Neeraj Kabi on doing Sherni: ‘Without Vidya Balan, my trilogy would not be complete’

Actor Neeraj Kabi spoke about the core theme of Vidya Balan starrer Sherni, working with Newton fame director Amit Masurkar and why he is comfortable working in a female-dominated script.

For actor Neeraj Kabi, working with Vidya Balan in Sherni has completed a trilogy of sorts. He began 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 that film, this is what she’s doing,” Neeraj said, expressing his excitement at sharing screen space with the actor. Sherni released on Amazon Prime Video on June 19.

Sherni revolves around man-animal conflict, with Vidya Balan playing a forest officer who not just has to navigate her way through the forest, but also social barriers set by a patriarchal society. As she looks for a man-eating tigress, her struggle parallels that of the beast as both of them battle obstacles created by nature and man.

In an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, Neeraj Kabi talks about the core theme of Sherni, working with Newton fame director Amit Masurkar and why he is comfortable working in a female dominated script.

Excerpts:

Why Sherni? What drew you to this film?

Firstly, it was because of director Amit Masurkar. Many years back, he did an acting workshop under me. Suddenly he called me one day and said he’d like to do a film with me. It’s not a very big role, but he wanted me to play a character. Vidya Balan was doing the lead role. So Vidya was absolutely and obviously the second reason. After I had worked with Rani Mukerji in Hichki and Shefali shah in Once Again, my trilogy would not be complete if I had not worked with Vidya. I always wanted to work with these three amazingly wonderful performers. And the third reason was getting back to Amazon after Pataal Lok.

Sherni deals with a lot of things – sexist stereotypes at workplace, wildlife displacement and nature’s imbalance. Did you ever feel concerned that the film could go wrong if not handled properly? 

These are topical issues. So if you don’t have the right balance, it can take the audience away. That’s why the first thing that strikes you is whether the film is in safe hands and should I be doing it? But when you have a team that you can trust, then you don’t have an issue. But you are right, if such topics are not put in the right balance, they can take the film on some other tangent.

Sherni is a very important film simply because of the conditions we are living in right now. I hope it gives you the awareness about the balance that we need to have with the nature as humans. It’s good that it is coming on an OTT platform, where the world will get to see it.

Tell us more about your role

I play Akhil Nangia, an additional principal chief conservator forest (APCCF). This designation is one step below the Principal Chief Conservator Forest (PCCF). He is a a very senior person in the department who’s had a long experience in the forest department and has also been a poster boy. He’s done certain things for wildlife preservation, which are studied in the forest institutes as case studies. And he’s a people’s man. Though he’s a little ostentatious, somebody who can use a situation for his own benefit. You’ll wonder why he’s suddenly doing that. That’s the turning point of this character. He’s not a villain or a double faced person. He’s an ambitious man and he’s not emotional about things. That’s what is striking as Vidya is in a male dominated department.

When you get such specific roles, in this case, a designated officer in the forest department, how much do you personally need to know about the background of that character?

When I get a script, even if I know anything about the role, I wrap it up and hide it somewhere in my brain, and start fresh. I want to know the director’s vision about that character. Once I’m clear on that, I do my research. I enjoy that kind of preparation, or else I suddenly feel know nothing. When films like Sherni come, I take a lot of precautions also. For Maitreya in Ship of Theseus, I thought I knew about monks and philosophy, but I realised I don’t. Right from someone as normal as Sanjeev Mehra in Paatal Lok, you think you know about a journalist, but you don’t. And that’s what an actor does, excavates a character till the very end.

You said Rani, Shefali and now Vidya complete your trilogy of working with three female actors. Does that mean you are secure in your skin to be open to doing such female dominated projects, or it’s just an urge to work with such artistes?

It’s everything put together. For me, the main thing is the people I’m working with. When that gets sorted, I’m at a very comfortable level to then read the script and take it with me. The script is just on paper. To execute that, you need amazing minds and hearts. It’s just a chance that I happen to be working in a lot of female dominated films. It wasn’t a conscious decision. But I’m happy I did that. It’s not so much about a male or a female. It’s about the kind of people who are leading the film.

How was it when you were on Sherni’s sets and working with Vidya?

What immediately strikes you about her is her simplicity. She does not come on sets to treat it as a club. She respects every other co-actor, she will never take your time away just to suit herself. She will never have a meal or have a phone call disturbing you and making you wait. You’ll never see her unprepared and losing a line. She is like a worker and I think that’s where you get attracted 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 such people will take the film ahead. Then when you perform, there’s a ‘jugal-bandi’ between actors. And that is a pleasure with her.

Sherni also has a brilliant ensemble cast including Sharat Saxena, Vijay Raaz and Brijendra Kala. Was it like a masterclass of sorts on the set?

Absolutely. And you relish that absolute music that happens over there. There is so much of preparedness on set with the actors like these. I feel you must get actors who’ve had huge experiences on all kinds of platforms right from theatre to everything. Then a scene comes up beyond what the director has visualised. And you see he feels excited because that’s not what he was expecting, but the actors gave him that. And you enjoy shooting because there might be five or ten takes where you’ll never feel bored.

Does a director raises your expectations from the project too? Say in this case, Amit Masurkar has also helmed Newton and Sulemani Keeda.

Yes. Many directors have approached me with work and I turned down a couple of them simply because I didn’t want to be in their project right now. I feel they still have time to do more work and get more seasoned. You’ve seen Amit’s calibre with such work, and each film is a masterpiece.

Pataal Lok marked its first anniversary recently. How has life changed for you in the past one year?

In multiple ways. After Paatal Lok, right from the projects I’ve done earlier especially on the OTT platform, it just catapulted it and put it somewhere else altogether. It pushed it up a notch and that was lovely to get a much wider audience base. On the other hand, because the pandemic, you were not mentally alright because your concern was always with the tragedy happening outside your home. Although I got time to myself but your heart is constantly palpitating. This one year has been a roller coaster because everything was happening at the same time – the good, and the bad and the ugly.

You are one actor who comes across with a calm screen presence, yet the characters you play are powerful. Has that become your USP?

Ship of Theseus put that calm inside me and I think that calmness just flew through everywhere else even if I was performing DCP Parulkar (Sacred Games) or Dr. Guha (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy). I got to work with some of the best projects that has come out in India, and I think I’m fortunate.

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