Jim Sarbh on how love for his craft makes him 'selfish', and why actors don't make the best role models
Even as Jim Sarbh has come to be recognised for his on-screen portrayal of negative characters in films such as Neerja and Padmaavat, in the play Tennis in Nablus, he portrayed the role of Rajib, a comedic military subordinate, bringing a certain lightness to an otherwise dark narrative.
Actor Jim Sarbh recalls certain aspects of theatre that are in practise in the US, which he does not see too much of in India. One of them is the task of putting together dramaturgy packets.
For him, the pleasure of theatre lies in the longer exploratory period involving the actor and director.
Sarbh describes himself as a specific kind of actor, one who enjoys his freedom that allows him to go on his little flourishes.
“Do you like plays?” quips Jim Sarbh before this interviewer can move on to the next question. He follows-up an affirmative with, “Are you coming to Constellations?” Upon hearing a negative, he asks, “But are you coming to Sea Wall?”
He spontaneously raises a question or two during the course of the interview, and one is not off the hook until it has been answered. Asking him the difference between practising theatre as a student in the US and his work as a professional in India takes one through the vivid details of the actor’s time spent as a literary intern with The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.
He recalls certain aspects of theatre that are in practise there, which he doesn’t see too much of here. One of them is the task of putting together dramaturgy packets. While in Atlanta, Sarbh worked on the play, Tennis in Nablus that follows the story of a Palestinian freedom fighter who gets imprisoned with his nephew. The play is set in the Palestine of 1939, engulfed in the English Occupation, and it would be Sarbh’s job, he explains, to make dramaturgy packets for actors to peruse, containing information on ‘the English occupation of Palestine, what it meant to be an Irish soldier under the English rule at the time, what it meant to be an Indian soldier under the English rule.’
Even as the actor has come to be recognised for his on-screen portrayal of negative characters in films such as Neerja, Padmaavat and Sanju, in Tennis in Nablus, he portrayed the role of Rajib, a comedic military subordinate, bringing a certain lightness to an otherwise dark story.
Sarbh continues, “My favourite thing about the States was that if you did a play, you did it for a month, so by the twentieth performance you were like, ‘Now we are really getting somewhere, now this is cooking.’” The problem with Mumbai, he rues, is that rehearsal spaces and show venues are few in number.
En route a rehearsal for Constellations, Jim Sarbh discusses the minutiae of acting, and moments when he cringes while watching his own work thinking, ‘I could’ve changed the whole thing’. At other times, he mouths along the words in well-executed scenes, and unabashedly remarks that actors are in fact ‘selfish, narcissistic brats.’
On being asked about the scrutiny that is an indispensable part of the profession, he pauses, takes a moment before admitting flatly, “I just don’t think actors are good role models.” He suggests that actors crave attention and the kinds of things which aren’t exactly something to aspire for, and sometimes, the capitalist structures at play carve role models out of them simply to sell movies. There are people all over doing some actual good things for the world who deserve a lot more attention, he adds, before confessing that while he is not all that much under this kind of spotlight, one bothersome aspect is the selfie. Happy to give out selfies when in a good mood, there are other awkward moments when someone pushes their baby into his lap whereupon he cannot help but exclaim, “The baby wants a photo with me?”
Theatre and cinema
As part of the National Centre of Performing Arts' (NCPA) ADD ART Festival, Jim Sarbh is set to perform a monologue on 1 December, titled Sea Wall. A play by Simon Stephens, it was taken to Broadway earlier in 2019 in a solo performance by actor Tom Sturridge, and follows the story of the protagonist Alex and his relationship with his wife, his daughter and his father-in-law.
Discussing the upcoming play directed by Bruce Guthrie, Sarbh notes that the format of a monologue is something that works well for him, simply because he enjoys being able to bounce off an audience, and allow the monologue to speak through him.
In his tenure as a theatre artist, Sarbh has played some intriguing characters, such as Jerry, the disheartened, lonely cynic from the noted playwright Edward Albee’s drama, The Zoo Story, and Tom, the aspiring poet burdened by his family in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Most recently, he essayed the role of Roland in Nick Payne’s Constellations. For him, the pleasure of theatre lies in the longer exploratory period involving the actor and director, where there is an opportunity to float different ideas, add possible layers, and fix possible moments, like “clothes pegs to hang your performance on as you move through the scene, as opposed to just hoping that it all magically works out.” It’s these markers, he explains, that ensure a performance will work regardless of whether one is having a bad day, or walks in sick or sad, or what have you.
The actor, who has garnered accolade for his portrayal of Malik Kafur in Padmaavat, and the conflicted husband Adil Khanna in the Amazon Prime Original series Made in Heaven, notes that films are exciting in a different sense, because “you just give it your all in those takes,” and “then it’s gone and you never have to touch it again.” Having grown up on a steady diet of cinema and television all through his childhood, he concedes that he loves the medium of films and the wider reach they have, while also enunciating that the craft of acting for cinema involves extensive rehearsals, especially to nail the spontaneity of a scene. For those actions to become second nature, they have to, in fact, be completely rehearsed, he asserts.
And while prepping for a role, he says, “I particularly totally exercise my right to be irresponsible,” which includes being utterly selfish about his own character. "I want an actor," he continues, "to create moments for his part, while simultaneously understanding and believing in the entire picture."
Sarbh describes himself as a specific kind of actor, one who enjoys his freedom that allows him to go on his little flourishes. With Sea Wall, he looks forward to immersing himself in the intensity of his character, in a play that is ‘so elegantly structured together’ that it left him with a spine-tingling energy upon reading it for the first time.
Jim Sarbh will be performing Simon Stephens' Sea Wall on 1 December at the NCPA's ADD ART Festival
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