Meghna Gulzar’s upcoming, cinematic adaptation of the real life Aarushi Talwar murder case sees the very talented Neeraj Kabi portray the angst of father Rajesh Talwar on screen. Having shared screen space with Konkana Sen Sharma and Irrfan Khan in a Vishal Bhardwaj production, one would think that Neeraj Kabi has finally arrived. Ever since his breakout role as the intelligible monk, Maitreya in Anand Gandhi’s brilliant Ship of Theseus, for which he went through a dramatic transformation, Kabi has been careful to choose work that speaks volumes of his incredible talent, boasting of a strong theatre background. Pandolin spoke to Neeraj Kabi about his performance in the upcoming Talvar, and his willingness to submit completely to his characters.

Neeraj Kabi

Neeraj Kabi

How did Talvar happen?

It all started with a call from the production house telling me about this film and if I would be keen to  meet the director. And then I was told that Vishal Bhardwaj was the producer, so that piqued my interest. Meghna (Gulzar) too has this certain sensitivity about the work and the script did it for me. In fact all the people involved, right from the DOP Pankaj Kumar to the co-stars Konkana Sen Sharma and Irrfan Khan, cemented my interest in the movie.


Was there any resistance from your end approaching a character that continues to make headlines to this day?

I wouldn’t say there was resistance, but there was an element of caution. It was a story based on something that was true; based on something that is in fact being appealed in the court at this moment. And the character I’m portraying is in jail at this time. So I was definitely cautious in the manner I approached this role.

Recently, journalist Avirook Sen came out with what he calls a factual account of the Aarushi murder case. How close is Talvar to the factual account?

I have heard a lot about it, but I haven’t read Avirook’s book. So I would be in no position to answer that.

What I can tell you is the perspective that has been brought on to the canvas. When you see the film, you will find three sides to the story that did actually take place. One was the Noida Police’s version of events, the second was the CBI first team report, and the third one was the CBI second team report. Vishal Bhardwaj, who also served as the writer in the film, consolidated these sides, derived from facts and put it on canvas. There has been no attempt to sensationalize anything. The movie is not presented as a thriller. The attempt has been to stick to facts.

How did you prepare for the character that is based on Rajesh Talwar?

The preparations were indeed very heavy for the role. I did undertake a huge amount of research to prepare for the role of Rajesh Talwar. I read through several documents, sat through countless videos and whatever interviews of Rajesh Talwar I could lay my hands on. Meghna too handed over spiral copies of all the documents she could procure for the movie. Since my character is based on a real life character, who is still in the news, any shift in my performance would end up lending misrepresentation to the real life character, adding an unintended meaning. So there was a huge responsibility on my head.


Vishal Bhardwaj, Meghna Gulzar, Konkona Sen, Irrfan Khan & Neeraj Kabi at Trailer Launch of Talvar

Vishal Bhardwaj, Meghna Gulzar, Konkona Sen, Irrfan Khan & Neeraj Kabi at Trailer Launch of Talvar

Vishal Bhardwaj and Meghna Gulzar have a standing in the industry. Did working with them take some pressure off? 

Absolutely yes. If such a story, based on any case as such, was to be made by any inexperienced filmmakers, for whatever commercial gains, then I would not have been up for it. It was relieving to be in safe hands, who didn’t work towards commercializing the story, or creating something that was overtly dramatic.


How was it working with Konkana and Irrfan?

Well, I didn’t have many scenes with Irrfan, but it definitely was a great experience. And I would want to do several films with him. In the last many years, I’ve always had a desire to work with certain actors, and he has been one of the top actors that I wanted to work with. It was a thrilling moment to share screen space with him. I consider him one of the most amazing actors in cinema. Certainly, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri are the absolute stalwarts, but if we ever moved on to the generation after that, Irrfan is definitely one of the very best.

Most of my scenes are with Konkana, and I have always wanted to work with her since the time I saw her in Mr. & Mrs. Iyer,  For this movie, and for this role, Konkana has said that she was very intuitive and very instinctive, and relied completely on the script. On the other hand, I undertook intense preparation for my role, with a lot of intense homework. I’d be aloof on the set, and not mingle much for the sake of my character. So my work with her became very interesting, like you would call it in music – it was a great jugalbandi, as two diverse methodologies came together. It was a lovely interaction and I was so happy with the experience, which was only amplified given her experience.

You were the standout actor in Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus. Thereafter, you were noted for your performance in Byomkesh Bakshi, but you seem to be in no rush to sign up roles. Are you meticulously choosing your work?

Yes, I am, methodically and meticulously choosing my work. There is a brand of work that interests me, and I have waited for far too long to be able to do this kind of work. I came to Bombay 24 years ago to be an actor, and to be honest, it has taken the life out of me. I have done so many odd jobs to make it happen. I worked in theatre. I have no formal training, I’m not from NSD or any such institution. I’m a self-taught actor, and I spent a lot of time preparing myself. So after all this time, when Ship of Theseus happened, I decided to do it my way. Since it has taken me so long, now when I finally have the chance, I want to take my time, and take up roles that really interest me.

It has been a tough call, and not always been easy, as the temptations were there. Sometimes, the temptations were monetary, other times they were tempting with the range of audience or the publicity. But they were all just flippant films waiting to make 300 crores, starring a superstar. And I have put down such roles. To be fair, it never made sense why I got chosen for them in the first place. So, instead, I’m doing it my way, looking for mind over work.


With Konkana Sen Sharma in Talvar

With Konkana Sen Sharma in Talvar

You’re slated to perform the role of Gandhi in Gurinder Chadha’s upcoming Viceroy’s House, for which I believe you will be going through a significant physical transformation. Interestingly, your physical transformation for SOT gained Maitreya a credibility, hitherto unknown. How important is physically adapting to a character for you?

Very, very important. In theatre, I have been a physical actor. There is a form of theatre called physical theatre, where every expression is embodied in a physical manner. This physical transformation is very important to truly essay a character. I believe that an actor must give in to his character with body, mind and soul, and for this purpose, complete transformation is crucial. For Ship of Theseus, I did go to the gym to lose weight, but also included physical exercises like classical dance in my preparation.

Having delivered three incredibly succinct, and variant performances back to back in content-dominating films, would you say Indian cinema is going through its best quality-driven period?

Quite frankly, it’s only just begun. It is encouraging, and I am very happy that I’m at this point where there will be work in art-house and parallel cinema, and I will not have to give in to the temptation of commercial cinema or sell myself short. But it’s only begun.

Are there any more upcoming projects from your end you would like to tell us about?

There are two more in the pipeline, apart from Gurinder Chadha’s film. One is by Aditi Roy, a director from Bengal and I play the lead character in her feature film. The second is by Rohit Batra, an Indian director from the USA and he’s directing an international film. It’s been on hold, in fact, for over a year. But these are the three films lined up! 

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