Jim Sarbh On Playing A Palestinian Terrorist in A Bollywood Film, The Israel/Palestine Conflict & The Future of Indian Indie Cinema



Sarbh sounded groggy. I realized I just woke the mensch up and instantly felt a rush of guilt come over me. “I’m sorry, did I wake you? We could do this some other time.” “No, it’s cool man, we just finished shooting for a film last night, that’s why I slept pretty late. And I’m afraid this is the only time I could squeeze you in, I’ve got to check out of this hotel room in the next couple of hours.” “Alright so this is how it’s going to play out, I’m going to leave a WhatsApp message containing a question and then you can answer back the same way. That way it’ll be easier for me to transcribe later on.” “Sounds good.”

Jim Sarbh is a seasoned theater actor slowly transitioning into Bollywood. His successful debut in Neerja as a Palestinian hijacker garnered both praises from industry titans like Aamir Khan as well as sweet albeit incredibly disturbing tweets from fangirls begging him to take them hostage.

I first caught a glimpse of his work when he and a Mumbai theatre troupe breathed new life into an old classic, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, last year. The performances of the cast were uniformly excellent but Sarbh especially left a lingering imprint on the audience.

Picture I took of Jim Sarbh playing Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie - Kuwait

Picture I took of Jim Sarbh playing Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie – Kuwait

A year later, I unexpectedly saw the actor darting across the screen during the last few seconds of the Neerja trailer and was surprised to found out later on, after a quick Google search, that he was playing a Palestinian hijacker.

Neerja recounts the true story of Neerja Bhanot, a heroic 23 year old Indian flight attendant who ,in 1986, led the passengers of Pan Am 73 to safety from a group of Palestinian hijackers. She tragically met her demise whilst shielding a group of children from their bullets.

The film is unique in that it is arguably the first film in decades to depict Palestinians, largely considered a persecuted people, in a negative light. Even Israeli films such as The Lemon Tree and The Bubble are usually helmed by Palestinian-sympathizing leftist filmmakers, much to the chagrin of many in the Israeli public.

In a post-JeSuisCharlie, post-Dadri world, playing the role of a terrorist in your debut film is a daunting task but the strength of Sarbh’s convictions enabled him to overcome his initial hesitancy.

I pursued Sarbh because as a socially active Palestinian and a Bollywood enthusiast and, as someone who’s seen and admired his work, the whole scenario seemed like one of those moments when everything was in perfect alignment. I figured if I had to conduct my first Bollywood-related interview with someone, it had to be with Sarbh.

I assertively asked him on Twitter if he was willing to accept being interviewed, I told him I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was ecstatic when he responded with an emphatic “yes!”.

As we engaged in harmless banter during the first minutes of the interview with him disputing the widely held belief that there’s a schism between theater acting and screen acting (“It’s all matter of turning the volume up or down with your performance” he confidently asserts), I knew right away that I was in for a joyride. Sarbh is not only friendly and  easy to get along with but he also strikes you as the sort of guy you can engage in a stimulating conversation with while enjoying a cigarette and a cup of good, artisanal coffee somewhere in Williamsburg or Portland, Oregon.

His character in Neerja belongs to the now mostly dormant Munazamit Abu Nidal, a Palestinian organization with a spine-chilling track record whose members were considered by many Palestinians to be morally depraved bounty hunters.

“This organization would recruit people from refugee camps, people who’ve seen their families murdered in front of them and instill feelings of vengeance or a sense of belonging in them. All four of the hijackers in Neerja, mind you, are different. The character I play, Khalil, saw his father being killed by a bomb blast in Cyprus that was orchestrated by Americans and his mother drown by falling off a boat en route to Libya.”

It became more and more obvious that Sarbh really invested emotionally in Khalil. Realizing the deep psychological scars that are a result of living in a tumultuous war zone, the actor chose to look past his character’s nefarious transgressions, and instead tried to search for his humanity, or lack thereof.

“When I read the script, I wondered why the film doesn’t go into the pscyche of the hijackers, why (it) never looks into their motives, why (it) doesn’t humanize them. I was told it’s because it’s Neerja’s story, not theirs.”

In a post-JeSuisCharlie, post-Dadri world, playing the role of a terrorist in your debut film is a daunting task but the strength of Sarbh’s convictions enabled him to overcome his initial hesitancy.

“I honestly had huge qualms about accepting the role, I didn’t want to be another drop in the ocean that is anti-Islamic sentiment. And I didn’t want to undermine the efforts of Palestinian resistance at all so eventually I had to convince myself that I’m playing the part of an outcast, one who is not representative of the larger community. I hope that the film does nothing to undermine the Palestinian cause. What I do hope is that people try to understand the complicated forces that create hijackers in the first place instead of calling them good or evil.”

It would be wrong to think that the studio producing the film has any political ulterior motives whatsoever besides reminding the world of a beautiful, young Indian girl who became a hero one fateful night. The Palestinian antagonists merely serve as a catalyst to that story. They could have been from anywhere.

Recalling the times when I heard of waves of protests raging in many Indian metropolitan cities (Bangalore, New Delhi, Mumbai et al) due to Israel’s brutal 2009 attacks on Gaza, I was curious to know if the conflict is a part of daily discourse in India. “No, I don’t think so, but that being said, I think the entire subject matter is something more and more Indians are feeling passionate about. I did a play a while ago in Atlanta called Tennis in Nablus which was about how the English split up Israel/Palestine the same way they split up Ireland and India/Pakistan. And just recently too, I saw a Delhi street theater group performing a play about oppression in the State of Palestine along with a discussion that followed where it seemed like a lot of people in the room were aware of what’s happening over there and had very strong opinions. I honestly am not up to date on (the conflict) and I guess I’m a little embarrassed about that.”

Jim Sarbh as Palestinian hijacker, Khalil, in Neerja

Jim Sarbh as Palestinian hijacker, Khalil, in Neerja

If Sarbh thinks him not being an expert on the conflict is something to be embarrassed by then I suspect he wouldn’t know what to do with himself had he been in the position of Akshay Kumar or Nimrat Kaur, the lead stars of this year’s Airlift, a film set in the Gulf War that was rife with historical inaccuracies. Unlike them, who seemingly conducted little if any empirical research for their roles, Sarbh lobbies for the truth.

“It’s a CONSTANT struggle man,” suggesting that it’s a regular thorn on his side, “not just bringing truth to your character but dealing with historical inaccuracies also. The trickiest part for me is when the director has a different idea on what the “truth” is than you, and managing to find a way around that. Thankfully, Ram (the director of Neerja) and I had a magical coalescing in that we both understood each other’s versions of the truth. If I find historical accuracies in the script, I’ll point them out to the director and if that doesn’t work then the only thing I can do is make the character I’m playing as interesting as possible.”

I honestly had huge qualms about accepting the role, I didn’t want to be another drop in the ocean that is anti-Islamic sentiment. And I didn’t want to undermine the efforts of Palestinian resistance at all .

Rather than bask in the afterglow of his recent success, Sarbh is already hard at work with a slew of projects. The fact that he had to rush off shortly after the interview to attend a press conference for his next film starring heavyweights like Om Puri (Ardh Satya,Charlie Wilson’s War) and Kalki Koechlin (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, ZNMD) is a loud indication that the man is busy.

“I just look at what’s offered to me and see if I can give it my best. I did this one film before Neerja called Yashodhara, which was shot a mixture of Marathi and Sanskrit and this made-up language and I played this Puck-like creature (Puck is an iconic imp who appears in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). A few years ago, I did a very experimental film called Aashiq Ajeeb which I don’t think will see the light of day in India because it’s about Mumbai seen from the eyes of a transgender auto rickshaw driver who undergoes steroid treatment to become a man. Films like that are constantly being made but it’s always a question of what’s going to happen to the film post-release.”

Although Indians’ cinematic palette has evolved by leaps and bounds over recent years with indie-esque films like Queen and Kai Po Che! becoming massive sleeper hits and overhyped blockbusters like Dilwale being verbally thrashed by everyone from socialites to tuk-tuk drivers, most non-Masala films still struggle to find a footing in the market.

“A friend of mine made this film last year called Court which I thought was one of the best films of the year (I’ve seen Court and I can vouch for how brilliant it is) but it didn’t have a good run at the box office because it’s a completely anti-Masala film. It had humor, it was engaging but it didn’t give audiences that Masala experience so it wasn’t a hit. But I do agree with you, things are starting to change, Neerja being a super-hit is good news for all of us simply because it means more directors and more producers will back more films that are content-driven.”

Sarbh had to go. An hour flew by during which we covered a wide spectrum of topics ranging from theater to the current zeitgeist to British colonialism but it never felt laborious or forced in any way.

At one point I confessed to him that I was a ball of nerves seeing as it was my first interview, he put my mind at ease right then and there, “Don’t worry man, you’re doing a fantastic job. I’m so glad you’re not asking me stupid shit like “What was it like working with Sonam?” (he said while laying on a like totally thick valley girl accent)

I called him earlier on in the interview a “mensch”, a Yiddish word that some of my friends and I use to call a genuinely nice, smart guy, and that would be an accurate description of him.

It’s what’s probably going to take him far – that, his laissez-faire attitude and expanded worldview, all of which are a tonic to the pretense and grandiloquence clogging up Bollywood’s arteries.

Bollywood Over Hollywood

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