Neeraj Kabi had to wait 13 years to get his role of a lifetime and Sohum Shah decided to invest in an indie film to protect its content. Meet the two pillars of ‘Ship of Theseus’

Neeraj Kabi’s first film was the NFDC production The Last Vision, directed by A.K. Bir. The film won a national award in 1998 and was part of competition sections of Delhi, Cairo and Singapore international film festivals. Neeraj hoped this film will help him get a foothold in the industry. But he had to wait longer, for 13 years, before a good role came his way. “I had had enough of being offered pathetic roles as a young actor. So when I received a call from Anand (Gandhi), I said no,” says Neeraj.

Anand was persistent and asked Neeraj to watch his short films Right Here Right Now and Continuum. Impressed, Neeraj met Gandhi, read the script and knew his years of waiting were worth it. “Maitreya was a once-in-a-lifetime role,” says Neeraj.

The next six months were spent in preparation for the role. Neeraj dropped 17 kilos in the next four months to look like an ailing monk. “I was 42, and doctors and dieticians advised me against drastic weight reduction. But I had to do it. I ate as little as possible to sustain myself. I had to physically, emotionally and psychologically connect with what Maitreya was going through.”

His austere food habits made him appreciate the power of hunger. As he shed weight, he stopped being conscious of his body. The role involved immense reading as well. On a few nights he was kept awake by gnawing hunger. All through this preparation, Neeraj was also conducting workshops at his Pravah Theatre Company. “I had to work, I am the breadwinner of my family. Only towards the end when I experienced blackouts, I took a break for a few weeks,” says Neeraj.

As a college student in Pune, Neeraj dreamt of studying MBA in the US. He was part of a stage play in college and performed at IIT Bombay’s Mood Indigo and won the best actor award. MBA aspirations were traded for acting dreams. Once in Mumbai, Neeraj decided not to do mundane roles that Bollywood offered.

He wanted to do good work. He approached directors and producers with his portfolio, got tired of the “terrible roles” on offer until The Last Vision came his way. In 1996, he started Pravah Theatre Company.

Neeraj remembers waiting three hours at Shyam Benegal’s office as a budding actor and later developing cold feet on seeing the man. Today, life has come a full circle. He is now acting in Benegal’s television serial Samvidhan.

Also watch out for Neeraj Kabi in Monsoon Shootout (the noir film was screened at Cannes Film Festival 2013) and Gandhi of the Month directed by Kranti Kanade also featuring Harvey Keitel.

An investment in art

Sohum Shah was neither part of film schools nor did he know the business of cinema. But when he heard the story of Ship of Theseus, he knew it had to be told. He loved Anand Gandhi’s concept, story and the screenplay. He was auditioned for his part and then he didn’t hear from the team. “It took some time. Then I learnt the project was not moving forward because no one wanted to produce such a film,” says Sohum.

Sohum decided to step in and produce the film and let Anand narrate the story as he wanted to, without bowing down to commercial diktats. “A number of things were going against the film commercially.

We had no stars and we were speaking too many languages in the film.” Sohum had no second thoughts on investing in the project. “To me, this was similar to investing in a painting. The returns, if at all, will come slowly. Even if it didn’t, I would have thought of it as my contribution to a good work of art,” he says reflectively.

Sohum hails from Sri Ganganagar, a small town in Rajasthan, on the borders of Punjab and Haryana. He grew up thinking and dreaming cinema. “It’s a world that allows you to step into so many shoes and live so many characters,” he says. He is happy he got to protect the content Ship of Theseus by being an understanding producer.

The word-of-mouth publicity and the success of the film fills him with hope. “We had no money to spend on print ads,” he says, adding, “Now the film is running in 27 cities, an unthinkable feat for an indie film. What more can I ask for?” he smiles. Sohum and Anand Gandhi established Recyclewala Films and their next production Tumbad, a period film set in 1920s, will feature Sohum in the lead. “It’s a mystery drama set in Maharastra,” says Sohum.