Actor Neeraj Kabi struggled for more than a decade and a half with no work at all, not even dubbing assignments, before he made his mark in Ship of Theseus (2012). With films like Talvar (2015), and popular web series such as Taj Mahal 1989 and Paatal Lok – where he played the media baron – he has since come a long way. Kabi now returns with Avrodh: The Siege Within, a web series on SonyLIV based on Uri surgical strikes of 2016, where he plays the National Security Advisor (NSA). In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Giridhar Jha, the 52-year-old veteran talks about his extraordinary journey in Bollywood and beyond. Excerpts from the interview:
Let’s start with Avrodh: The Siege Within. Tell us about this web series and your character…
Avrodh: The Siege Within is based on the 2016 Uri surgical strikes by the armed forces in retaliation to what the terrorists had done to us. A film (Vicky Kaushal-starrer, Uri/2019) has already been made on the incident but Avrodh has far more detailing, far more information because it has a longer space and time. I play the role of the National Security Advisor (NSA) by the name of Shailesh Malaviya. It is based on a real life designation (NSA) in the Indian government, a person who reports to the Prime minister directly on internal and international security. It is loosely based on all the former NSAs. It is not about any one particular NSA. It is not a biopic that I am playing.
Not entirely on Mr Ajit Doval, the incumbent NSA?
Not at all. We had to do research on all of them, not only Mr Ajit Doval. We had to read up on them and see their videos to understand their mind and their psychology before creating a character on our own. We had to be extremely careful because we were portraying somebody with a real life and responsible designation. It had to be played with that sense of authority, integrity, logic and honesty. One had to do immense research to be able to get into the shoes of an NSA.
But Mr Doval has been in the news so much for a long time that his persona must have been at the back of your mind while portraying this role. Wasn’t it?
It (surgical strikes) happened during his tenure. While playing the character, not just Ajit Doval Sahab, but all his predecessors were coming into the mind. Of course, a lot of the thoughts were coming from Mr Doval Sahab also because he was there at that time. So he was predominant over there but it is not a biopic. You cannot mimic or create what he thought personally. That cannot go into this. But yes, his aggressiveness, his philosophies, his policies that he was inventing at that time. He was the one who said ‘let’s go for an all-out operation that will wipe out every terrorist joint’. But then, there are so many other agencies working in tandem. There is a state policy, there is government intelligence, there are armed forces, everything is there and the NSA has to deal with and please every agency to be able to make a common decision. It is not easy; it is a tough job out there.
What is the main difference for you as an actor between the characters based on real life people, dead or alive, and the fictional ones?
The roles based on real people are easier for me because there is a lot of information available about them; so one goes into the mind and psyche of such people. At the same time, it becomes very responsible. There is a huge responsibility of performing such people because they are living people. You cannot play them wrong at all at any point of time. The moment you play them wrong, you will raise a lot of issues with the audiences and the public at large. They are very delicate and sensitive roles. In contrast, fictitious roles such as the one played in Taj Mahal 1989, have a different way of preparation because those people don’t exist. They are the imagination of a writer’s mind. We recreate what we have been given or have taken from the writers. Such characters offer more scope to experiment and explore. Iska koi dayra nahin nahi (There are no limits) but for real life people, there is a parameter. Bandish hain, bandish ke andar hi humen kaam karna padta hai (We have to work within certain limitations).
Though Avrodh is based on a real event, has its makers taken any so-called cinematic liberty?
That is a question that the director or the producer will answer the best because I have not been part of the pre-production stage. One thing I can tell you definitely is that it is based on the first chapter of the book, India’s Most Fearless written by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh. So it has a lot of authentic facts because when they wrote it, immense research and on-the-field work went behind it, which means they were actually living with the armed force to be able to gather all kinds of information. So there is a huge amount of authenticity because it borrows a lot from armed forces from real documentation about real incidents. Whether the makers of the show have taken cinematic liberty or not, only the director and the writers can give the best answer.
The popularity of over-the-top (OTT) platforms has risen manifold during the lockdown. Even feature films are premiering through digital routes. Will this trend continue in future as well?
At this point of time, this is the norm. Everything is on the OTT. It is ruling in a very big way. But I am very certain that once things are back to normal, people are going to rush back to the theatres and the multiplexes to watch films on 70MM. That is for sure. But this experience of ours of the last three-four months of being glued to OTT, when even feature films are opening up on digital medium, has given us a sort of a culture of viewing art and cinema. This culture will remain for quite some time. I think even after the pandemic goes away, we will still have this culture remaining for a long time to come. Having said that, I am certain the multiplexes will open up in a big way with far more better content coming out. Right now, we are experiencing great content. I am sure cinema will borrow a lot from this and it will reinvent itself to another level. I am positive about it. For us actors, it is a great time. Although OTT is a recent platform, its importance has increased a lot during the lockdown. Had lockdown not been there, we still would have had the option of going to multiplexes but OTT has become everything today in our life.
The advent of OTT platforms appears to be a blessing for small-budget, indie films which struggled to get screens at the multiplexes earlier on. Isn’t it?
Recently, I was going through a library on an OTT platform and I saw a whole bunch of great cinema from all over: Polish films, Japanese, French, Indian, Bengali, Malayalam cinema. I am talking about the greats such as Satyajit Ray, Adoor Goapalakrishnan, Mani Kaul – who represented Indian cinema. I am pleasantly surprised that all of that is available right now on our TV sets. I could not have thought of seeing Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda (1992) by Shyam Benegal on my TV set some years ago. I could not have seen the films of Fellini, Godard and Kurosawa. All kinds of films are on TV now.
Do you think it will spell doom for the star system since so many raw talents have found a platform?
There are two things. One is that the star system will not be as bright as it had been for so many years. It will always prevail. Audiences will always want to see good-looking faces, well-built bodies. That will always be there. There is no way that it will die off completely. That part of the brain of the audience will always exist; a brain that wants thrill, that wants to be entertained, that wants to watch good-looking men and women onscreen. That will not go. That is what the star system is all about. It is about looks, body, dancing ability and all of that, that will never die off. Although it has already started to reduce quite a lot and content-driven films and actor’s authentic performances are being given a lot of preference now. There is already a huge audience now accepting and enjoying great performances and authentic acting. It is not mere entertainment. It will grow further. The audiences’ sensibility has changed multi-fold over the past two years. They have been seeing such great content. Right from Ship of Theseus, as an actor, I have been surprised over the kind of response I have been getting when I am in public. I had never thought that even Naseeruddin Shah, after doing Mandi (1983) of Shyam Benegal, will be known by people. Today, when Mr Shah goes out, people recognise and love him and wait for his films. People are dying to see the performances of the likes of the late Irrfan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee. There are a handful of actors who are doing one kind of cinema that is authentic and acting-oriented cinema. That is going to be there.
There has been a sea change in Bollywood in the past decade with the success of content-rich, small-budget cinema. How do you look at this phenomenon?
I think Anurag Kahsyap’s Black Friday (2005) is what triggered it off. And even Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). They ushered in a different kind of film-making and then, of course, Ship of Theseus was the icing on the cake. It just blew out everything. A film like that went for housefull shows in multiplexes all over the country. That was the absolute turning point for me. I went to see it at a night show and I saw people giving us standing ovations, clapping. I had never seen something like that. I could not believe that people were actually standing up to clap and whistle. I had seen Mithun Chakravorty’s films where people would whistle and throw coins on screen but never had I seen people doing it with so much integrity. I think the change began with everybody from the Hindi film industry acknowledging a film like that. Anurag Kashyap went on to say that ‘watching Ship of Theseus makes us feel ashamed of the kind of cinema we are making’ or something to that effect. That way, we got a lot of audience for a film like Talvar (2015). It ran past those star-driven films which were released alongside at the box office. I think 2013-14 is the turning point where it was evident that audiences had changed and were looking for something else. That was the most blessed change that any actor could have asked for.
You made your debut quite early with The Last Vision (1997) but it took you long time to come back to cinema. Were you not getting good enough roles in that period?
Forget about good enough roles, I was not getting anything at all. There was no work despite auditioning every single day, travelling long distances by train and buses, standing in long queues with token numbers. Nothing came out for years. I kept doing it on and on for about 14-15-16-17 years, but nothing happened. So I took to theatre those days and built my foundation there. In that period, I kept training myself as an actor while doing multiple odd jobs just to make a living. I could not have been that bad as an actor but there was just nothing for me at all. Those days we did not have enough options and so many platforms. They were very limited. I even tried my voice. I knew I had a good voice and gave so many dubbing auditions, but just nothing came out.
There has been an outsider-versus-insider debate in the film industry lately. Did you also face rejections for being an outsider?
This is something I cannot speak of because it is a very sensitive topic. I cannot go into who did this and how it happened. But, yes, it happens to almost everybody who comes from outside. I have also gone through it very very deeply, and still go through. One does not talk about it because I don’t think it is the right approach. You have to fight with your skills and calibre. You cannot force anybody to give you a job. The producers head private organisations, not government-run agencies and they can choose who to take in their films. It is their personal choice. Although there is a favourite here and a camp here and you are a victim and all of that, you have to continuously improve your skills and talent to be accepted. It has been like that for me. It will always remain like that, however frustrated and angry one feels. But then, people are already raising the voices. And changes will take place. How long will you keep working with those few actors and entertainers? You cannot do that. OTT has proved that there are immense raw and outsider talents, which are not from the film fraternity.
What has been the feedback to your performances in Taj Mahal 1989 and Paatal Lok lately?
Very encouraging and very beautiful for both Taj Mahal 1989 and Paatal Lok. It has been such a blessing to see how the audiences appreciate your work. I am very fortunate that by now, I have been able to create a very large audience database for myself and my work. They wait for your work so passionately, which is so encouraging. The moment my work comes out, my phones don’t stop ringing for weeks together. Just now, as I am talking to you, I have received a three-page mail, saying lovely things about all my work and dissecting it right from Ship Of Theseus to Paatal Lok. It is a blessing, indeed.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine