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Interview Hindi

Have always been hungry for a love story: Neeraj Kabi on playing romantic hero in Once Again

After a monk in Ship Of Theseus, Gandhi twice, an opium dealer in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and a machiavellian police officer in the web-series Sacred Games, this versatile actor is set to romance Shefali Shah in the sweet drama. 

Shriram Iyengar

Since the release of Netflix's blockbuster, Sacred Games back in June, it is difficult to separate Neeraj Kabi's name from the image of a manipulative, worldly, wise police officer Parulkar that he plays. But Kabi has become synonymous with the complex, intriguing characters through his impeccable choice of films in the last couple of years. From the Hamletian Maitreya in Ship Of Theseus (2013) to the tragic Dr. Talvar in Talvar (2015) and the snobbish Mr. Wadia in this year's Hichki (2018), the actor has finally broken through into an industry that refused to accept him 20 years ago. 

But that is not enough. After having donned the khaki for Sacred Games, a rite of passage for many an actor in the industry, Kabi is set to play the romantic lead in Kanwal Sethi's Once Again. The film, which will be released on Netflix, also stars Shefali Shah, Rasika Dugal and Priyanshu Painyuli, among others. 

In Once Again, Kabi plays Amar, an actor who falls in love with Tara, a widowed mother, who runs a restaurant that he frequents. 

A still from Once Again 

In some ways, Kabi shares some features with his character in Once Again. For an actor who has fought against conventions to gain visibility, he maintains a notoriously low profile. 

"My job is to act," he states matter-of-factly, "That's all I do. I have never really gone off to be in the public eye, because my work has to be in the public eye. I've tried to keep my focus on that as much as possible."

Yet, notice him people have. The recognition comes after quite a struggle. Kabi spent a good part of two decades after his debut in AK Bir's The Last Vision (1997), trying to break through in the industry. Failing which, he took on multiple jobs, returned to theatre and taught acting, refusing to give up. With Once Again, it finally comes full circle. 

In a casual interview with Cinestaan.com, Neeraj Kabi spoke about the choices he makes, the dignity he brings to his characters, and how within his very 'method' actor lurks yet another dreamer of Swiss mountaintops and romantic songs. Excerpts.

For an actor who has had quite the flourish in the last couple of years, you maintain an almost reclusive profile. Why so?

My job is to act. That's all I do. I have never really gone off to be in the public eye, because my work has to be in the public eye. I've tried to keep my focus on that as much as possible. That helps me to put my mind most to what I am doing. It is a very conscious effort not to put myself into a publicity arena. Although we need that, but I have tried to stick to the work as much as possible. 

That must have begun to change. This year alone you had Hichki, which was received well, and of course, Sacred Games. You also have Gali Guleiyan, and Once Again coming up. Is the attention starting to get there? Or is it bothering? 

No, it's wonderful when audiences in the country are taking notice of what you are doing. Earlier it used to be only a particular class of people watching the work I did, right from Ship Of Theseus to Byomkesh [Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)]. Now, it is beautiful because when you walk down the streets people are talking about the space from which you operate. They also quote the films they have seen of yours. 

It has begun to happen this year specifically. Earlier, I would get messages from producers, directors, actors in the industry, but I never got people coming up from the mass audiences. 

When I perform as an actor, it has never been for a particular class of audience. It has always been to reach out to everybody, but not at the cost of the dignity of the craft. I don't want to be known just because I am seen in multiple serials, or ads, or films. I approach my work with a lot of dignity where everything I do has some kind of a substance, value for the audience. So that they will remember my work in terms of quality. 

Once Again must feel like a nice change of pace. You are now a romantic lead, after playing the machiavellian commissioner Parulkar, and the ambiguous Dr Talvar. Why did you choose Kanwal Sethi's film? 

I picked it simply because it was a love story, and I have been hungry for a love story for such a long time. I have always wanted to do this genre which I have never, never attempted. I have done Gandhi for Shyam Benegal [in Television series Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India (2014)] and Gurinder Chadha [in Viceroy's House (2017)], a monk in Ship Of Theseus, and a villain in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, and Talvar was a tragedy. All of the navarasas have been touched upon, except shringara, which is romance. This is something I was waiting for. 

I also entered the industry quite late. So you normally say that if I were young I could have done a love story. But that's not true. Here I am! At the age of 48, I am doing a love story. These are things one wants to do - to break conventions. All kinds of conventions that people tell you 'This is the way it is, this is how it runs'. I have always wanted to break that. 

Who told you you have to have black hair and be young in order to be a romantic hero? I am doing it now. 

To put Once Again down as a simple love story would be unfair as well. Your character, from the trailer, appears to have these layers of loneliness, insecurity built in. Is it a prerequisite for you to choose characters that have multiple layers to them? 

No, I don't choose characters that are layered. The characters that is offered to me, I find multiple layers to them. Whatever character you give me, my job as an actor is to layer it. The more complex it is, the more the audiences will involve themselves with it. I have always kept a stance that you should never be able to guess what the character is. The moment you define a character that I am performing, I have failed as an actor.

Parulkar is not just a villain, there are so many layers to that man. You have a film star in this film. He is lonely, he is insecure. He has a daughter, whom he loves so much. Yet, he is also madly in love. He does not show the passion, but you can feel the passion inside. He is not jumping off a cliff, but he still is madly in love. 

What drew you to this romantic story in particular? 

This love story is beautiful because it is not a conventional young-age love story. Stories like this have been made earlier. There's been Ijaazat (1987), Aandhi (1975), and so many others. But they are rare. It is not just about love. It is about so many things. It is about the family, the way society treats it, and the need for love. It is not about saying love in the middle age is good or bad. We are not trying to challenge it, about falling in love when you have children. We are just putting it in front of you. You judge it for what it is. 

You mentioned that 20 years ago, you did not get a chance to play a role like this. If 20 years ago, Neeraj Kabi were offered a romantic lead in a proper commercial Hindi film, would he have taken it up? 

No idea, yaar. I guess I would have. I choose a lot nowadays because I entered late. When you enter late, you need to be extremely cautious and need to have a focussed mind as to what you would like to pick up. I am here to survive for the next 20-30 years. If I have to do that, I have to be careful of what I pick up. These choices are not creative, they are business choices that I am making because I want to be here for many many years. 

If I were about 25 [years old], when I entered the industry, like many of them. Then I wouldn't have bothered. I would have done everything, right from ads to serials to commercial films, and good work. I would have had age on my side. 

I have seen so many people, in hundreds, who have come from NSD [National School of Drama] and various institutes, and have just gone away. Nobody has ever seen them again. It is such a pity that such good actors have vanished away without much work, because they made the wrong choices. They were simply written off. Some of them were such good actors, really good actors from the institutes.

Is there a sense of regret that the roles coming your way now, if they had come to you back then, would it have been a different story? 

No, yaar. No, because I guess if I am doing a Ship Of Theseus today, without having gone through the years without work in the industry, I couldn't have done it. I guess it requires that kind of waiting, that kind of struggle, pain that I had to go through to be able to do that role of the monk. If that role was offered to me 20 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do that. It would have been a very mediocre performance. 

Neeraj Kabi in Ship Of Theseus

In an interview, you had mentioned that when you put on the khaki uniform for Sacred Games, you felt that you had finally entered the industry. 

[Laughs] Yeah, because I had never worn a khaki uniform and I had seen all the entertainers and stars wear this khaki uniform at one time or the other. I have always had this amazing tryst with the fact that I have always wanted to do commercial films. But good quality. I have always imagined myself doing things like a cop's role. Then when I took on Parulkar, I felt that 'Haan [yes], now I have come here'. 

Now that you're playing a romantic lead, it's another level you've crossed over. 

Yes, it is like that. In fact, I wanted to be on snow mountaintops or with the rains and singing songs [laughs]. But I guess this is a better version of it. I have always imagined myself doing that. An aerial shot of me on top of a mountain, with my heroine in a chiffon saree, while I wear a beautiful jacket [laughs]. This was my romanticisation of things. 

I want to do a lot of good commercial cinema. One side is the kind of work that I do, then there are some great films by Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar, Abhishek Kapoor. I love their films. You enjoy doing these kinds of films. 

You do seem to have a busy schedule with Gali Guleiyan, and Once Again adding to your list in 2018. What other projects are you working on? 

Well, there is The Field with Rohit Batra. I have already shot for it. It is in post-production, and will be ready very soon. I have done another film with the great Goutam Ghose in Ranchi. It will also be out soon. 

I am working with Navdeep Singh in Hunter, teaming up with Saif Ali Khan again, and I am doing a web-series with Applause called Strike Back. 

With so many projects, do you still find time for theatre? 

Yeah, I have my own theatre company [Pravah], and I will be directing now. I have not directed for a very long time. 

You had also mentioned that you would like to direct a film someday. Any progress on that? 

Not immediately, but yes, one day I will. Eventually, my theatre company will also come into films. In the next couple of years, three years, we will begin to script and make a film. Film is very much in my leaning. So I will not only be directing theatre, I will be directing films as well.