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

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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 families 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, writing, story,  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 in Kamshed for the play The Merchants of Venice and Kanika Berry, the casting director of the film, kept trying to call me. But because of low-network in Kamshed, she couldn't get through. Finally, I got one of her messages, called her back and I was going to be in Mumbai soon for a couple of days, we agreed upon a date and time and met up.

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, which was the last part of the audition process. He asked me to improvise and asked me to try to be the leader.

So you came here for another role?

No! When I went for the audition, I hadn’t read the script. During the workshop, I was asked to make a girl sing, who was one of the assistant directors. I managed that with a hundred percent score. So that moment, as well as Vinod giving me other challenges, convinced everyone that I was perfect to play Khaleel. After reading the script, I realised that Khaleel was an interesting and an exciting character.

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 that actors are selfish and they think that the world revolves around them. 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'll always regret if I don't make or act in films. 

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. 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.

People have really loved you in the film and your performance is garnering rave reviews. How are you feeling?                    

I am feeling really overwhelmed. However, it is coming with some weird understanding. Now, I realise that this is how actors go crazy with so much attention and love. However, with the understanding of all this, I feel so great. I feel like dancing and singing while walking on streets. It is a very happy feeling. I feel like full of life.

There are people on Twitter, who are saying that we want to kill you and all. So, it is a mixed feeling, you know. The most complicated response that I have got is from Akhil Bhanot, brother of Neerja Bhanot. In a Facebook post, he wrote 'I love the movie and loved your performance, but every time you went near Sonam, I felt like strangling you 100 times over.' That made me happy and sad at the same time.

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-Islamic sentiments. I didn’t want to do much of ‘Allahu-Akbar’ and ‘Masha Allah’. I didn’t want to appear with a heavily 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.

This Day That Year


jim you were outstanding throughout the movie . you played it so real man . awesome amazing work .keep it up

bollywood needs people with talent who are passionate about acting and have done theatre work or studied instead of losers trying to push their way in because of their family or talentless models. so refreshing! boycotting any other movies unless they have new talent. bollywood filmmakers are shit because they never hold auditions. a rani farhan akhtar kajol is rare to come by

He was the best in the film

You were the main sole of the movie followed by Shabana Azami

soul you mean?

Amazing actor!

Anyone else think he looks like Sacha Baron Cohen?

omg YES

Really glad to hear that we will see him in other movies too. Seems like acting is his passion - these are the kind of people we need.

Is he Indian ?

YES he is. He does a lot of plays in Bombay.

he looks a bit like John in the above picture.

he was DAMN good in the movie....just PERFECT!

he was simply brilliant in the movie !

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