To moviegoers, he’s the hijacker from Neerja. To Mumbai’s theatre-goers, he’s been hot property for a long time
In 2013, I watched veteran director Alyque Padamsee’s revival of Death of a Salesman returning to stage after 20 years. That was the first time I registered Jim Sarbh (who plays Happy Loman). Later, in 2014, I happened to watch his directorial debut, Bull, staged inside the city art gallery, Tarq.
Sarbh, 28, has since, in a short span of time, established himself as a prominent name in Mumbai’s theatre scene. He’s worked in multiple projects: Rage Productions’s The Glass Menagerie, Vickram Kapadia’s The Merchant of Venice, Kalki Koechlin’s The Living Room, and Rajat Kapoor’s What’s Done Is Done, to name a few. Yet, as is often the case with young acting talent in theatre, he wasn’t a household name.
That changed with his gritty Bollywood debut in the recent Sonam Kapoor-starrer Neerja. Sarbh plays the hot-headed hijacker, Khaleel. Besides several positive reviews praising his acting, he’s also the subject of multiple memes. Memes, of course, for reasons good or bad, are the modern day signs of having made it.
As we meet Sarbh at the hip Colaba Social pub on a packed Sunday evening, we learn he draws giggles from the shy ones across the room, and selfie requests from the braver ones.
But this isn’t your average Jim, thinking the world is at his feet post movie-stardom. He looks at it with brutal honesty: “I understand that I’m the flavour of the season. Soon, another film will release, and someone else’s performance will be noticed, and they’ll be the new darling for a while.”
What he also understands, though, is that a hit debut gives you a foot in the door. “Ideally, for me, the power of appreciation lies in getting better roles, and being given more responsibility as an actor. I am at the bottom again, like I was four years ago, when I started out in theatre.”
Actor by chance
Born into a Parsi family in south Mumbai, Sarbh moved to Australia and stayed there till the age of eight, before returning to the city to complete his schooling from American School of Bombay. He then moved out again to study psychology at Emory University, Atlanta, USA.
The actor, who currently lives in Versova, confesses to never having a defined plan of action. “Suddenly, I am being told what’s good for my career, what I need to sign by what date, in order to not be part of only indie things. I have never thought about these things. I did plays because I liked plays, I studied psychology because I was fascinated by the subject, and I hope to keep doing films because I love the medium,” he says. He’s been receiving calls for auditions for a while now, he adds. And that Neerja was just one of them.
Why didn’t we see him on screen earlier then? Sarbh says he mostly got rejected for being “too skinny…and not big enough”. Also, he is not the most comfortable speaking Hindi. “People make fun of my Hindi, but I have decided I am going to do only Hindi speaking parts from now. That’s it, Khallas,” he says dramatically, adding, “I would love to work with anybody who has a good story to tell — Patrick Graham, Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj Ghaywan, Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson. I don’t know why I was not considered for that Indian guy’s part in The Grand Budapest Hotel… But maybe I could be in a Freddie Mercury biopic soon,” he laughs.
In fan-tasy land
Forty minutes into the chat, we step out of the pub, as our photographer shoots Sarbh near the Gateway of India. However, we are interrupted multiple times as people keep coming up to him with photo requests. It’s unusual to see young girls running after an actor who’s just played a hijacker in his debut.
The young actor, who is only two weeks old on Twitter, has been bombarded with posts like, “Hey Jim, I am free today. Take me hostage?” or “Marry me.”
How does he react to such uninhibited adulation? “I respond to the tweets that get my attention. The problem is that the ones you don’t respond to get upset. So they say: ‘You reply to her. Why won’t you marry me? (sic)’ I guess I will have to get used to this,” he laughs.
For the long-time followers of Sarbh’s work, however, there’s a good news as well as a bad news. While the actor admits that his theatre work, for the time being, will take a backseat, he assures that he has a couple of ideas that he wishes to develop once he has a lot of free time.
At the moment, that looks difficult though. “Acting is acting, regardless of the medium. I already have a couple of plays that are still having runs — The Living Room and What’s Done Is Done will premiere in the city soon. But people keep contacting me for films, dates keep getting shuffled around, so I have actually stepped out of a play, and another play was conflicting with What Is Done Is Done. I was supposed to be part of I Don’t Like It, As You Like It as well, but I couldn’t because of Konkona’s film,” says the actor, who wrapped up the shoot for Konkona Sensharma’s debut directorial, A Death in the Gunj, last week.
The film also stars Om Puri, Tanuja and Kalki Koechlin, among others. “Konkona’s film is perhaps the most technical experience for me so far. It was completely different from Neerja. It wasn’t shot in continuity, no long takes,” he says, adding that he will start work on another project later this month, which he “is not allowed to talk about right now”.