months have proven to be the most successful till now; in March he played the antagonist to Rani Mukerji in Hichki and in July he turned DCP Parulkar in Sacred Games. A few days back, he turned into a romantic for another Netflix project called Once Again, where he plays an aging superstar who falls in love. He is in a happy space currently, as all these three projects have been successful with audience members. Read on to know more about the man, his craft and his struggle.
Your first film was in 1997 (Shesha Drushti an Odiya film) and your next film, Ship of Theseus, released in 2012 – why was there such a long gap and what did this period teach you?
Those 14 years were involved in surviving, finding a living in the city with a family and at the same time getting into theatre. I did a lot of work in theatre, opened my theatre company, called Pravah in 2003 and started to direct my own plays. I was still auditioning and doing a lot of odd jobs . So from 1991 to 2010 I wasn’t acting anywhere, theatre was on, that was the only place where I could continue learning and growing and I taught myself a lot of things to survive, like teaching …workshops was another thing like how to train people, because I never went to any acting school and I had no teachers of acting in my life. The whole journey has been about self training and understanding the craft, finding means to train myself.
Even the journey post Ship of Theseus wasn’t so smooth…
I shot the film in 2010, the film released in 2012…the film, it seemed, was not going to be made at all from the way it was going. There were no funds, Anand was struggling…Then I got Talvar and Byomkesh and then again there was a long gap. So the struggle continued. Things began to change after Hichki, whereas work began to flow on its own rather than me going out and fetching it. So it has taken me nearly 27 years to settle down – so now I can choose my projects, choose my roles, like if it is a small role I won’t do it. I can demand a fee now.
But the struggle is still on, I haven’t done a commercial film…the way the industry works is in two sectors, one is the entertainment sector, the other is the parallel cinema sector. By parallel cinema, I mean actors like Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkumar Rao, Manoj Bajpayee, and the entertainment sector has the stars and the superstars. So, when you haven’t done commercial work, the task is 10 times more difficult to survive and get work. You have to be associated with something that is entertaining and exciting to the audience… and if the audience approves you, laugh at what you do and cry with you then you come into the market. This is something that I haven’t done and I refuse to, to be popular and to get more work. I would not stoop down to do anything just to get popular and get the whistles from the audience.
Do you believe that a lot of your work has portrayed you in black or grey roles, with Byomkesh or Sacred Games or Hichki?
If you are playing grey shades, then there has to be tones of grey in your performances. If all your grey shades are similar to what you have played in your films, then that is not acting, it is called mincing your own things. But Yang Gwang in Byomkesh is starkly different from Parulkar or from what you saw in Talvar or what you will see in a film called Field (an international project). This requires craft and this is where you need to be an actor, you cannot just be an entertainer, you cannot manage that. There are people with grey shades in real life as well, they are not showing you red eyes and ugly teeth all the time like a villain. There are human elements to these grey characters, like in Sacred Games Parulkar is also a beautiful human being, he is a gentleman and also a ruthless monster, so this is called performing a villain. You just don’t play him bad, it is unreal and fake.
You are playing a romantic lead in your next project called Once Again, How was it to play one at the age of 50, something which our Hindi film superstars have been doing for a while?
It is very difficult to play this role because when an entertainer plays the role, they have been part of the industry since they were 25 years old. They came with black hair and sweet looks, audiences have already accepted them as a romantic hero, so they don’t have to pull it off much now. They just have to be on the screen and people will love them, as they created their reputation as romantic heroes. I entered the industry when I’m 50 with grey hair. And it is not easy to perform a romantic role for the same audience who are used to entertainers and song and dance and now we are giving them something real, will they accept it? But after doing that, one realizes that the audience is so varied in the country and across the globe. Today Once Again is ruling the Netflix charts. I couldn’t have imagined this in my lifetime, people have seen the film 4-5 times already and are calling from across the globe and writing so beautifully about how till now they have been cheated on the emotion of love in films and shows till now etc. In fact, there are people who want a trilogy to be made out of the film.
This proves that we can’t take the audience for granted by saying who will see this type or that type of film, they are watching it. Imagine Ship of Theseus ran for houseful shows across the country, there was no hero, no heroine, no song, no dance a steady slow film and there were people clapping in the film. I was crying when I saw people clapping, it was something that I hadn’t imagined given the struggle of 20-25 years of doing odd jobs of being beaten up and thrown around and abused and seeing this. I’m loving my audience now, I’m hoping we can do a lot more stuff now. But it will take time, like I recently went to see a beautiful film but there were only 10 people in the hall. I’m a die-hard romantic person, doing a romantic role is probably one of the most difficult emotions to play. A love story that I truly want to see is between two people who don’t look conventionally beautiful. I want to see it between two people who are very ugly in conventional terms and their love story will be called craft.
Playing DCP Parulkar has got you a lot of adulation and attention.
Soon after the show was released on Netflix, I was called Parulkar everywhere I went. In fact, at restaurants I was getting these complimentary meals and these were expensive places, but the team would say it is for Parulkar sir. It was so beautiful. I was at a mall recently and so many people came up to talk about Ship or Talvar and Hichki. This is besides the people who come up for selfies.
You are back with Saif Ali Khan in Hunter after Sacred Games.
In Hunter, I’m doing only one portion, it is a very different film. It is a huge film like Padmaavat and will be launched in a big way.
Are there actors who keep you on your toes or you feel competitive towards?
I really admire Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Manoj Bajpayee and Adil Hussain, they are fantastic actors. I do my work and they do theirs. I don’t see them as competition, that is a wrong way of seeing. I idolize names like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur and Dr Sriram Lagoo; they represent Indian acting across the globe and the list ends here.
A lot of people believe that there is a certain amount of vengeance in most of your performances, like you want to prove something. True?
After having waited for so many years and having reached where you have, you would want to put across many things to the industry. The vengeance is towards creating good work and craft, my vengeance is why don’t you recognize good work? Why don’t producers come down to work with actors? Why isn’t money being pumped into our kind of work? If treated in a particular way then we can take our work outside of the country to showcase true Indian talent. Why are we showcasing low quality work all over the world? Why are we recognized as a low, cheap quality film-making country? There should be more scripts for actors, money should be pumped in and distributors shouldn’t just turn up and say nahi chalegi, hero nahi hai etc etc! People can earn millions if they invest in actors and talents. We are multi million worth actors, but we still haven’t reached there, why is there an imbalance?
Do you still conduct workshops to train younger talents?
Yes, I still teach. Workshops are for pumping in good talent into the industry, that is a commitment. We want to change the way actors are treated and are performing in the country. So, I keep on doing my work and keep on training more people and hoping that we will have a huge bank of actors in the country. So, we have a balanced industry not just of entertainers but of great films and good actors. Every time, we take an example, we take of the west, but why should we do that?