Geetanjali Minhas | August 20, 2019
Neeraj Kabi, a critically acclaimed self-taught actor, theatre director, and acting teacher, has worked in Odiya, Hindi and international cinema, theatre, television and web series. In 2014 he was honoured with the best actor award at the 4th Sakhalin International Film Festival for his role in the film ‘Ship of Theseus’ – his most memorable role for many viewers. His other accolades include the Newsmakers Achievers' Award in 2015 by NBC for Best Actor for his contribution to Indian theatre and cinema. His theatre company ‘Pravah’ functions as a training and research laboratory for performance and aims to create a theatre residency for collaborating various Indian traditional performing arts with modern contemporary theatre performing styles.
If not an actor, you would be:
Probably joined the army, become a professional cricketer or corporate head honcho. As a child I wanted to do play professional cricket. Later I liked the physicality of the army and wanted to join it. In college, the corporate world intrigued me and I wanted to be there.
How did you train yourself for acting?
I am self-taught and started with training in various kinds of martial art forms, traditional dance forms and breathing techniques. I always found different ways to continuously invent and work on creating my own methods techniques. I didn’t want to follow anybody else’s way of working or called a method actor. I also wanted to experience as much life I could.
There was long gap in your acting career. What did you during that period?
Though I started out in 1991 I got my first film, ‘The Last Vision’, only in 1997. It was directed by AK Bir. Despite my best efforts, there was a 24-year long excruciating gap during which time I had no work. This was a period of gaining experience. To survive I was doing all kinds of jobs. I was also doing theatre, inventing and conducting different types of workshops on speech, voice, frozen expressions, English theatre in Indian traditions, public speaking, workshops for animators etc, and also working a lot with children. In 2004 I opened my own theatre company and started directing my own plays. I was willing to go through anything and did not have issues. Because I saw things break closely it took me many years before I could even stand in front of an audience and perform. It is too personal to talk about it and disrespectful unless I write my autobiography.
How did the challenges you faced shape your career?
I became even more determined to do exactly the kind of work I want to do, in my own technique and grammar and not follow set methods. I was very clear that I wanted to be an actor and not an entertainer for which you have to completely transform into the characters. In an industry that does not believe in transformation these were very difficult things to do. I never repeated my performances. My roles in ‘Ship of Theseus’ and ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshi’ were starkly different and when the audiences refused to believe that the same actor has done both roles I knew I had hit the nail and did not have to follow accepted western acting concepts. My journey started from there and it shaped me to become more focused and determined on the elements and techniques I wanted to adopt for performing. I also realized that being humble and simple was very crucial when you are working and ego will never allow you to focus. I try to keep away from unnecessary arguments and debates as much as possible. I became level-headed and had clear vision. Otherwise, I would have probably picked up whatever came in my way and become rich, popular and famous quicker. But that was never the journey.
What were your most memorable moments?
Watching the premiere of ‘Ship of Theseus’ in Toronto after struggling for 23 years. Being written about, the applause, praise, adulation and fame which followed was very memorable. Critically watching my work in ‘Talvar and ‘Detective Bryomkesh Bakshi’ in the cinema hall. When I got a chance to work with Shyam Benegal in the television serial ‘Samvidhan’ in the role of Gandhi. I was in awe of Benegal and idolized him and performing with the iconic Naseeruddin Shah, the only actor who, I feel, represents Indian acting.
What are your considerations before accepting a role?
The team – director, DOP, producers, script and the value that I am adding as an actor to it.
How do you see film, television, theatre and web space evolving?
Each will have its own ups and downs, retain their own space and dignity and may momentarily dominate the other space and evolve. Though momentarily they may lead over each other none will overpower the other or shut down. Web space will always continue and never take over films. Each will hone, polish and become better.
Your greatest influence and inspiration:
Great performers doing great roles, great films, amazing theatre productions and their power and strength to influence the people. Anything that influences and transforms society, changes people’s perspectives, the unsung heroes who are quietly changing lives in villages and small towns.
How does the social and political environment impact your creative expressions?
It affects our work directly because as storytellers we portray what is happening in society and politics. We have to be very sensitive while portraying these things because you are talking to an audience. For example, ‘Delhi Crime’ web series on Netflix is very sensitively portrayed and deals with real issues. It is not about the incident that happened but its impact. It is a very good example of creative expression.
Tell us about your plans to create theatre residency:
A residency is a space away from the city where you live with performers, work, explore, discover, invent techniques and methodologies of performance and create theatre productions. I am working towards it and it will take a few years to materialize as it requires funds to get the land and construct spaces. Theatre is your foundation so that you are able to perform in films. A film is director’s medium and theatre is an actor’s medium. You have to find your rooting in theatre after which you can fit yourself in a film scenario with a better understanding of script and sequence. Eventually the residency might also lead me to do a film as well. It might ultimately be theatre and film residency.
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