Neeraj Kabi was 42-years-old when he started his acting career with Anand Gandhi’s directorial, Ship of Theseus. The international award-winning 2012 movie got Kabi accolades from various quarters. It is, in his own words, ‘a massive level of performance’, one he has not been able to match till date. “It is on a pedestal and it’s very difficult to reach there. I always aspire to reach that level in all my films but I have not been able to do that,” he shares. However, the level of performance he is referring to, did not come easy. It took the Sacred Games actor almost 21 years to reach there!
The long wait
Born and brought up in Jamshedpur, Kabi completed his graduation from a Pune college and arrived in Bombay in 1991 to work as an actor. He recalls going from one audition to another but nothing worked out. In those days, the young man could barely even afford travelling in trains or buses.
In college, the actor had been the recipient of the ‘Student of the Year’ award. “My teachers and principal thought I will probably move abroad, become a corporate head honcho and earn millions. And lo and behold, the opposite was happening! Everybody else I knew was ahead of me; they had cars and houses and I was still walking the streets of Bombay with nothing in my pocket,” he recalls.
Not being able to secure admission in the National School of Drama had been a downer, and the subsequent rejections would have made anyone pack up their bags and head home, but not Kabi. He decided to train himself to become an actor. “I realised that none of these casting directors had a clue about what a performance is supposed to be, so I made up my mind to not be a part of this bandwagon and learn on my own,” he shares.
From yoga to Kalaripayattu to Chhau to martial arts, Kabi learnt a bit of each from teachers who were willing to train him for free or for the little he could afford to pay them. He also started dabbling in theatre and doing odd jobs to make a living. “More than a decade went by of not giving in to silly auditions and films just to be a part of a scene somewhere. I did multiple odd jobs and my ego was crushed because those jobs were so menial. I gave up on films coming my way and took to theatre,” he adds. Creating his own workshops and working with children, years of training to become an actor and educating himself in the craft gave him the strength to say no to the path that many others had walked before him.
That’s when Ship of Theseus came his way, and the rest, as they say, is history. “All those years of working and training was preparation for this film. I always feel that I would have never been able to deliver that level of performance had I not had those 21 years. For roles like these, you don’t need a lot of films, but lots of life experience behind you,” he says with a smile.
Prestigious films such as Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Talvar, Gali Guliyan, Hichki, Once Again, and web series Sacred Games, The Final Call, Taj Mahal 1989 and Paatal Lok among others have made him a name to reckon with today. For someone who made his debut in his 40s, Kabi seems to be making the most of his time in the industry. After receiving high praise from Shyam Benegal for his performance as Mahatma Gandhi in the mini-series Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India, Kabi says he stopped feeling that he had arrived late. “I arrived exactly when I had to arrive, otherwise I could not have done all these roles,” he introspects.
Just sitting and waiting for offers to fall into your lap is not how the life of an actor can be, the 53-year-old is fond of telling his students. “An actor works like a soldier. A soldier protects people and an actor elevates people. Of course, you cannot compare the two because a soldier works with his life at stake, but somewhere, an actor’s way of life is almost like that of a soldier’s. We take physical training and we hurt ourselves physically and emotionally. There will be work, there won’t be work — that uncertainty is what keeps us alive,” he says, adding that an actor’s work is not just on sets, but also when he is at home. “You wake up early and practice yoga or some other art form, do your lines and read. If you are always at the beck and call of someone to call you for work, you will never grow as an actor. If you have to suffer, then suffer. Stay there, train yourself and never give up,” he advises.
Life of an actor
For himself, Kabi has lots more to offer the audience in terms of performances. His last outing, Amit Masurkar’s Sherni, has won him much-deserved appreciation and the chance to work with Vidya Balan. “I had already worked with Rani Mukerji (Hichki) and Shefali Shah (Once Again) and I wanted to complete the trilogy with Vidya so I could say that I have worked with three of the best female performers in the industry,” he smiles. There is some international work brewing that he cannot speak about, and also a movie here with a prominent filmmaker. He is also signing up for two more web series and a feature. Next year, he plans to return to directing for stage. “It will be an interpretation of Shakespeare’s work and I will be working with actors and traditional artistes for the same. I can never leave theatre; it’s not even an option for me,” he concludes.