Swimming in icy Canadian lake was liberating: Nimrat Kaur

The actress has no qualms admitting that Ritesh Batra’s critically acclaimed film The Lunchbox appealed more to an international audience, says she is not dating anyone, and plans to surprise her mother on her 35th birthday today (13 March).

Photo: Shutterbugs images

Mayur Lookhar

It is not often that one uses the word delicious to define an actress. It is not about her beauty per se; Nimrat Kaur has served us treats in gluttonous films like The Lunchbox (2013) and Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012). The aromatic talents of Nimrat Kaur are hard to resist. But there is more to her than just being Ila (The Lunchbox) and Muskaan Khurana (Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana).

Hailing from an army family, the Rajasthan-born actress had to live out of suitcase before the family finally settled in Delhi following the loss of her father who was killed in troubled Kashmir.

A late bloomer, Nimrat Kaur won critical acclaim for The Lunchbox and last year was part of the commercially successful drama Airlift. The Lunchbox opened up new international avenues for the actress who has since starred in popular American TV show Homeland and played a part in sci-fi thriller show Wayward Pines.

She was in Odisha shooting for a web series being directed by Nagesh Kukunoor. Despite her hectic schedule, Nimrat Kaur took time off to speak to over two telephonic conversations. Kaur, who turns 35 today (13 March), spoke about why she couldn’t take up much work after The Lunchbox, why she doesn’t do much research for a film like Airlift, what prompted her to dive into a lake in Canada in 4°C temperature, and more. Excerpts:

Wonder how many people get to say my birthday is a national HOLI-day. The whole country will be celebrating your birthday on 13 March.

(Laughs) Yeah, that is true, but it doesn’t happen every year. You can’t have a full moon on every birthday. It’s nice though to be at home on your birthday.

Are you fond of Holi?

No, not really. I don’t play Holi. I have never liked the idea of getting dirty and then having a bath. Right from the time I was a child, I always feared Holi. What I like about the festival is the gujias [a sweet]. Mummy used to get gujias from the market. We did play a little bit with colours at home. That’s considered auspicious, but I don’t play full-on Holi.

You served up a wonderful treat in The Lunchbox. What will Nimrat Kaur be treating herself to on her birthday?

I’m going to be treating myself to a fabulous family dinner. I’m going to be paying a surprise visit home. My sister has planned everything. We will be going to my favourite restaurant in Delhi, Bukhara. 

Four years on, you are still referred to as the The Lunchbox actress. Does that bother you?

I would love it if I’m referred to as The Lunchbox actress for the rest of my life. A film like that doesn’t happen to many people. It is a film that goes beyond box-office records or anything that has to do with what you measure a movie by. Some films are there in our hearts forever. I know for a fact that The Lunchbox is one such film for many people. 

Since The Lunchbox, you have only figured in one full-length feature film, Airlift. Is that by choice or just destiny?

I think it is part chance, part choice. After The Lunchbox, I was filming for five months for Homeland and then I came back and did Airlift, which took a very long time to make. It took a year's shooting across staggered dates to complete the film. After that I was in Vancouver, Canada, shooting for Wayward Pines. I have now finished that and am working on a web series. I don't take up work by the kg [kilogram]. I like to take up work that interests me, stuff that I would like to watch myself. There were a few interesting things which I couldn't take up. However, those things aren't in your control.

Were they plum offers from Bollywood that you couldn't take?

For me, everything is a plum offer from anywhere. I don't look at anything as a small or big opportunity.

Airlift was a commercial success, but what has that film done for your career?

It has only done good things for my career. To be part of a big canvas like that, I reached out to an audience base which I hadn't been exposed to before. As special a film as it was, The Lunchbox was a niche film, which perhaps appealed to more people internationally than in our country. So, in terms of audience reach, Airlift had a far deeper reach. I enjoyed being part of an Akshay Kumar film. So, there is lots to be happy about Airlift.

Airlift was inspired by a true story, and while a director can exercise creative liberty, how wise was it to create a character, Ranjit Katyal, a Punjabi who is opposite to the real hero, Mathunny Mathew, who hailed from Kerala. I understand that Raja Krishna Menon perhaps wanted to sell the film to a mass audience. But doesn’t turning a Mathunny Mathew into a Ranjit Katyal take away the former’s identity and, perhaps, even a bit of his glory?

I was given a script of a film which I really loved. I didn't do research like a journalist on a subject the way you have done. I picked up the script and really liked it. I didn't look left or right, I could relate to it right away. There was an emotional connection with a lot of people who have gone through that journey. It is a film that audiences loved, one that I am very proud of. The rest is an academic take on something that I don't really have. I am an artist and I'm here to tell a story. It's not my job to see who was quoted right, who was not represented right.

The Lunchbox opened up international avenues for you, first with Homeland and now Wayward Pines. Back home, most of us have no access to these shows, but how has the audience there received you? Can you summarize your journey in the West so far?

Homeland was lapped up well. It was a great opportunity to be part of that show. I got to play a part that I have never played before. It was a complete badass, out-of-the-box kind of part. The response to Homeland was fantastic. Wayward Pines was comparatively an okay experience, because it was a smaller, niche show. I took up the show because it was an interesting character. I was paired opposite Jason Patrick in a lead cast billing. So it upped the game for me. I would like to believe that it has been liked by the audience it was watched by. Besides, I don't sit and get into ratings.

You are said to be doing a project called Tip Top Taj Mahal. That’s an intriguing title. Hope the film is not about helping the UP government to maintain the Taj Mahal.

No, not at all. I’m currently shooting for Nagesh Kukunoor’s web series, still untitled,  for ALT Digital [the over-the-top platform of Balaji Telefilms]. I play an army officer in it. As for Tip Top Taj Mahal, it is just a script that has come to me. I have liked it, but there is nothing else to say about it. Besides, there is nothing in place for that project yet.

What is the status on the theatrical release of Peddlers (2013) in India?

None at all. I really doubt it will happen. It was filmed long back. I wish for it to be released, but I doubt it will get a theatrical release.

And it was also reported that you were supposed to do a psychological thriller with Rajkummar Rao that was to be directed by Saurabh Shukla.

That’s true. Sadly, that film never happened. The script was very interesting, it was to be produced by Nikhil Advani. It is unfortunate that the film didn’t come together. I think it has now been made into a play. It would have been great working with Rajkummar Rao, someone whom I a respect a lot as an actor.

Be it Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta, Sushmita Sen or you, what is it about daughters of army personnel that attracts them to the entertainment industry?

I can't speak for the others, but I have been involved in the performing arts since the age of 5 or 6. I have performed in school and college. Army kids tend to grow up in a liberal and very confident environment. You keep moving every two-three years, you go to new schools, make new friends. So, there is no concept of a comfort zone for us while growing up. We don’t have childhood building friends for 25 years, like how normal kids do. So, we are not shy of meeting new people, new environments which is a big part of an actor’s life. I feel that is a common thread in army life and an actor’s life. That’s probably why you find so many army girls in the entertainment industry.

Today one young girl, Gurmehar Kaur, has made headlines for raising her voice against violence in colleges. But instead of addressing the core issue, questions are being raised about how her father was not martyred in war but killed at the hands of terrorists. You too lost your father to terrorists. What do you make of the saga?

I have absolutely nothing to say on that topic. I haven’t followed it, I have just read stuff fleetingly that doesn’t amount to any legitimate comment on it. There are millions who have lost their dear ones to terrorism. There is tragedy all around the world. I’m sorry, but I have nothing to say on the issue.

You were the toast of social media a while ago when you posted pictures of you swimming in a lake in Canada. Was that merely a personal post and were you surprised how it raised mercury levels in India?

I think what happens is that we all get excited by something that we see for the moment, we all have fun talking about it for that time being, and then we move on. It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing for me. I had a lot of fun doing it. In India, we don’t have the liberty to do such things. You can’t do such things while trekking in Uttarakhand. It was almost a child-like moment for me. There were just two girls in a forest. I got challenged by a girl who has grown up in Canada, so I took it up. 

Well, most people take the ice-bucket challenge, but you have taken it to another freezing level.

(Laughs) It was crazy. I can’t even tell you how hurting it was. The warming up process took two hours. It was bone-chilling. The temperature of the lake was about 4° Celsius. [But] I will do it in a heartbeat all over again. It was a very liberating experience.

We hardly get to read about your personal life. Are you dating someone?

(Pauses) To answer your question, no, I’m not dating anyone. Even if I do, I’m pretty sure that I will not talk about it unless there is a need for it. I don't talk because these are sensitive subjects and they can get difficult to handle if things don’t go right.

I’ve tried so hard, spoken to many dabbawalas, even threatened a few, but I still haven’t been able to get my hands on Ila’s lunchbox. So, where do we find it?

(Laughs) I think you need to meet Ritesh Batra for that. He is the guy who has made that kind of story. You were looking for the wrong dabbawala.