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Cover Story
January 27, 2014

Scripting Her Own Path

Text by Neha Gupta. Photographs by Aneev Rao. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani

She started with ad films, went on to dazzle with her versatility on stage and then catapulted into a noticeable entity on screen. Actor Nimrat Kaur talks about the impact of a traumatic childhood, her independent teen years, and what’s holding her back from signing a new film

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ACTING FIRSTS
Almost a decade after moving to Mumbai and doing a variety of work in theatre and the world of advertising, Nimrat Kaur found herself in the art house film, The Lunchbox. It wasn’t just any film; it was an Oscar-worthy entry. And did she carve an impression on her viewers! Her most special compliment was one she couldn’t understand. “After a screening in France, an old lady came to me and started crying. She was talking to me in a lot of French – a language I don’t know. But I could feel the love.”

Advertisements had got her due recognition in the past, but The Lunchbox really hit the gong of fame for Nimrat, though, this wasn’t exactly her debut. It was in Peddlers that she had first made an on-screen impact.

She sits back as if plucking from memories that introduced her to this project, and then breaks into a laugh when she imitates an ostensibly sketchy phone call that she had received for the role. “‘Ma’am, Nimrat ma’am, there is a very interesting part. Will you do it? It’s a good part.’ See, I’m sceptical about people who start with there is this interesting part. What is this ‘part’ business!” Of course, the ambiguity of the ‘part’ didn’t last long because she pulled the story out of her caller, soon after, giving a stunning performance for the Cannes entrant.

And in the process of making an appearance around the world as a cop’s love interest in this 2012 independent film, Nimrat caught Bollywood’s fancy. “Ritesh (Batra) was in Berlin when he saw some rushes of Peddlers. I think at that time he was looking for his Ila (The Lunchbox). Following that, we met in Mumbai.”

WRIGGLING INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
She has lived her share of thrashing about, breakdowns, doubts and self-assessments – everything that is archetypal to an artiste in the making. Reading motivating interviews of actors who were bare of an entourage or an influential daddy is what kept her going. “It’s not the fluff that comes with fame that excited me. Big cars and a house next to Shah Rukh Khan’s has never been my goal. I genuinely love performing. Yet, I keep checking myself if I’m still interested in acting, if my reasons are right…”

And even when she did see herself on television, every bit of excitement was drained and replenished with doses of self-critique. “I remember seeing my music video for Tera Mera Pyaar the first time and thinking, ‘Flicking my hair like that was so stupid because nobody would do that when in line for movie tickets.’”

Nimrat admits that her knowledge of acting was limited then. She never misses a chance to feed her ravenous hankering to ace herself. “I had to know what else there is. These fancy acting schools abroad would have been great – but were unfortunately not an option. I had to learn on the field.” So after endorsing many…several products, she became an audience to foreign films, classics and theatre.

Soon she decided to meet Sunil Shanbag, a theatre veteran who was in the midst of embarking on directing a musical, Mastana Rampuri Urf, Chhappan Churi. “Sunil had asked me if I could dance and sing. Very confidently I said yes. I had no clue that what you do on stage is very different from what you do for fun. To project yourself five times more than who you are – you need more than what you reckon you would.” Yet, an audition profited her a cameo – which made her stage presence a substantial one nonetheless, and saw her flitting about in all the songs, with Shanbag being her first proper guru.

At the same time, coincidentally she had met a group of performers for Mumbai’s theatre festival, Thespo, for a play called Damages. She got the lead part, and because of it, won her first Best Actress award. “That was my debut as the leading lady.”

While she has been known for some beautifully directed storylines, Nimrat never let herself glide under the illusion of someone spotting her talent on stage and thereafter placing her as a big Bollywood protagonist. “I don’t know anyone who has watched a play to cast someone in a meaty filmy role. Theatre is another world. I mean, if you have a FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) or a NSD (National School of Drama) background, then that’s something else altogether.”

JOINING THE DOTS
It seems like life for Nimrat has worked itself out quite nicely. One would imagine that she would be thrilled. Surprisingly, the self-proclaimed idealist is wary of the smooth phase in which she is living now. “I need a little bit of discomfort for my sense of peace.” She isn’t sure if this cagey outlook towards life is an emanation from her traumatic childhood. Terrorists had taken her father from her at an impressionable age of 11. And with that, they snatched some sense of security as well. With his passing, the family moved to Noida, a district in India’s capital. “It was a culture shock for us. We had grown up in small cities like Bhatinda, smaller satellite towns in Arunachal Pradesh, Tibet’s border….”

Today, she has a number of friends, but very few with whom she can find it easy to open up and share. It’s often a complaint from her buddies that while Nimrat may be a great secret keeper, she lives in a guarded shell. “Maybe it’s a defence mechanism somewhere.” That doesn’t make her a sceptic though. It’s just that being in charge of herself is an imbibed characteristic.

EMBRYONIC INDIVIDUALITY
“Papa was a self-made man, a model father with all things great about him. His life almost read like a book. He came from a farmer family, worked in the fields by the day and then studied under the night lamp with his buddies. So yes, he was a self-taught, very intelligent, very confident person. I remember once when we had moved to Patiala, at the time Yadavindra Public School was the only terrific ICSE board there. There was only one seat left which could be obtained by outdoing a special entrance exam. Somebody suggested that with one seat and many applicants, applying to other schools as well would be safe. Apparently he replied, ‘There is only one seat, right. I have only one daughter for that seat.’ In India we tend to be a little bit different with sons and daughters in that generation. But I was never made to feel like I was any less – he always pushed me to do everything that I wanted to. Like debating or horse riding or small things that make a difference to your development. Sometimes he would give me money and send me to buy groceries on a cycle, you know, just give me responsibilities all the time.”

That must explain her very self-sufficient eccentricity. Pocket money was not a concept of her growing up years. Whenever her sister and she needed money, they asked for it. The balance was returned. When she completed high school, Nimrat was obstinate about opening her own bank account with her own money and building on her own savings. And so she kept an eye out for odd jobs. That’s when she heard that Roshan Abbas was looking for young kids to execute a 20-minute skit at an auto-expo fair in Delhi. Her first co-star then was Sameer Kochar who played her groom. They performed five times a day for a week. This earned her Rs 10,000, a huge sum for someone who was only 17 years old at the time. “In those days there was money in anchoring for corporate events. It was always just for fun. Once I had even done a travel show from Dalhousie to Chamba for a Punjabi channel.”

Even when she had shifted base to Mumbai, not once was there a requisite for money. Her savings took care of her. She lived with relatives for the first six months and rented her own first apartment as soon as she found stability from doing ads.

AN AUTONOMOUS MIND
She has always been clear about what she wanted and how would she go about getting it. When choosing plays, she was careful. “Anything that appeals to me as an audience is good for me. It’s a logic I applied when picking ad films as well. I’ve got very varied taste and don’t like to keep myself restricted to any kind of work. At the same time, if I think something is just a convenience for the sake of existing, it’s not for me.” While that’s how she defines herself, asking her about One Night With A King nudges a sheepishly justifying giggle out of her. “It was a lot of money. I don’t have a single line in the entire film – it was like a passing shot or something. I just wanted to meet Peter O’Toole, which I did! And what can I say, it was a fantastic two weeks of winter break.”

These days she is busy reading scripts, and it’s just a matter of time before she signs on any. Luckily for Nimrat, they are all very different from The Lunchbox. “If at all there is something I don’t want to do is to repeat myself. That’s the only thumb rule I have right now.” Roles from a seductive diva to an officer and movies from romantic comedies to thrillers are hoping to jump into her kitty.

If she has turned down or gently refused films yet, of that she is evasive. But with egocentric selves on sensitive Bollywood platters, one can only imagine how this straightforward, logical mind would tread around them. “You have to be careful, more because you don’t want to discourage anyone. I never stop with ‘I don’t like it.’ There is always a reason that follows. Nobody intends to make a bad film! Declining something comes from a lack of connection with it.”

Right now there is no anxiety from Nimrat about what’s next. She is taking her time and is most certainly getting her fun from people’s reactions on meeting or spotting her. Predictably, she is being more recognised as the Cadbury girl. On one of her morning jogs, she was greeted with a, ‘Hello Silk!’ from a middle-aged man. It pulls chortles out of her now, but at that time she was too stumped to respond. On another day, at a signal, she noticed a woman in the next car grinning at her. She smiled back and the lady immediately attempted to enact the advertisement by aping the gestures she had seen on television. What could the Cadbury girl do, but close the scene by motioning the last half of it right back at her!

And then embarrassment struck. When walking the red carpet in Dubai for The Lunchbox, people jostled for her attention with, ‘Eh, Cadbury!’ She laughs out, “I would have much rather just be known as the red-carpet girl then!”

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