Neeraj Kabi and his art of transformation

Neeraj Kabi is finally getting his due. After impressing with his ability to get into the skin of the character in films such as
Ship of Theseus, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! Talvar
and
Hungry,
Neeraj recently impressed with his powerful performance as a wily police officer in
Sacred Games
. Taking forward his association with Netflix, Neeraj is now making news for
Once Again
, the Kanwal Sethi romance between two mature persons. Few know that Neeraj started his film career way back in 1997, with A.K. Bir’s National Award-winning film
The Last Vision,
but it wasn’t until his riveting turn as a monk, a comeback of sorts after a 16-year-long hiatus, in Anand Gandhi’s
Ship of Theseus
that he finally started getting people’s attention. Since then he has been in demand, and has showed an ability to adjust to a more mainstream space with
Hichki
. Having said that, this week he will be seen playing yet another complex character in Deepesh Jain’s festival-favourite
Gali Guleiyan.

Excerpts:

What is

Once Again

all about?

It

is an unconventional love story. The expression of it is not what you see or have been seeing for many years now. In most of our love stories the people are quite young in age.
Once Again
is a love story about two mature people looking for companionship. I play a film star who is a divorcee. My daughter is there but she stays away from me. Shefali plays a restaurant owner who provides me with my meals. That’s how the love story begins. This man is extremely lonely and is looking for a companion. It’s not for seeking sexual pleasure but out of a genuine need for companionship.

I was contacted by someone from JAR Pictures and that’s how I met Kanwal. I read the script and it was an immediate ‘yes’. I have always wanted to do a love story but because I entered the industry pretty late I had some doubts because love stories are typically done by people who are aged 25-30. Of course, the stars do it even at the age of 50-52 but then they are made to look young particularly; they colour their hair black and are decked up in a particular way to be able to perform. Also all these stars who do romantic films they came in when they were 25-26 years old and so the audience have accepted them like that. The only thing I was sceptical about was the thought of audience acceptability. But, I believe the sensitivity with which Kanwal has dealt the subject is commendable.

After a successful festival run,

Gali Guleiyan

is finally set to release. What are your thoughts on the film?

Gali Guleiyan
deals with the psyche of an adult. He hears the shrieks of a child from his adjacent wall and he then fears that the child will be beaten to death by his father. Deeply disturbed, he begins a frantic search for the child.

In the film, I play a father who is caring yet brutally violent at the same time with his own child. There are these huge shifts that you will get to see in this man. You can’t call him a villain. You can’t even call him a victim of circumstances. The film takes you on a very beautiful emotional journey. You really have to watch the film to experience it.

You have been known to get into the skin of every character that you play. How important is the art of disguise for an actor?

I prefer using the term transformation. The whole process of acting is transformation. What is your power, quality and level of transformation, define you as an actor. How much can you transform? Can you transform your body? Can you transform your mind? Can you transform your psyche and ultimately can you transform your soul into that of the character? If you can do that then you are a great performer. That’s what all of acting has turned out to me up till now.

How do you transform and how do you express this transformation to the audience… that is called acting. Many can transform but don’t know how to express it. Many can express but don’t know how to transform. The complete actor is he/she who can transform and express it and take it to the audience and make them feel that transformation.

There was a long gap between

The Last Vision

and

Ship of Theseus

. What kept you busy during those years?

There were many things that kept me occupied but I can’t really talk about them because it’s been a very personal journey of growth for me. Actually, I came to Mumbai from Jamshedpur in 1991 to become an actor. I began searching for work and I was all alone and absolutely empty-handed, no craft and nobody that I knew. So it was a long struggle of 19 years from 1991 to 2010 when
Ship of Theseus
finally came to me.

And even after
Ship of Theseus
it took some time to get going. So those years have been my years of growth, of theatre, of learning, of inventing, of struggling to survive, of pain, of everything.

You are not just an actor but also an acting teacher. How do the two roles differ?

Both are interconnected. You see I have invented my entire methodology single-handedly on my own. Whatever I do is my own invention. So all this seeps into my training as well. So whatever I teach, I research and I practice, and I then put it into performance. And I again go back and teach the same thing. So it’s foolproof because I can see the results happening. When I teach you something, I can show you the result immediately. I do it myself and I show them my work. So I don’t land up showing them other people’s works. It takes a lot of courage to do that but I think it’s the best thing for a teacher to teach by his own examples.

Tell us about your influences and inspirations. Also tell us about your upcoming projects.

My biggest inspiration has been life for me. Basic survival has been my biggest teacher. Surviving in Mumbai for so many years has been a huge ordeal. During my two-decade-long struggle, I think I would have travelled through all the lanes of Mumbai. Walking through them, I have experienced loneliness and there were instances when I had no food in my stomach.

I have done so many kinds of things just to survive. All this after coming from a college where I had won the student of the year award and so from there I had to plunge down absolutely, deep down to basics.

My upcoming projects include
The Field
, directed by Rohit Batra. It’s an international project which also stars Abhay Deol and Ronit Roy. Then I am doing another indie film with Goutam Ghose that also stars Adil Hussain and Tilottama Shome. I am also shooting for a film called
Hunter
with Saif Ali Khan which is directed by Navdeep Singh.

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