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

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.

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.

Published on PinkVilla