By Rimli Bhattacharya
Neeraj Kabi is a distinguished Indian film, television and theatre actor. He is the recipient of Best Actor at the 4th Sakhalin International Film Festival, Russia, 2014 in the international competition section for his brilliant role in the movie, Ship of Theseus. Prior to that, he was awarded the Best Actor (Jury special mention), 2013, for the internationally applauded movie Ship of Theseus in remembrance of the cinematic brilliance at the 4th Jagaran Film Festival. In 2015, he was again felicitated with the Newsmakers Achievers’ Award for the Best Actor by NBC for his silent and unwavering roles in Indian Cinema. Neeraj has also trained himself with traditional martial arts and dance forms, which make him all the more adept as an actor in all three mediums: cinema, theatre, and television.
He is the founder and director of Pravah Theatre Laboratory. He is also known for his creativity as a trainer to zealous actors and his group has been regularly conducting workshops for the said purpose.
In a candid chat with Rimli Bhattacharya, Neeraj Kabi speaks on his life as an actor and as a theatre personality. Neeraj is based out of Mumbai, India. An excerpt from the conversation:
Rimli Bhattacharya: Neeraj, tell me something about yourself.
Neeraj Kabi: I was born in 1968 in the city Jamshedpur, Jharkhand State. My grandfather was a doctor. My mother was a school teacher and father an agriculturist and I would call him a sort of farmer. I finished my schooling in Jamshedpur.
RB: When did you realize acting as your true calling? Who inspired you to get into acting and cinema?
NK: My tryst with acting started during my school, when I was in standard nine/ten. I acted in short plays held by my school. My first play in public happened in college, which was Ek Refugee Camp Mein (In a refugee camp). It was a Hindi play for the Mood Indigo Festival, IIT Powai in 1989. It was directed by Rajesh Bhatia, who was a theatre person and was studying at FTII Pune. This show was a part of an all India competition and won the second best production award. I won the best actor award and was smitten by the bug. Back then I met several alumni from NSD and FTII and was fascinated by their ideas and inputs. In fact, I was preparing for GMAT examinations for an MBA degree from the US in systems management, when this transformation took place in me.
RB: You have been associated with cinema and theatre for a long time. How do you see these two mediums? Which is your favorite?
NK: My foundation in theatre is as an actor and director. In cinema, I have been an actor. Both theatre and cinema are unique in their own ways. Both are of equal equilibrium and go parallel. One must act in both cinema and theatre; else you will be a half-baked piece as a performer. I had also acted in a television series Samvidhaan (The making of the constitution in India), directed by Shyam Benegal. I played the role of Mahatma Gandhi. I am currently working for a Web Series called Sacred Games with Netflix directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane. I enjoy working for all three mediums: theatre, movie, and television.
RB: Which role was the best ever you acted in? Also which was your toughest role?
NK: Every role for me is a first time role and I play each role singly. The toughest role I played was in Ship of Theseus, where I played the role of a monk. The emotionally strongest role I played was in the movie Talvar, where I played the role of Dr. Tandon. Talvar was based on a true story on the 2008 Noida Double Murder case.
RB: How many films and plays have you acted in so far?
NK: (Laughs) I have to rewind myself and do the counting for you. I have acted in over fourteen films and twelve plays. My latest film is Hichki (Hiccup), produced by Yash Raj Films and I will be featuring along with Rani Mukerji.
RB: From where did you hone your acting skills? I mean, your alma mater?
NK: I did not train myself as an actor. I am a self-trained man and have invented my own grammar in terms of acting. I do not follow any Western or European Philosophy and am a teacher as well.
RB: What are the challenges you face while acting in films and theatre?
NK: (Pauses) In theatre, the main challenge lies in the physical space. The actor needs to have mastery on the rhythm, breath, and voice to communicate with the audience. The power of voice is of major importance to me as I have never used a mike in my lifetime. On-stage performances of mine had always happened without a mike. In cinema, the character needs to retain the emotional graph. The actor needs to understand context and logic of a scene before acting it out.
RB: Does any of the roles you acted in depict your real life?
NK: No, none of them depicts my real life. (Laughs) I have no time to mix my real life with reel life.
RB: With whom would you like to act again?
NK: It is a tough question and the answer is difficult as I have enjoyed acting with each person I have worked with. It was pleasure acting with all of them.
RB: What are your hobbies? I mean when you are not acting nor teaching, what would you prefer to do?
NK: (Laughs loudly) I have no hobbies. My life revolves in improving my own skills in acting and theatre. I work with children and I teach them. Since last twenty years, I had been working with teens and I enjoy working with them. So that is my life.
RB: Any Hollywood offers?
NK: No, but recently The Field, directed by Rohit Batra, is made in coalition with Indian actors and Hollywood technical team. It is scheduled to release in July 2018. In the past, I was also auditioned by Kathryn Bigelow for the Hollywood movie Zero Dark Thirty and was very close to getting the role.
RB: Where do you see the future of Bollywood cinema in the next five years?
NK: I call it Hindi Film Industry and not Bollywood Cinema. There are two genres: one the Entertainment Industry and the other the Parallel Cinema. The future of Parallel Cinema is very bright. Regarding the entertainment sector, I like to watch them but I haven’t found anything interesting to work with. I would certainly love to work with directors Zoya Akhtar, Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Mira Nair, and Abhishek Chaubey, who are both in entertainment as well as parallel films.
RB (Laughs): I write. Given a chance, will you allow me to pen your autobiography?
NK: (Laughs loudly) Autobiography will happen automatically. As of now no plans. I feel I haven’t done enough of work for an autobiography. May be in future if destiny wishes I will ask Rimli Bhattacharya to pen my autobiography, who knows?
RB: Who are your favorite actors?
NK: There are so many. To name a few of them: Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur, Shriram Lagoo, Anthony Hopkins, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Shabana Azmi.
RB: Is social media a means to promote theatre/acting or is it a complete distraction?
NK: The foundation treatise of social media is supposed to be promoting a piece of work but that is often misused. One should know how to use it. And yes it is useful if, as I said, used with a cognitive mind and in a proper way.
RB: Can you brief us on your upcoming projects?
NK: As I said earlier, the upcoming projects/films are: Sacred games with Netflix, Hichki with Yash Raj Productions, The Field where the Indian cast and crew are in alliance with the Hollywood technical team and In the Shadows with Manoj Bajpayee. All are scheduled to release this year itself.
RB: Neeraj, thanks for your time. Any parting tips for us?
NK: Respect actors. Actors are those professionals who train in the craft of acting and carry the script as well as the character to the audiences. They work in films that help in transformation of either the mind or the perspectives of the audiences watching them. These could be broadly categorized as parallel cinema. Actors are different from entertainers. And more producers and distributors should come forward to carry the work of the actors to the audiences. Do not invest your mind, money, and time in only watching entertainment films.
Rimli Bhattacharya completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. After obtaining an MBA, she worked in the corporate sector. Rimli is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76
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