My big Irrfan Khan moment came when I reached the cafe a half-hour late and saw Nimrat Kaur sitting by herself, waiting.
I did spy her from a distance, but unlike Khan’s character Saajan Fernandez in The Lunchbox, I strode right up to the actress who, unlike her own character in that film, sat with an iPad, “doing some serious Facebooking.” For those eager to draw more reel parallels between this piece and the most critically-acclaimed Indian film in decades, I must confess that she hadn’t been downing endless glasses of water. Ah well.
Kaur, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, is the leading lady of Ritesh Batra’s debut film, The Lunchbox, a film every critic in the country hailed unanimously as the right pick to send for the Oscars — and thus, naturally, the one film the government of India decided not to send. But Oscar-Schmoscar, for The Lunchbox has given us much: an exceptional performance from leading man Khan as well as stellar debuts from Batra and his actress, who delivers the kind of performance one should rightfully be thrilled by.
There are precious few actresses to get excited about in Hindi cinema. Most of them are mannequins who learn excruciatingly slowly on the job, after which critics and audiences, numbed by repetition, begin to mistake confidence (and, sometimes, stark make-up) for talent. The last time we got this thrilled about a new heroine was when Chitrangda Singh dazzled us in Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi in 2003, and the intervening decade has made us acutely aware of her limited talents. Kaur — who spends most of the film acting by herself, with only a neighbour’s voice for company — appears a lot more promising. An actress worth rooting for, then.
She’s as taken aback as we are about the way the film has connected to people. “Once Ritesh and I were coming back from an interview, and he was saying it’s unnerving sometimes how much adulation [there is], he was like, ‘we were just doing our jobs,’” says Kaur, trying to put mega-hype into perspective. “Actually that’s all it is. Its not a flawless film, its not the best film that’s ever been made. It is a film. It has been made to the best of all of our abilities, with the right intention, and it has taken us as close to the requirements as possible at that time and place. That’s it.” She stops herself for a second and wonders if that’s enough. “But really, yaar, that’s it.”
“The great sense I get is that people are very proud of this film. Not just the people who worked in it, and I hope I don’t sound conceited when I say this, but there is a lot of warmth and pride among people watching the film, who are so happy that the film has been made. And all credit to Ritesh for writing such a film and pulling it off in such a way just to make the film that he wanted to make. And it’s his first, man.”
Kaur is — just to set the record straight, o interested menfolk — nothing like the Ila she plays in The Lunchbox. She’s a smart girl with a sharp tongue and very bright eyes, and a part of her that Batra might have missed out on putting in the film is her gigantic laugh. She throws out breathless rat-a-tat peals, inevitably infectious and childlike, laughs that are almost always triggered off by what she finds preposterous. And show-business provides that in spades.
“In this country, we go a lot by how people look,” she says, speaking about perception and advertising, for instance. “And that is meant to decide your personality. Like I used to sometimes sit and talk to agency people, and ask “how do you decide that this girl is Dove or this girl is ICICI?” It’s interesting, because I’ve auditioned for all of these and there’s a category that I’ve never, ever been able to crack. And I know it’s not me, so what is the issue? So then they’ll come up with stuff like, ‘please don’t quote us on this but, you know, see, a girl with a round face and round eyes looks ‘friendly.’” Her peals are waiter-distractingly loud. “A girl with North Indian features — which means a long face and a long nose and small eyes, or whatever — she looks a little bit distant, haha. She’s like ‘Housewife,’ but not ‘Girlfriend.’ What is all this? I don’t understand it, but it’s damn entertaining.”
That stereotyping manifest itself in Kaur’s head when she met Ritesh Batra the first time, with him eager to offer her the role without an audition. “When I met Ritesh, I was like, ‘is he sure? Because I’m not simple, I’m distant!’” Her volume soars just for the laughs, enough to make neighbouring coffee-drinkers gape, and settles down as quickly. “I better not say all of this, better keep my mouth shut. Can we just sign this somewhere so he can’t go back on his word?” There was no fear of the latter because Batra, who had seen Kaur in a small role in a still-unreleased film called Peddlers and as a lead in a theatre production called Baghdad Wedding, was more than impressed. “It was a very demanding, tricky role,” Ritesh explains, about the stage-part, “and she gave it so much. I knew she could do a lot with the film.”
For a very acclaimed theatre performer — co-actor Anshuman Jha calls Nimrat “an actress who can do anything” and one of the best he’s seen in his 13-year career on stage — Kaur’s beginnings came with Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, with Dil and Beta. “It’s strange when you recognise, while growing up, that you’re not really into the hero; you’re more into the women,” she smiles. “You want to be them. I thought Madhuri and Sridevi were goddesses, because they could do anything!” Kaur wasn’t a shy kid, she enjoyed performing, and while she was significantly academically inclined, on some level she knew she’d chuck it all up for the greasepaint soon as she could.
An Army kid who lived all over the place, she did her Bachelors in Commerce from Delhi’s Shri Ram College Of Commerce — but only because it was the shortest course available to her. “It was a 3 year course. There was the Society of Planning and Architecture for 5 years, the Delhi College of Engineering for 4 years, and Shri Ram for 3. Those are the entrances you give, na. So that choice was made on the basis to get here fast,” she says of her Bombay move 9 years ago. It was a move that took her towards modelling and a couple of music videos, but also one that ignited a fierce passion for the stage.
“I love the medium so much,” she gushes. “It’s never been a stepping stone. It started out as a means of learning something or understanding stuff better, but then it became a way of life. Before I knew it, it was my sense of belonging and it has had such a deep impact on my life. How I carry myself. Why I’m able to understand some things better, in life or for work.”
I ask if she has a preference between acting for the screen or the stage, whether one is harder or one is more rewarding. “What if you write a column for a travel magazine, or you write one for a newspaper? You’re writing, but you just have to understand the dynamics of the space. Or it’s like swimming. Are you swimming in the ocean, or a pool or a Jacuzzi? It’s that. Your challenges are very different. You have to reach out to many people, your devices are different, the tools are different, but the heart of the matter remains the same. Because you will catch on to a lie, whether on stage or on camera, you will catch a lie.
“On stage you are a lot more responsible. A lot more depends on you, because once the bell goes on then until the end, it’s just you. No one really controls your performances. There is nothing to hide behind. You’re there in all physicality. You know, a lot of people say you have to be spontaneous; I don’t think its that. I think you have to really be responsible and alive. There is no time to die. You have to be there. It is a discipline, a superb discipline,” she says, already geared up for her next play but taking time to figure out her next cinematic project. “You may be playing the same part, but on the 86th day there will be a dead audience, no reaction, that’ll change who you are, change the part you are playing. So the mortality of that exchange is within those two hours, within those 400 people. That’s that. That is what they will take back, that is what they will remember at the end of the day. But on film, your luxury of being immortal is far greater. There is much more sophistication in crafting. “
It’s this sophistication she appreciates in the films she likes, like Lootera which she watched thrice — “I loved it, there was something very languid and easy about that film.” — and could have gone for again had it not left theatres. I ask her about Shuddh Desi Romance which released a couple of days ago, and about how refreshing it is to see mainstream Hindi cinema with female characters who take charge. “Yeah, because life is like that, no?,” she asks, with a big smile. “”No, really, you go to any classic household, the man seemingly earns for the family, but the decisions are mostly taken by the women, you know? They really are the co-drivers, they navigate all the decisions. I don’t think that women are that sad and nonexistent in terms of decision-making. From the smallest things to the biggest things. Women quietly have their way with everything.“
She’s going to a taping of a reality show called Comedy Circus tomorrow to promote her film, and while she’s amused by all the promotional hoopla — “I even went to Lakme Fashion Week, imagine!” — she’s more than gratified that it’s making her family take notice. “My mum saw it in Delhi and Irrfan was there as well, so it was a big deal, and I think she’s taken me seriously for the first time. Because so far she’s told me often enough that “hobby ho gayi teri, get a real job, study more, do something else.” My Naani keeps telling me that I should become a newsreader. But now they understand. Otherwise they’ve had no answers for what I do. ‘Ladki yahan plays karti hai.’ ‘Play kya hota hai?’ People don’t even know what acting is!”
The biggest trump-card in her hand, she gloats, is Irrfan Khan, claiming she offhandedly drops an “Irrfan ke saith” into her conversation to impress the family. “He’s such a big star. Internationally, my God! In France I saw the reactions and I thought, man, this guy is big, we don’t realise it. My Mamaji saw it in Toronto, and he got a picture clicked with Irrfan, and now his friends are showing it off.”
Soon, the family will invariably be boasting about their girl, not her leading man. Over at the next table, Karisma Kapoor and Malaika Arora keep constantly turning in Nimrat’s direction, curious and eager, as if sniffing out the shift in spotlight — even if it’s a very different kind of spotlight. They can’t quite place her (even though they can’t stop staring) when we’re talking, before the release of The Lunchbox, but by the time you’re reading this, she’ll have become more relevant than they’ve ever been. With one film.
“I want to keep my life interesting,” Kaur says about future decisions. “I want to surprise myself, more than anything else. And it’s a lot of failings that have got me here, you know, I haven’t always made the right choices; I’ve tried a lot of stuff. I know that now things change, because everything becomes public. Your decisions become public, and your failings become public. That’s the basic difference after you become visible, with a film out there. I don’t want to take on that pressure. ‘Don’t try to be something you’re not,’ they say. I say, ‘I don’t know what I am.’ I’ve never known who I am. And thank God for that.”
First published Man’s World, October 2013