Interview Hindi

Meet Jim Sarbh, the man who terrorised 'Neerja' Sonam Kapoor and Kriti Sanon


The rising star plays an possessive lover in Raabta.

Mayur Lookhar

It’s the trailer launch of Raabta. Gracing the occasion is the lead pair — Sushant Singh Rajput and Kriti Sanon, alongwith director Dinesh Vijan, producer Bhushan Kumar, and another gentleman dressed casually, sporting a stubble.

The emcee introduces him as 'the terrorist'. You can't see him clearly, but from 20 rows of chairs behind, he looks like British actor Sacha Baron Cohen. When this writer met Jim Sarbh, he shared only his email id and not his phone number. Sarbh is the man who played the volatile terrorist Khalil in Sonam Kapoor's Neerja.

Sarbh, a Parsi, spent his early years in Australia, before returning to Mumbai at age 8. He continued his schooling at the American School of Bombay, and later studied psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also worked at the Alliance Theatre. Sarbh returned to Mumbai, got busy with theatre before Neerja changed his life.

Speaking exclusively to Cinestaan.com, Sarbh admits to once being a possessive lover, why such (Raabta) subjects are always tricky, how he was more ‘stranger’ than friend on Raabta sets, and why the beef ban doesn't hurt him.

Excerpts from the interaction:

I believe your first feature film was called Ajeeb Ashiq.

(Sarbh breaks in) Not really. That was just an experimental film. It was really a character. It was just a two-day experiment with no script. It’s hard for me to consider that as my debut film.  

Looking at the trailer of Raabta, you sure come across as an Ajeeb Aashiq. Also, the terrorist in Neerja was weird. You’re just a few films old, but does Jim Sarbh has a liking for ajeeb (weird) characters?

(laughs). I don’t know man. Sometimes (in films) you get cast in one role and people assume that is what you are good at. I’ve done all kind of roles in theatre. But I guess, I’m a bit weird compared to the normal kind of actors.  

You seemed a bit reluctant to speak at the press conference. If I recollect well, you walked off after the trailer was launched and had to be called back on the stage. For a guy who has done theatre before, is facing the media such a daunting task?

Well, I’m not used to it (facing the media). I hadn’t done it for Neerja (2016). So, I didn’t really know what was expected of me. I thought now the trailer is shown, I’ll go down and sit. I’m slowly figuring out how I am used and not used. Ideally, I prefer not to talk about a film. I prefer people experiencing a film and then asking me questions. I don’t like the idea of laying everything out.

Raabta has so far thrown a few surprises. First, that it is a reincarnation story, thereafter one is shocked to know that the 324-year-old man in the trailer is Rajkummar Rao. I wonder what’s next? Does the film promise plenty of surprises?

You can say.  

Okay, nothing else to add to that?

I have been told in interviews that you don’t answer anything, so what is the point of asking? My reply would be, ‘I don’t know, why don’t you ask me other questions?’. If it is going to be about the film then I’m going to be completely tight-lipped. They (Raabta) makers have some plans. Let them do it. My job is over.

Can you tell me how your Raabta journey began?

Neerja had just come out. Bling (celebrity management agency) has just signed me on. They had a good connection with Dinesh Vijan (Raabta director). So, I got an audition. The audition was written for a tall, serious guy. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘No, I’m not you’re typical, tall model'. So, I did it my own weird way. I just tried to see whether I can get the other girl to laugh. My understanding of this character was that in this lifetime, he wants to be the fire. He doesn’t want to be the rock. My take on it was what would fire do whilst meeting somebody. So that’s how I played it. The girl in the audition, one prompting me was totally surprised.

I guess this girl was not Kriti Sanon...

No, it was just some girl at Mukesh Chhabra’s office. I did my part. The girl seemed to like it so I just kept pushing it. The guy who was filming said ‘okay’. I told him 'if you want then I’ll do a straight one at the end, but show them this part'. After Neerja, people took me more seriously. In the past when I have done these slightly weird auditions, especially when it wasn’t exactly how it was written, I have been rejected immediately. I would ask the director later whether they have seen it, but they hadn’t. It wasn’t even shown to the director as it didn’t appear to be the character.

I guess you brought a certain originality to the character, and is that what clicked for you at the Raabta audition?

Yeah. Dinesh Vijan and Homi Adajania had both seen it. They liked it but were still unsure. They were on the edge. I was travelling that week. I gave the audition carrying my suitcase there. I went straight to the airport, flew to Paris. I then got a call in Paris saying that they (Vijan, Adajania) liked it. 'Can you Skype (video messenger) with Vijan?' I spoke to him, he then sent me a few more scenes, which I learnt on the plane on my way back to Mumbai. I slept for six hours, went straight the next morning to the place, auditioned all day with Kriti Sanon. Vijan called in the evening to say 'let’s do it'.

He left for Budapest two days later. Before that we had a table reading of the whole script and they left. I had to do all the prep here. I started with a Hindi coach, just working on my ideas, mostly my improvisations. Then I was called to Budapest, and we had a workshop of the script. It was sweet to have my improvisations considered and sometimes woven into the scene. That makes you feel so much more confident.

There was a time, especially the 1990s where Bollywood’s obsessive lovers served as inspiration for crooked minds. Stories of jilted lovers may have worked in the past, but haven’t such stories lost their appeal, especially given the unabated rise in crimes against women. Your thoughts?

It is a tricky subject at all times. The problem that I see in the world is people not being able to let go and I wouldn’t say bow down to fate, but wouldn’t be able to just accept what is happening to them. Instead, we want to rail against it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight, but you also can’t force something’s nature to change. As long as you don’t mind waiting and being in the present, then it is cool. The problem arises when it becomes ‘no, what I want and I will take it no matter who it hurts. It’s not just relationships, but this happens in a profession or any field.

Have you ever experienced a phase where you felt possessive about someone or something?

Yeah, there is this girl I knew in college who had another boyfriend. It strung me for a year.  Her excuse was, ‘I love both of you, I didn’t know what to do, I’m confused’. I thought it was crazy until I found myself in a similar situation later. It happens, you love two people sometime. It’s confusing, you don’t know how to deal with it. You understand that you are hurting someone, but you also want to be with them. It is complicated. I think everybody has had this experience.  

As a psychology graduate, do you have a better understanding of playing characters like the terrorist in Neerja or the possessive lover in Raabta?

I don’t know. Some things come easy to me and then there are things that I have to get out of my head. As long as you can get into the head of the character without putting on a straight jacket, and limiting your possible responses, then I think you should do it. At the end of the day, psychology is important for the reality of a character but there other things that are important like being interested, not being boring, getting the beat of the scene, managing to being surprising while real. These things are a different kind of art. It is not psychology. You have to be open to the fact that even psychology is like trying to get a horse to fix the merry-go-around.

Sushant and Kriti haven’t shied from admitting that there’s a chemistry between them.  How was your raabta with them?

We were all too stressed out in Budapest. We were like the unfortunate breed of hard working actors who would go to their rooms after the scene is shot. There wasn’t much hanging out. We got along fine, we would laugh and joke when we went out. While working on a project, I like two ways of being — one way is where everybody is totally best friends,  especially when you are working with your friends. You can say anything to them. You can hold them accountable to anything. That’s one step, the other is ‘strangers’. The middle ground for me isn’t a fertile place to act. You can be friends afterwards, let the film get over. Meet randomly, become friends then.  

So, were you a stranger in this film?

Yes, I was a stranger. Ajeeb Ashiq.

Getting a Filmfare nomination for your first film Neerja is nothing short of a dream. Do you pinch yourself wondering how it happened?

Just to be up there with some of the those other actors, I was like ‘wow, great'.

The tragedy of the Neerja Bhanot story is that despite she being rightly hailed as a hero across the globe, the whereabouts about her killers remain unknown. It is said that all five of them were released by Pakistan. Neerja, the film, too, didn’t mention anything about them being released. It feels like no justice has been done to Bhanot and other victims of the Pan-Am 73 flight. Do you agree?

From what I had heard, they had all got life imprisonment and then they walked out after serving the 14-year sentence. Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini was captured by the United States and served some 50 years' life imprisonment. He is still in prison. Khalil Hussain was apparently killed in a drone strike somewhere in North East Africa. The others we have no clue about. Imagine what a bizarre world that we live in.  

Don’t you think the film should have shown at the end that the killers were freed by Pakistan?

No, I don’t think so because once you get off the plane, there’s no reason to go back there. Now you’re with Neerja’s mother and the family, how has she affected lives and the change that she can promote. Going back to the plane would have been a flaw in filmmaking.  

I would appreciate another film being made. I wish for more films to be made about how terrorism happens. When you read these stories of how some of the kids who are taken into these camps, it is very hard then to totally judge the situation. We like to make everything black and white in this world. These are kids whose parents have been shot in front of them in refugee camps in Palestine and then picked up and sheltered by these groups. I’m not defending these terror groups. You just can’t blame the child for what he has become. We believe that evil springs out of nowhere, but I believe it springs out of us, it springs out of our society, of the things that we have done. We are not healing it but just condemning terrorism.

I know you won’t tell me about your other films, but you’re listed in the cast for the Sanjay Dutt biopic, then there’s Padmavati and Firangi.

What’s Firangi?

Oh, I guess that information on the net is wrong. It is a Kapil Sharma-produced film, he has also acted in it.  

I don’t know what that (Firangi) is. I can confirm that I’m part of Padmavati and the Sanjay Dutt biopic.  I can’t talk about the latter at all but in Padmavati, I have a very sweet role. I love it. I am having a blast doing it.

The Parsis love their food. Are you disappointed by the beef ban in many parts of the country?

I was a vegetarian for about seven years in between. I started eating meat again because I had to put on weight quickly. I got tired of eating 10 eggs a day, paneer, tofu. I was going crazy. So, I switched back to meat. It doesn’t affect me much. I’m happy to eat mutton, grilled chicken, fish. Parsis are not big on beef. We like our beef, but our staple dishes are mainly made of mutton and chicken. Mutton/chicken dhansak is the best.

You look a bit similar to British actor Sacha Baron Cohen. You’ve done plays at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Was there ever a time when one mistook you for Cohen?

Jim Sarbh (L), Sacha Baron Cohen (R)

I was doing this play called Tennis in Nablus (by Palestinian American Ismail Khalidi). I was playing an Indian guy in Palestine, when the English had taken over. I had grown a big moustache, I'd twist up the edges, twirl it and make people laugh. I went to see Borat — a film by Cohen). I was waiting in the line to the ticket counter and one woman tells me, “He’s (Borat) here, he’s here. Come, come.” The moustache and hair made me look pretty similar to Cohen.

So, did you give that woman an autograph? Did you get a free ticket?

No man. I didn't. Besides, I got nothing.