Some of us don’t stop at just consuming art; we have to classify them. An expressionist painting, a jazz song, a rom-com film… We then, often, extend the compulsive categorisation to the artists. We call someone a comedy actor or a romantic actor — not just an actor. But this inadvertently pins them. This is perhaps why Jim Sarbh is irked when I ask him if he is an OTT actor.
Also Read | Get ‘First Day First Show’, our weekly newsletter from the world of cinema, in your inbox . You can subscribe for free here
Six of Sarbh’s on-screen projects since 2018 — three films and three series — were direct to OTT releases. That does not, however, confine him to the streaming space. And, he does not like to be confined.
Since his debut on screen, his roles have included a war general ( Padmaavat ), a drug peddler ( Sanju ), a business brat ( Made In Heaven ), and an accounts teacher ( Photograph ). Apart from films and series, Sarbh, 34, also acts in plays and commercials. But to him, demarcations between films, series, plays, and ads do not exist. “I think they all inform each other. It’s just about applying a similar thought process from one thing to the other,” he tells The Hindu Weekend .
This unifying vision is also a trait he observed in the protagonists of his new series, Rocket Boys , an eight-episode period drama that narrates the story of two colossal figures of modern Indian science, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Sarbh, who plays Bhabha, shares, “One of the reasons I like both characters is because they didn’t think of things as different from each other. They didn’t think of art and science and politics separately. [To them] everything was part of one single mechanism.”
Sarbh, in some ways, is similar to the nuclear physicist. For one, both share a Parsi heritage. “[Bhabha] is one of two Parsis who has made a great contribution to the world. The other was Freddy Mercury, who Rami Malek already played. So, I was glad I got a shot at playing Homi Bhabha,” he smiles.
But being a Parsi was not the only reason the makers of Rocket Boys had Sarbh as their first choice. “Jim has a similar personality to that of Dr Homi Bhabha,” says director Abhay Pannu. “Bhabha was known to be suave, charismatic, mischievous, and mysterious in some ways. He also had a wicked sense of humour. If you have met Jim, you know he too has a sharp sense of humour and is very intelligent.”
Sarbh, according to Pannu, can play a scene in 20 different ways — and the actor admits to doing numerous takes for certain scenes. “If you’re dealing with an extraordinary character who thinks differently from everybody else, then I think what may come naturally to you might not be the right way to play it,” says Sarbh. “What may be right is, after doing it 20 times, we find out that the 16th time was the right one.”
When intellect meets creativity
The trailer of the series, which has over 25 million views on YouTube, informs us that Sarabhai and Bhabha were not just men of science. There is romance, humour, playfulness, patriotism, passion, and betrayal in their lives.
“I hope the show manages to do away with the stereotype of scientists as being stodgy or boring or stuck in their heads,” says Sarbh. “Because I believe what made these men great was not their intellectual ability; it was also their creativity and their ability to solve problems in ways that other people couldn’t imagine. And that isn’t purely an intellectual process, it is an emotional one as well.”
This is the first time the actor has played a real-life man he admires. And the more he got to know about Bhabha, the more his admiration grew. “Just for his scientific achievements, Homi Bhabha was worthy of a biopic. Now, add the fact that he wrote books on culture, could play the violin, and knew how to paint. He was someone who had varied interests and he took the time and effort to explore them. He was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word.”
This reverence also made Sarbh and the rest of the Rocket Boys team rigorous in how they portrayed the lives of Bhabha and Sarabhai (played by Ishwak Singh). “‘How will Homi Bhabha say this information? How will Vikram Sarabhai counter him? Is Vikram Sarabhai the only person in the room that’s thinking as far as him?’ We constantly asked such questions to make the show as character-driven as possible. We thought of Homi Bhabha as a puzzle. And, sometimes, it took us days to put that puzzle together.”
Of connections and coincidences
A whiff of the enigma that surrounded Bhabha’s life can be found in Sarbh’s as well, Pannu shares. Take, for instance, his decision to stay at an ashram in his early 20s. After college and a year-long theatre stint in Atlanta, he went to the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger for five months, where he lived without his phone or the internet — an experience that he says was more of a liberation.
“I think I am pretty good at finding a way to be happy in most situations,” says Sarbh, who took the pandemic-imposed lockdown in his stride. He didn’t force himself to be productive; he caught up with old friends and made new personal connections, including his pet cat Mimi, a lockdown rescue (he found the kitten on his way back from a grocery run on the first day of the pandemic).
- There is no escaping Sarbh. If you aren’t a film watcher, chances are you’ve caught him in commercials. And almost none is run of the mill. In The Souled Store’s ad, he is seen promoting their brand at a gunpoint. In a Kia ad — that plays on the word ‘extravagance’ — he is a flashy guy in a smoking jacket carefully choosing a 370-year-old exotic wine to just wash his mouth. He also has his foot firmly placed on the stage. Sarbh speaks passionately about a solo performance he did for Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall in 2020. “We recorded the performance in a four-camera setup, and I did it four times in a row. So what you see is one complete performance. We didn’t start-stop-start because we wanted to stay true to the form,” he says. The play will be streamed again next month on in.bookmyshow.com.
“I don’t think anything stays. Everything goes. So whatever it is, I might as well experience it while it’s happening.” Where does this spiritual wisdom stem from? The reply is even more mystical. “I don’t think anything can unlock things in you that aren’t already there. I think everything that’s already there within you is leading you to that experience.”
Speaking of which, interestingly, there is an intimate connection Sarbh shares with his Rocket Boys protagonist. In 2012, he had liked a desk he saw at an auction house his uncle ran. His father made a successful bid and gifted it to him. The desk, he later came to know, belonged to Jamshed Bhabha. A decade later, he was portraying Jamshed’s brother, Homi, on screen.
Kismet? Or mere coincidence?
“I don’t know what it is. You want to call it space magnets?” he laughs. “But, then again, I had a Freddy Mercury biography, and his biopic didn’t come to me! We make such connections between things and I think that it’s totally okay to enjoy the magic of that.”
Rocket Boys will stream on Sony LIV from February 4