Getting his big breakthrough in the Hindi film industry after 21 years in 2012 with director Anand Gandhi’s ‘Ship of Theseus’, Neeraj Kabi, 52, is an actor who is breaking ground on the streaming services with his powerful performances. From playing a cop to security adviser to a journalist on OTT, the award-winning film and theatre actor has proven that he can enact any role with ease thanks to years of struggle which he draws inspiration from. He is currently working on numerous feature films and a Hollywood web series which he says he can’t divulge much about. In an exclusive conversation with the G20 he talks about his experiences.  Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Do you think OTT platforms have opened up opportunities not just for established actors but even struggling and aspiring ones?

A. Yes, I agree with that completely. If you talk about the three mediums – cinema, television and OTT – I think OTT has opened up in such a vast way that it has given not just established actors to explore things we’d never done before but it has opened an ocean for opportunities for people who are aspiring to be actors, technicians, etc. It’s just a matter of how hard you’re willing to work and how much you’re willing to put your talent out there. The content that has come on OTT is phenomenal and is on the rise. It’s a beautiful time right now for creative talent and see where else we can expand ourselves so in the coming years the quality of our films and television improve.

Q. Your roles in the three successful web series Sacred Games (Netflix), Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime Video) and Avrodh (Sony LIV) were diverse. Was your prep different for these series as compared to films?

A. I wouldn’t say that – when I prepare for a role as an actor, it’s the character that I’m focusing on, the film context as a whole and the scenes that I will be doing. I don’t put my mind on what the platform is going to be because that could be a disturbing element sometimes. yes, if you’re doing theatre then the preparations are the same but the performance expressions are different. When you’re doing OTT, because the instrument you’re watching it on is different (mobile, tablet or laptop), most shots that are taken are closes or mid-closes, so you need to understand that as a performer and pull up all the energies in your body into the face and eyes.

Q. How do you keep finetuning your craft and make sure you’re not getting repetitive?

A. You have to be alive to the world and to humanity. There’s a lovely quote by J Krishnamurti which is something like a normal human being is concerned with his problems, his personal questions, with his personal confusions whereas a spiritual being is concerned with the total poverty of the world, the total problems of the world, the total confusions of the world. I’d like to replace spiritual with actor – an actor is always concerned with the total issues and confusions of the world. The moment you expand yourself like this then your expressions will change every time. You won’t find an easy way saying I know this ‘trick’ or this ‘tool’ and I can amuse the audiences. I think it’s demeaning to your audience. You need to train in your craft every day. I also choose characters that are not repetitive and transform as much as I can – not just physically – but emotionally and mentally. All of the acting is inside.

Q. You’ve been in the film industry since 2012 and have had your shares of ups and downs. How would you describe your journey?

A. It’s been long and arduous; at times very tiring. I’ve been trying to become an actor ever since I left college in Pune in 1991. I used to be part of college plays and productions and won awards for best actor. I never wanted to be an actor but it was then that life began to change. From then to 2011 when I got Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, it was 21 long years! Nothing happened for 21 years – I couldn’t get through a single audition. I went through a lot of odd jobs to survive. At college, I was the student of the year winner and here I was totally grounded with nothing at all. You combat your fear day to day and carry on with the one vision in your head that you want to be the actor you’ve designed for yourself and you’ll not give up. I think that’s what kept me going for 21 years despite everything. I don’t like to describe that journey because that’s my strength. It’s a very private treasure for me where I draw from for my performances. I still haven’t done the kind of work I want to do; I’m still waiting for that to happen. I know it’ll come. (Smiles)

Q. Recently, you said that if you focus on talent rather than on nepotism then you’re more likely to succeed.

A. I absolutely believe in this. It’s very difficult to fight nepotism or whatever you want to call it. I still don’t comply with this word fully. I feel there’s a lot of space in the industry but we’re looking at certain pockets and generalising it. OTT has proved it – it is welcoming everyone with open arms; it’s foolproof and you can see that. When you speak about insider and outsider, it is happening only in certain pockets. You need to make a decision whether you want to fight those pockets – which are not easy and been there a long time, or you focus on raising the bar. The choice is yours – neither of them is wrong or right. I have chosen to not to fight that although one has experienced that a lot. I felt it was more profitable to raise the bar and let the work call me. I also believe that this insider-outsider concept cannot last long – once new work, concepts and new talent comes in and new content is desired by the audiences, you can’t stick to the same people all the time. I personally feel it’s also unfair to the so-called insider – there are so many wonderful film family children who are so good. I feel bad because they are the victims of this. Moreover, producers casting star kids is an entirely personal decision.