Purab Kohli talks about his toughest role till date and the effect the arid terrain of Rann of Kutch had on him

Jal has been an experience that has made him mature, says Purab Kohli, recently in town to promote his new film. The statement seems earnest as he elaborates on the work that went into, what promises to be, the defining film in his career till date. Set against the beautiful, yet harsh and punishing landscape of Rann of Kutch, Jal is the story of Bakka (played by Purab), an enthusiastic youngster gifted with a mystical ability to find water in the desert.

Breathtaking tragedy

The promos have all the trappings of a film one would expect from this landscape — women in vibrant clothes, men dressed in kediya jackets, camels, colourful Kutch vehicles or ‘chakdas’. Beneath the cosmetic beauty is the promise of a hard-hitting social drama. Jal has already made its presence felt in the film festival arena, with a selection in the competition section of 18th Busan International Film Festival and the 44th International Film Festival of India, Goa. Hollywood Reporter, in its review, lauds the film as ‘a breathtakingly photographed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions’.

The director Girish Malik and Purab go a long way, 1999 to be precise, when they worked together for the television serial Sangarsh. Girish had then offered Purab parts in a one-hour film, and later a television series for Sahara but Purab had no dates to spare. “We met again in 2009 and Girish told me about a film he wanted to make. That didn’t take off either. But we wanted to work together, looked at different stories and scouted for producers willing to back us. Much later, Jal happened,” says Purab.

He was taken in by the story, narration and script but it took him a while to believe that he could pull off the role of Bakka. “I wanted to go to Kutch and experience the land and its people. Girish was going for pre-production work and I joined him,” says Purab. Once in Kutch, Purab attended random weddings to meet localites, stayed in the forest with those who trained camels and even learnt to ride camels. The actual shooting process brought in fresh challenges, the biggest of which was coping with 48-50 degree heat in the arid landscape. “At one point, I asked myself a question I hadn’t asked myself in 16 years — do I really want to be an actor and go through all this?” laughs Purab. He went with the flow, submitted himself to the terrain and things got easier.

In all these years, Purab has been part of 22 films. “That’s quite a bit, but I realised people remember only two or three of them, like Rock On and Awarapan. Until 2005, I wasn’t serious about acting as a career. Only later I realised this is what I wanted to do. So it involved reworking priorities and breaking the image television had given me,” he reflects.

Jal is his biggest test he says. Purab talks about the dialect — Hindi with a sprinkling of Kutchi words, Bickram Ghosh’s background score for which the composer opted to use live recording of instruments than synthesisers, and most of all, the mystical, intriguing and frightening impact the Rann of Kutch had on him. “I was at Kalo Dungar, the highest point in Kutch, looking into the blue-white horizon. Only when I came down I realised I had been gazing into a desert, not water. That image will stay with me for a long time,” he sums up.