Neeraj Kabi on Sherni: “Without Vidya Balan, my trilogy would not be complete”
For actor Neeraj Kabi, working with Vidya Balan in Sherni completed a sort of trilogy. He started with Rani Mukerji in Hichki and did Once Again with Shefali Shah. “After Shakuntala Devi, I was waiting to work with Vidya. And it happened! After this movie, that’s what she does, ”said Neeraj, expressing his excitement about sharing screen space with the actor. Sherni was released on Amazon Prime Video on June 19.
Sherni revolves around a human-animal conflict, with Vidya Balan playing the role of a forest officer who must not only fight his way through the forest, but also the social barriers imposed by a patriarchal society. As she searches for a man-eating tigress, her struggle parallels that of the beast as the two battle obstacles created by nature and man.
In an exclusive conversation with indianexpress.com, Neeraj Kabi talks about the central theme of Sherni, working with Newton director Amit Masurkar and why he is comfortable working in a female dominated script.
Why Sherni? What attracted you to this film?
First of all, it was because of director Amit Masurkar. Many years ago he did an acting workshop under my direction. Suddenly he called me one day and said he would like to make a movie with me. It’s not a very big role, but he wanted me to play a character. Vidya Balan played the main role. So Vidya was absolutely and obviously the second reason. After working with Rani Mukerji in Hichki and Shefali shah in Once Again, my trilogy wouldn’t be complete if I hadn’t worked with Vidya. I’ve always wanted to work with these three incredibly wonderful performers. And the third reason was to come back to Amazon after Pataal Lok.
Sherni deals with a lot of things – gender stereotypes in the workplace, the movement of wildlife, and the imbalance of nature. Have you ever worried that the movie could go wrong if it wasn’t processed properly?
These are hot topics. So if you don’t have the right balance, it can blow the audience away. That’s why the first thing that strikes you is if the film is in good hands and should I do it? But when you have a team that you can trust, then you don’t have a problem. But you are right, if such topics are not well balanced, they can drag the film into a different tangent.
Sherni is a very important movie just because of the conditions we’re living in right now. Hope this will make you aware of the balance we need to have with nature as human beings. It’s good that it’s coming to an OTT platform, where the world can see it.
Tell us more about your role
I play Akhil Nangia, another senior chief forest conservator (APCCF). This designation is one step below the Forest Principal Conservator in Chief (PCCF). He is a very experienced person in the department who has long experience in the forestry department and has also been a poster model. He has done some things for the preservation of wildlife, which are being studied in forestry institutes as case studies. And he’s a man of the people. Although a bit ostentatious, someone who can use a situation to their advantage. You will wonder why he suddenly does this. This is the turning point for this character. He’s not a bad guy or a double-sided person. He’s an ambitious man and he’s not emotional about things. This is what is striking because Vidya is in a male dominated department.
When you get such specific roles, in this case a designated forestry department officer, what do you personally need to know about this character’s background?
When I get a script, even though I know something about the role, I finish it and hide it somewhere in my brain, and start over. I want to know the vision of the director on this character. Once I’m clear on this, I do my research. I like this kind of preparation, or I suddenly feel like I don’t know anything. When films like Sherni come along, I also take a lot of precautions. For Maitreya in Ship of Theseus, I thought I knew about monks and philosophy, but I realized I didn’t. From someone as normal as Sanjeev Mehra in Paatal Lok, you think you know a journalist, but you don’t. And that’s what an actor does, digging into a character to the end.
You said that Rani, Shefali and now Vidya are finishing your working trilogy with three actresses. Does that mean that you are safe in your own skin to be open to such female dominated projects, or is it just an urge to work with such artists?
It’s all set up. For me, the main thing is the people I work with. When this is settled, I am at a very comfortable level to then read the script and take it with me. The script is right on paper. To execute this you need amazing hearts and minds. It’s just lucky that I work in a lot of female dominated movies. It was not a conscious decision. But I’m glad I did that. It is not so much a man or a woman. These are the kind of people who direct the movie.
What was it like when you were on Sherni sets and working with Vidya?
What immediately strikes about her is her simplicity. She doesn’t come to the sets to treat him like a club. She respects all the other co-actors, she will never take your time just to be satisfied. She will never have a meal or a phone call that will bother you and keep you waiting. You will never see her caught off guard and lose a line. She’s like a worker and I think that’s where you get drawn to an actress like that. She knows what time means in the industry, and she knows what kind of money goes when you waste time. And you know that such people will move the film forward. Then, when you act, there is a “jugal-bandi” between the actors. And it’s a pleasure with it.
Sherni also has a brilliant all-round cast including Sharat Saxena, Vijay Raaz, and Brijendra Kala. Was it like some sort of masterclass on set?
Absolutely. And you savor this absolute music happening there. There is so much preparation on set with actors like these. I think you must have actors who have had huge experiences on all kinds of platforms, from theater to everything. Then a scene emerges beyond what the director has visualized. And you see he’s excited because it’s not what he expected, but the cast gave it to him. And you like to shoot because there can be five or ten takes where you will never get bored.
Does a director also raise your expectations vis-à-vis the project? Let’s say in this case, Amit Masurkar also directed Newton and Sulemani Keeda.
Yes. Many directors approached me with work and I turned a few down just because I didn’t want to be in their project right now. I feel like they still have time to do more work and get more seasoned. You’ve seen Amit’s caliber with such work, and every movie is a masterpiece.
Pataal Lok recently celebrated his first birthday. How has life changed for you over the past year?
In many ways. After Paatal Lok, from the projects I did earlier, especially on the OTT platform, he just catapulted it and put it somewhere else. It took it up a notch and it was nice to have a much larger audience base. On the other hand, due to the pandemic, you were not doing well mentally because your concern was always the tragedy that was going on outside your home. Although I have time for myself, but your heart is constantly beating. This year has been a roller coaster ride because everything was happening at the same time – the good, the bad and the ugly.
You are an actor who comes with a calm onscreen presence, but the characters you play are powerful. Has this become your USP?
Theseus’ ship put that calm in me and I think that calm spread everywhere else, even though I was doing DCP Parulkar (Sacred Games) or Dr. Guha (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy). I’ve been able to work with some of the best projects that have come out in India, and I think I’m lucky.