My big Irrfan Khan moment came when I reached the cafe a half-hour late and saw Nimrat Kaur sitting by herself, waiting. I spied her from a distance, but, unlike Khan’s character, Saajan Fernandez in The Lunchbox, I strode up to her. Unlike her own character in the film, she sat with an iPad “doing some serious Facebooking”. There are precious few actresses to get excited about in Hindi cinema. Most are mannequins who learn excruciatingly slow on the job. Critics and audiences, numbed by repetition, begin to mistake confidence (or sometimes, stark make-up) for talent. The last time we were this thrilled about a new heroine was when Chitrangda Singh dazzled us in Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, in 2003. The intervening decade has made us acutely aware of her limited talents. Kaur, who spends most of the film acting by herself with only a neighbour’s voice for company, appears a lot more promising. An actress worth rooting for, then.

In case you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks, Kaur is the leading lady in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, a film every critic in the country hailed unanimously as the right pick to send to the Oscars. Therefore, naturally, it was the one film the film federation decided against. Kaur is taken aback herself with the way the film has connected with people. “Once, Ritesh and I were coming back from an interview and he was saying it’s unnerving how much adulation [we’ve received]. He was like, ‘We were just doing our jobs’,” says Kaur, trying to put the mega hype into perspective. “Actually, that’s all there is. It’s not a flawless film, it’s not the best film ever made. It’s just made to the best of our abilities and with the right intentions. That’s it.”

Kaur is — to set the record straight — nothing like the Ila she plays in the film. She’s a smart girl with a sharp tongue and bright eyes. A part of her that Batra missed out on capturing is her gigantic laugh. She throws out breathless rat-a-tat peals, inevitably infectious and childlike laughs that are almost always triggered off by what she finds preposterous. And, show business can always be counted on to provide that in spades.

Batra, who’d seen Kaur in a small role in an unreleased film called Peddlers, and as a lead in a theatre production called Baghdad Wedding, was more than impressed. “It was a very demanding and tricky role,” he explains, about the stage part, “and she gave it so much. I knew she could do a lot with the film.” For an acclaimed theatre performer — co-actor Anshuman Jha calls Nimrat “an actress who can do anything”, and one of the best he’s seen in his 13-year career — Kaur’s beginnings oddly came from Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi. “It’s strange when you recognise while growing up that you’re really not into the hero. You’re more into the women,” she smiles. “You want to be them.” Kaur wasn’t a shy kid. She enjoyed performing, and, while she was significantly academically inclined, she knew she’d chuck it all up for greasepaint.

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An army kid, she did her bachelor’s in commerce from Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce — but only because it was the shortest course available. “It was a three-year course. So that choice was made on the basis to get here fast,” she says of her Mumbai move nine years ago. It was a change that took her towards modelling and a couple of music videos, but, also one that ignited a fierce passion for the stage. “I love the medium so much,” she gushes. “It’s never been a stepping stone. It started out as a means of learning something or understanding stuff better, but, it became a way of life. Before I knew it, it was my place of belonging. It has had such a deep impact on my life. How I carry myself, why I’m able to understand some things better.”

I ask if she has a preference between the screen and the stage. “What if you write a column for a travel magazine, or you write one for a newspaper? You’re writing, but, you just have to understand the dynamics of the space. Or, it’s like swimming, whether in the ocean, a pool or a Jacuzzi? It’s that. Your challenges are very different. You have to reach out to many people, your devices are different, the tools are different, but the heart remains the same. Because you’ll catch a lie. Whether on stage or on camera, you’ll catch a lie. On stage, you’re a lot more responsible. A lot depends on you because once the bell rings, then it’s just you till the end. No one controls your performances. There’s nothing to hide behind. You’re there in all physicality. A lot of people say you have to be spontaneous. I don’t think it’s that. I think you have to be responsible and alive. There’s no time to die. You have to be there. It’s a superb discipline,” she says, already geared up for her next play. “You may be playing the same part, but on the 86th day, there’ll be a dead audience. No reaction. That’ll change who you are, change the part you are playing. So, the mortality of that exchange is within two hours, within those 400 people. That’s what they’ll take away, that’s what they’ll remember at the end of the day. But, on film, your luxury of being immortal is far greater. There’s more sophistication in crafting.”

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It’s this sophistication she appreciates in the films she likes as well. Such as Lootera, which she’s seen three times. “I loved it. There was something very languid and easy about that film.” I ask her about Shuddh Desi Romance, which released a month or so ago, and how refreshing it is to see mainstream Hindi cinema with female characters who take charge. “Life’s like that, no?” she asks, with a big smile. “You go to any household, the man may earn for the family, but the decisions are mostly taken by the women. They really are the co-drivers. I don’t think that women are that sad and non-existent in terms of decision-making. Women quietly have their way with everything.”

The following day, she’s taping a reality show called Comedy Circus to promote her film, and while she’s amused by the promotional hoopla — “I went to Lakme Fashion Week!” — she’s more gratified that it’s making her family take notice. “My mum saw it in Delhi and Irrfan was there as well. So it was a big deal. I think she’s taking me seriously for the first time. So far, she’s told me often that ‘hobby hogayi, get a real job, study more, do something else’. My grandmother keeps telling me that I should become a newsreader. But, now, they understand. Otherwise, they’ve had no answers for what I do.” Her biggest trump card, she gloats, is Khan. She off handedly drops an “Irrfan ke saath” into her conversations to impress the family. “He’s such a big star internationally. We just don’t realise it.”

Soon, the family will invariably be boasting about their girl, not her leading man. At the next table, Karisma Kapoor and Malaika Arora are constantly turning in Kaur’s direction, curious and eager, as if sniffing out the shift in spotlight — even if it’s a very different kind of spotlight. They can’t quite place her (even though they can’t stop staring). The Lunchbox hasn’t released yet. But, by the time you read this, she’ll have become more relevant than they’ve ever been. With just one film.

 

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