Neeraj Kabi and His Art of Transformation

by September 4, 2018 0 comments

Neeraj Kabi and His Art of TransformationThe versatile actor talks about his art of transforming himself according to different roles and his long struggle in the Hindi film industry.

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 and finally got his due.

Actor Neeraj Kabi still believes that the energy of theatre will keep other media alive. If you have trouble recalling, there is Parulkar in Sacred Games, villainous, ready to do the bidding for the one who will pay the highest price and does not mind shifting sides. Then there is Amar Kumar, a star in Once Again, who is not comfortable with dancing but is ready to give love a second chance. Switch over to Samvidhan and you have a bald, toothless Gandhi who preaches non-violence. Or Dr Talvar, who kept us guessing whether he had killed his daughter in reel and real life. Flashback to the ailing monk in Ship of Theseus, who is faced with the difficult choice of using medicines tested on animals which goes against his core philosophy.

Kabi has played them all and believes that the constant switch is his attempt to escape the allegorical prison-cave described by Plato which formed a part of the Ship of Theseus. “A performer is someone who you can never know what he really looks like. You can never recognise Neeraj Kabi. When you are an actor people do recognise you on the roads, but I am willing to forego that joy. People still come and recognise the different roles that I am doing and talk about it, which is fascinating.”

The intensity that he displays on the screen is an outcome of a methodology that he has worked on and invented over the years. “I physically transform myself. If I take up a new project, then it will include preparations in martial and dance forms, the best way to shape-shift different characters. So Parulkar has a different kind of spine as compared to Amar Kumar. I then work the emotions and the psyche of the character,” says the actor who has been running a theatre group called Pravah since 1996.

Not surprisingly, he is a strong advocate of theatre for all actors. “Theatre gives a linear understanding of script, speech, breath and rhythm. It gives a method and discipline to acting,” he says. “There is a live audience and the entire telling of the story happens in one shot. So all the shifts in emotions, physicality happens within two hours. In cinema, you do only two or three scenes in a day and so you have time to work on them again and again.” He also thinks that theatre has a bigger canvas and one has to be a much bigger human to do it.

Kabi believes that theatre will survive the onslaught of the other more immediate visual media. “If you go to Prithvi in Mumbai or Ranga Shankara Theatre in Bangalore there is a huge audience which comes and watches the plays. So this will never end.”

Despite having spent long years in theatre, he likes all media, except for TV. “I don’t do it consciously as I don’t find quality there. Except for a Shyam Benegal’s Samvidhan where I played Gandhi, I don’t find TV audience receptive to the kind of work that I want to do. I am waiting for right time,” he says.

However, there has been an improvement and maturing in the content across media, as is apparent in the response to the his latest Netflix film, Once Again. “It is so beautiful to see the responses from the audience. It is not a conventional love story involving two mature people, who don’t talk romance in a cliched manner,” he says and quotes the example of Aandhi (1975) and Ijaazat (1987) which were love stories about adults but were released a long time ago.

He goes on to add, “The industry is gearing up for all genres and attempting unconventionality. We are creating an audience very, very slowly. One day we will reach a stage where all kinds of cinema will be acceptable in the country. All kinds from entertainment to cinema to middle aged romances (laughs). Everything. It has already started happening and it is a very, very positive phase right now.”

His years in theatre have made Kabi more discerning. “After my first film, Last Vision (1997), I went to every production house but didn’t get any work, so I concentrated on theatre.  By the time I started getting offers, I was so deep into theatre that I didn’t want to lose it. I have worked so much to prepare for what I have got in life that I would not settle for anything,” he says matter-of-factly.

So then what is important to the actor when he takes upon a role? “The script and team are more important, the latter more so. Script is just words and you can change it. But if the team is not serious and honest, then won’t take it up,” he insists. In theatre, one of his most famous productions is Hamlet which employs elements of Yakshagana and Dhrupad.

“You have to interpret Shakespeare from the Indian viewpoint. How we perceive it through our own mythology and culture is important. So I interpret the play which is multi-layered by exploring one layer through Dhrupad, another through Yakshagana. I put these elements to tell the story differently,” he says.

So what does he think about Vishal Bhardwaj’s different versions of Shakespeare? “Vishal’s work is exemplary. I am so proud that we have filmmakers of his calibre in the country. His interpretation of Haider, Maqbool and Omkara are among the finest. I can’t think of a better interpretation. We keep planning to work together but it never happens.”

The actor will be seen in Gali Guliyan, followed by Gautam Ghosh’s One Day In The Rains with Adil  Hussain and The Field, where he again plays a villainous character. “It is in post-production and I am interested in seeing how it has come out,” he says. So is the audience.

Writer: Saimi Sattar

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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