There’s no escaping Jim Sarbh

The prolific actor on how he picks his films, going international, and his many upcoming roles

Updated - September 22, 2018 04:23 pm IST

Published - September 21, 2018 02:48 pm IST

 The actor has been described as ‘scene-stealing’, which doesn’t make sense to him. “It’s all about actors coming into perfect sync to make the scene right,” he asserts.

The actor has been described as ‘scene-stealing’, which doesn’t make sense to him. “It’s all about actors coming into perfect sync to make the scene right,” he asserts.

It is a busy afternoon at Versova’s Leaping Windows café, but for the most part, actor Jim Sarbh seems oblivious to the gazes following him. He apologises for not shaking my hand, stretching out to show that they smell of a dog he played with on his way here. While chatting, he occasionally catches someone looking his way and offers a wide smile. But over the course of our conversation about his work in theatre and film, he switches quickly between moments of exasperation — complete with monosyllabic answers and shrugs — to exclamations like “Isn’t that cool?” when talking about how four of his films are playing at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne this year ( Padmaavat, Sanju, Teen aur Aadha , and the Bengali film Jonaki ).

Ram Madhvani, who directed the actor’s Bollywood début, Neerja (2016), believes that a sense of capriciousness is what made his performance striking. “There is a dangerous, unpredictable energy,” Madhvani says about Sarbh’s character, Khalil, “and people were genuinely scared, but enjoyed what he was doing.” But for now, the actor is leaning towards the recorder and singing Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam’s ‘ A 1,000 Times ’.

Being bankable

When asked about his response to being described as “scene-stealing”, he says, “It doesn’t make sense to me. [‘Scene-stealing’] seems to build this competition between actors. But it’s all about actors coming into perfect sync to make the scene right.”

Taking big steps  A still from  Beneath  a Sea of Lights

Taking big steps A still from Beneath a Sea of Lights

In the span of two-and-a-half years, Sarbh has created memorable performances with negative characters. Referring to Neerja, Raabta (2017), Padmaavat , and Sanju, he admits: “Particularly for now, I’ve become the villain.” On why that may have happened, he shrugs and says, “It becomes about bankability.”

Madhvani thinks audiences have an affinity for sinister characters. “I think we live vicariously off of them,” he pauses, before adding with a laugh, “And Jim makes the dark side look cool and fun!”

Sarbh is not new to typecasting though. After graduating from Emory University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and performing in Atlanta and New York, he returned to Mumbai. His first two theatrical roles — in Ok, Tata, Bye, Bye and in Stories in a Song — were of white men. But he says he felt neither bothered nor limited by that because he was soon being offered diverse roles. He went on to play the burdened poet Tom in Rajit Kapur’s The Glass Menagerie and a young attaché in Eric Vigner’s Gates to India Song , devised a children’s play called EAT! and even directed and acted in two Mike Bartlett plays, Bull and Cock .

Vikram Phukan, who wrote Limbo — a play in which Sarbh portrayed a Kashmiri boy dealing with a sense of alienation on moving to a Delhi hostel — notes that the actor did not seek inputs from the writer, something a lot of performers do. “He didn’t want spoon-feeding,” says Phukan, “he wanted to start with this unknown that he was populating.”

 Taking big steps A still from Beneath 
a Sea of Lights

Taking big steps A still from Beneath a Sea of Lights

Conversely, Rajat Kapoor shares he was taken aback by Sarbh’s involvement with the text for the drama One Flea Spare . “Because our process of improvisational work and clowning in [ What’s Done is Done ] was without any support of the text,” Kapoor says, about his dark satirical adaptation of Macbeth. He adds that only later did Sarbh reveal that he was stressed during their rehearsals.

A fresh start

On submerging himself into the script, Sarbh says, “I think that’s the magic of any part — unravelling the mystery of what kind of person your guy is based on the words he says, and the actions that he does.” The actor points to his arm and exclaims, “Look! I get goosebumps even talking about it.”

Despite his great run in Bollywood, he feels like he is starting all over again. In fact, before landing the role in Neerja, the actor auditioned numerous times for other films, but was often turned down. “It was an assortment of things: sometimes ‘too skinny’, sometimes ‘not Indian-looking enough’, and sometimes ‘Hindi [is] not good enough.’” At this point, as Sarbh sips on his Madrasi cold coffee, a fan walks up to him and enthusiastically chats with him about his performance in Rehaan Engineer’s play, One Flea Spare .

But during his early theatrical pursuits, around 2011, the actor shares that he wanted to step away from acting. “I started to view theatre like a spiritual experience,” he says. “You’re on stage saying somebody else’s lines, but you’re saying them with full commitment of being that person. And the real Jim is floating somewhere above like a condor, looking down on the whole scene. There’s also a fate to how everything goes because the scene ends a particular way; you can’t change that. I started to think maybe what I’m really interested in is that [spiritual] experience.” He even travelled to Rishikesh, Tapovan, and Dharamkot but then started wondering: “If I was lying on the side of the mountain, dying, would I have any regrets? Yeah. I would regret not making films.” Coincidentally, someone he met in Dharamkot cast him in a play in Goa called Almost, Maine and soon after, he was back in Mumbai.

Now the actor has a slew of upcoming releases. There is Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest , Neel Kumar’s Beneath a Sea of Lights , and a web-series titled Made in Heaven . While Sarbh has taken on sundry roles on stage, and is striving to portray a mix on screen, he grins and says that he hopes to play a “badass with a heart of gold” soon.

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