Jim Sarbh: The Parsi who plays a stellar role in Bollywood Blockbuster Neerja

Theatre actor Jim Sarbh marks his debut on the silver screen with Ram Madhvani’s biopic on airhostess Neerja Bhanot.

Ankita Maneck | Scroll

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Named as one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 people to watch in 2015, Jim Sarbh is going places. The theatre actor makes his debut in the movies in Neerja. Ram Madhvani’s biopic, which will be in cinemas on February 19, is based on the true story of the courageous flight attendant who saved the lives of 359 people when Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked in Karachi in 1986. Sarbh plays one of the Palestinian terrorists who slaughters innocents, including Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor). He has a blink-and-miss appearance in the trailer, but we are sure we will see more of him in the movie.

Sarbh is from one of the most respected families in the art world – he is the grandson of Kali Pundole, who started the Pundole Art Gallery in 1963 in Mumbai. Sarbh fell in love with theatre at the age of 12 after he performed in a production of Romeo and Juliet. He further honed his craft at Emory University in Atlanta, where he decided he wanted to act professionally.

In the few years that he has been in India, Sarbh has made his mark on the Mumbai stage in such plays as Alyque Padamsee’s production of Death of a Salesman and Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song. Sarbh has also directed Bull, an adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s play about office politics. He is translating French dramatist Jean Genet’s The Maids from French into Hindi in order to direct a local version of the celebrated study of power relations.

Sarbh has worked in Kalki Kochein’s The Living Room, for which he received good notices. One of his more recent stage roles was as Gratiano in Vickram Kapadia’s The Merchant of Venice.

Sarbh has also dabbled in online short films such as The Art of Crying, in which he tries to learn voice modulation from roadside vendors.

And he has voiced MTV’s short web series Indiepedia.

He has appeared in the Rajasthan Tourism advertisement Bike.

Here’s the man who terrorises Sonam in Neerja and he isn’t As bad As you think!

Interview by Shilpa Dubey | PINKVILLA

Even in a movie like Neerja, based on the life of a feisty young woman who sacrificed her life for others during a plane hijack, theatre actor Jim Sarbh shines out bright. His acting prowess and eyes for detail made his character Khaleel in the film look like a real badass guy. The 27-year-old Parsi lad wore the skin of a Palestine terrorist so cleverly that it makes you cringe in your seat every time he appears on the screen.

Jim has earned his share of fame in the theatre world. But, not many know that he belongs to one of the most respected art family in India. Love for art, culture and cinema flows in the veins of the grandson of Kali Pundole, who started the Pundole Art Gallery in 1963 in Mumbai.

Jim Sarbh 1

Sarbh had his first tryst with theatre when he was 12 after he played a part in a production of Romeo and Juliet. But it was his days at Emory University in Atlanta when he had decided to take up acting as a profession.

The 27-year-old actor has marked his presence in plays like Alyque Padamsee’s Death of a Salesman and Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song, Vickram Kapadia’s The Merchant of Venice, Mike Bartlett’s Cock and many others.  However, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Kalki Koechlin’s The Living Room earned him special attention from the film fraternity.

In a candid conversation, Jim gets chatty about the film Neerja, his role and other details of his life.

You have made quite an impact with your debut movie. Share your experiences about being a part of Neerja with us.

I am feeling very good. Neerja is such a solid film. Everything about the film has substance, be it sound, background scores, or direction. The film completely stands out. The tight script was so appealing and the way each page of the story emerges on screen is great. Everybody’s performance is pretty solid. And to be part of something like this is a great experience in its own

How did Neerja happen to you? Tell us about your journey from theatre stage to silver screen.

I was abroad for the play The Merchants of Venice and Kanika Berry, the casting director of the film, kept trying to call me. Somehow, she wasn’t getting through. Finally, I got one of her messages. Then, I called her back and told her that I’ll be in Mumbai soon for two-three days and then I have to go back for my play. We agreed upon a date and time.

When I came and met them, they didn’t have a scene for me. They wanted me to improvise a hijacker, who is clueless, nervous, tries to scare people because he is afraid. And, that’s what I was trying to do in the audition. Then, I met Vinod Rawat, the director’s assistant. He was taking actor’s workshops. We had a long chat and improvisations, where he told me to be the boss.

So you came here for another role?

No! Actually, when I came here I didn’t know much about the project. I hadn’t read the scripts. In the workshop, there was one girl with us, who was one of the assistant directors. They asked me to make her sing a song. I went to that full on and after watching that moment, Vinod decided to give me Khaleel’s role. Later, when I read the script, I was like wow. This is something. Khaleel was the most exciting part to do. His character had a lot of things in it.

You haven’t really spent much time in India. So, how did you manage Hindi dialogues?

They were basically nervous about my Hindi. So, I did a few scenes in Hindi for them and put a little bit of accent I could. Then I was included in the workshop, where there were three of us — Abrar, the leader, Ali and I were kept for the roles of Mansoor and Farhad- the younger hijackers.

How has been your acting journey been so far?

I have been active in acting from my school and college days. I have acted in Atlanta for one year. I have done one or two plays in New York briefly. Then I decided to call it quit as I had started believing that acting is narcissistic. It occurred to me then that nobody really cares about what an actor does or feel about it. For one year I quit and I went to an ashram in Bihar and went to Himalayas backpacking. I visited Gangotri and Himachal. Amidst this wanderlust, I started feeling what I am doing with my life. Is this what I want and other things. How long should I do this? Then I realised that I have to make films or act in the films and if I didn’t do that I’ll always regret it.

When are we going to see you next on the silver screen?

Right now, I am working in Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial venture. My character is of an Anglo-Indian guy called Brian and I cannot talk more about it. There’s another movie in the pipeline, which will be produced by Anurag Kashyap.It is titled as Three And A Half Take. I have been getting a variety of roles. So, I think it’s all good.

Tell us about working with Sonam Kapoor.

It was great working with her. But, you wouldn’t believe that during our shoot, we didn’t interact at all. And for our roles, I think that was very good. All the hijackers were kept separately and we didn’t interact with Sonam or other passengers or another cast. I didn’t want to make friends with everyone and do small talks, as the next moment I had to terrorise them. So, I think it worked well for us. It was better to have the air of mysteries in such cases and I really enjoyed that.

You sound nothing like your character in the movie. It seems you have undergone great diction training. Tell us about other preparations for the role.

It was our workshop that really threw us into our characters. We also did Arabic and combat training for the film. Vinod would make us sit in the hot seat and there would be all kind of questions by our tribunal afterwards. He would ask us questions like why Khaleel did this or that, what was going on in his head and things like this which helped us get into the character’s skin well. In theatre, I get comedy or nice lead roles. I don’t understand a grey or negative role. You do it great or badly. That’s all to it.

Debuting in Bollywood with a negative role is a big deal in this industry. Aren’t you afraid of people’s reaction?

I thought of it as a role. If it wasn’t for a hijacker and the movie was about a bank robber, I would have done it. It was tricky. The entire Islamic world is going through such a bad phase. I do not want to be another drop in the ocean of anti-Islamics segment. I didn’t want to do much of ‘Allahu-Akbar’ and ‘Masha Allah’. I didn’t want to appear heavy-religious overtone and Vinod would listen to our concerns and suggestions.

How do you see Khaleel from an actor’s eyes?

For Khaleel, the whole world is a gang-warfare and we are at the bottom. And in a gang, if you have to rise you have to be ready to do what it takes. He is like an animal and an animal doesn’t like getting hurt. We saw things happening very quickly and he was very smart. He was nervous and wanted to live his life. He was the street-fighter kind, who doesn’t care about the fair way of fighting. He would take the easiest and quickest way to get to his goals.

Small talk with Jim Sarbh

Jim Sarbh on how art is hardwired in his brain and why words matter in theatre

A framed poster of MF Husain’s work signed by the late modern artist (‘To the aspiring actor Jim’) sits in Jim Sarbh’s room at the family’s Malabar Hill home, along with two other paintings by the artist. “He’s my favourite,” Sarbh smiles.

You can tell the 26-year-old grandson of gallerist Kali Pundole, who has grown up around rare artworks by Ram Kumar, Prabhakar Kolte and S H Raza, knows his art when he narrates this anecdote: “Once, I walked into someone’s home, and yelped, ‘How can you let this beautiful Prabha painting get this dirty?’. They didn’t even know (it was a B Prabha). But it’s all hardwired in my brain.”

Sarbh, however, found his calling in theatre. Currently busy rehearsing for Rajit Kapur’s version of Tennessee Williams’ melancholic family drama, The Glass Menagerie, he is excited at the thought of playing Tom Wingfield. “It’s my first as lead, and that too opposite a stalwart like Shernaz (Patel),” he shares.

Settling into a chair that sits on a balcony adjoining his room, he asks if the kohl he lined his eyes with the night before for a mock shoot, remains. “Atul (Kumar) is trying to do an experimental project loosely based on Cabaret. I was painted half-pink, halfgold, and was walking around Bandra for the shoot,” he says, adding, “how do you people (women, we presume) remove make-up? It’s so tedious.”

Although Sarbh studied psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, he’d fit in play rehearsals into his evenings. “The school would stage plays along with professional actors and directors. I’d do as many as I could. So, how much psychology I really ended up studying, I don’t know.”

While there, he took up a course on direction with Susan Booth (artistic director of the Tony-award winning Alliance Theatre group). “I’m not sure why I did well. Was it because I followed her after class sometimes, walking her to the car while chatting about ideas, that she gave me a job in her theatre after I graduated?” he says.

Three years ago the American accented English-speaking Parsi returned to Mumbai to pursue theatre full-time. The first role he bagged in 2012 was that of a foreigner. It was for Purva Naresh’s Ok Tata, Bye, Bye, and won him his next part in Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song, “because they needed an American guy”. “I was afraid that I’d be typecast as the token firang,” he laughs. “That happened initially. Now, I am acting in Noises Off and Menagerie where all of us are playing British and American characters. That makes me feel better.”

The play that he has truly enjoyed working on was Gates to India Song. Ironically, it didn’t receive a particularly positive reception in the city. “Friends walked out halfway through the show. But what I loved was that we didn’t have to do anything apart from making the words sing — allow the text to flow through us and do whatever it did to us,” he reflects.

On stage, each word needs to be weighed, Sarbh insists. He draws an example from Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which he’s currently acting in and directing. “There’s this line where a woman asks my character (who has only been with men most of his life) ‘your place or mine?’, and my character, who has just broken up with his boyfriend of seven years and is sleeping on a friend’s couch, replies, ‘I don’t have a place. I mean, my place is his… I mean, I am on the couch, with a friend, so we can’t go there’. If you follow the punctuations, you’ve got each idea one after the other,” he says, enacting the scene.

Next, Sarbh plans to direct a play with young artists designing the set and costumes. There is also a children’s play in the offing, along with his ongoing shows. So, is theatre a viable career option? “Not at all,” he says. “You have to do all kinds of things like voice-overs, corporate gigs, and edit videos to support yourself. When my uncle (Kali’s son Dadiba) holds an auction, I go and help him out, too.”

What he is waiting to do, is “to get in to a gallery and curate a performance art show,” thus marrying both his passions.