Actress Nimrat Kaur may not yet have the name recognition of her Bollywood peers but it would do you well to remember her name. The star of the critically acclaimed film, ‘The Lunchbox’ was a relative unknown to Indian cinema when director Ritesh Batra chose her to be the lead in his debut feature. The film, which received a standing ovation at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, has since won numerous awards and garnered praise for the young actress. We caught up with Kaur to find out more about her incredible journey from little known stage actress to being called the “modern day Charulata.”
What was your ambition growing up? What did you want to do?
I always wanted to be an actor. I was always performing, debating and was around the stage in whichever way I could be. So, somewhere I always had the seed in me to be a performer – I just had to admit that to myself and then eventually tell my family that I wanted to move to Bombay to become an actor.
What was their reaction when you told them?
They were worried, especially my mother because coming from a middle class army background it gets a little intimidating to send your daughter out to Bombay. There are stories about the industry and how things work but she was really brave and had all the confidence in me and she let me do my thing and come here.
Did coming from an army family and the fact that you moved around a lot give you the courage to make the move?
Yes absolutely, because you don’t really have a comfort zone and you get used to new people and new places pretty fast and you make new friends every two or three years so that really helps you in adapting to new environments.
What was it like when you arrived in Bombay. Did you get work right away?
It was intimidating. It was a new city and like any new city it becomes difficult to find your way around and the pulse of the city is very different but I got busy almost instantly trying to get to know people and circulating my photographs around and doing whatever was required of me at the time to just be out there. I auditioned a lot and the ball really started rolling for me after the music video I did for “Tera Mera Pyar.” That was my first big assignment. Then I did a lot of advertising work and then theatre work after that so for the last six or seven years, I’ve been associated with the stage, having done about eight productions.
You said in an earlier interview that “Bombay has been the best godfather” to you. What did you mean by that?
Yes, that’s true. I haven’t felt like I needed a “godfather” in this industry because Bombay has given me everything, whether it’s an identity or a sense of safety. Living alone in a city like this you don’t ever have to worry about being a girl and I don’t think I could have lived this life anywhere else. I’m extremely grateful to how warm this city has been towards me and have never found it hostile or difficult. My experience has been really wonderful so Bombay is truly the godfather that has been instrumental in my life and my career and it’s very gratifying to live here.
How did you transition from theatre to film?
It was a very organic process and was something that really just happened. I was always meeting people for films and people were always calling me for film work but nothing really connected with me well enough to want to do it. And the first script that I really wanted to be a part of was Peddlers which I did and The Lunchbox was the second.
How did the role in ‘The Lunchbox’ come your way?
The process of getting a role is not as systematic as it is in the States. But how it’s worked up until now is that people hear about you and there’s a word of mouth about every actor. If there’s a script, they call and meet with you and audition you if they want to do that or if they don’t see a need to audition you they don’t. For both Peddlers and The Lunchbox I did not have to screen test and it happened entirely upon a meeting. For The Lunchbox, the director Ritesh Batra was in Berlin and had seen some rushes (unedited footage) of Peddlers and at the time was looking for ‘Ila’ the character I play in the movie. He set up a meeting with me when he came back to India and we really hit it off. I read the script shortly after and knew I really wanted to be a part of the film.
What was it about the script that you liked?
It was a very, very honest story. It was a world that I connected with instantly and it was about people that could exist in any country, in any time and space anywhere. Especially in regards to Irfaan (Khan’s) and my character, they are people who are not up to speed with the times and are old world souls. I found that extremely charming and endearing and was a great hook for me because you don’t see that kind of a world anymore. Everything is so aggressive and so instant. You can find out everything you want to about someone right at the click of a button. There is no sense of privacy or sense of mystery in life anymore. And there was a certain romantic mystery about the script that I found extremely engaging when I read it.
Who is Ila?
Ila is someone, who to me, is extremely simple and doesn’t know anything beyond the four walls of her house. Her world is really very small. She’s not an independent woman or necessarily a woman of today but she is not regressive in her thinking. She is a very progressive person, as I see her, but is waiting to reach out to someone who would be interested in listening to her and her little stories and her world. She is not a victim in any way but is caught up in her circumstances and is waiting for some sunshine to blossom and that’s what Irfaan’s character does to her life.
Once you internalized who Ila was how did you project her character externally through your choice of clothing, jewelry, the way you wore your hair?
It was something I worked on very consciously to make sure that she was as close to reality as possible and to become the kind of person you would not turn around and look at again. Physically, I just started to let go a lot and didn’t do a lot of the things that we as girls really take care of to make sure we’re always well turned out. So, no manicures for instance and I stopped threading my eyebrows for about four months. And it started to make a difference in how I felt about myself and with each passing day, internally I started to feel closer and closer to Ila. And the costume designer, Niharika Khan, was extremely spot on in her vision of Ila and when I saw the first few things that she brought, I was like, absolutely this is it, this is exactly what I had in mind. You know where your necklines are not flattering, the salwar kameez is the same one worn constantly, they don’t necessarily match, it’s not aesthetically picked out and are just made by the tailor around the corner from her building. The idea was to keep the feel of the costume extremely tangible so that there is no visual disconnect when an audience sees something. I didn’t want any change of jewelry for instance and wear the exact same thing every day, so a mangalsutra is a constant and there are two bangles that I wear. It’s natural that if someone is a neglected, loveless housewife she’s not going to be changing the way she looks that much. So, I was very disciplined about the fact that I didn’t want to deviate at all from who Ila was on the script.
The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year. What was that experience like?
It was incredible. It was really overwhelming. There was a 10 minute deafening applause right after the film was done and everywhere we went on the street, I could hear people talking about the film. There was such an incredible buzz and it was really fabulous.
As you know, the press at Cannes pays a lot of attention to the fashion on the red carpet. Did you prepare for that and know what you wanted to wear?
Yes, I knew I wanted to wear a sari and there were two events I needed outfits for – the world premiere and an event later that evening. I approached Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla and Sabyasachi because I really wanted to wear their designs and they graciously agreed to give me what I felt were two of their best looking pieces.
Those are two phenomenal designers and you clearly have great taste! Can you tell me more about your personal style?
I like to wear things that work with my body and that’s always my top priority. I have a very classical Indian body type and I really love wearing clothes that complement that. So, I start there and I love experimenting with colors and fabrics. And for me, when choosing something, it’s usually love at first sight – just seeing something and knowing it’s going to fit you and look good on you. So, over the years, I’ve developed a keen sense of how I like to see myself and I don’t follow trends or what’s in style. I really need to feel comfortable and feel good in what I’m wearing.
When attending events, especially outside of India, do you make a conscious decision to wear Indian clothes?
Yes, I really enjoy wearing Indian clothes abroad and feel that we look the best in our own clothes. And I know how much people love seeing Indian women in saris because it’s what you stand for and when I was at Cannes I was so proud and felt so lovely wearing the Sabyasachi sari and walking the red carpet.
In addition to Cannes, the film has been shown at numerous film festivals around the world and is now opening in the US. Why do you think this film has resonated so well with audiences across the globe?
Films speak to you beyond language and when you tell a story that is about the place where you’re from and not a point of view of your country from the outside, I think that speaks the loudest and carries the story the farthest. And although this film is so rooted in Bombay, the two people in the film and the spirit of who they are could exist anywhere, in any city in the world. So, it’s a local story but it’s got a global appeal.
What’s next for you?
I’m talking to people and reading scripts but haven’t signed anything on yet. But I’m looking forward to seeing what comes my way!
The Lunchbox is now showing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will open in theaters around the country on March 7th!