'I feel defeated if the foundation of a story isn't strong': Jim Sarbh talks about Rocket Boys

The actor, who's been winning accolades for his portrayal of Indian scientist Dr Homi J. Bhabha in the series, on finding his groove as an actor

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 12:42 AM

Last updated: Fri 24 Mar 2023, 1:30 PM

Be it as a terrorist in Neerja or a henchman in Padmaavat, Jim Sarbh has left a mark in most roles he has embodied on the big screen. Currently gearing for the second season of his award-winning and one of the most watched shows (2022) Rocket Boys, the actor talks about his fascinating journey, choice of roles and the what makes all his performances special.

Rocket Boys- Season 2 has just released! Congratulations on all the accolades coming your way since season one. You’ve played Dr Homi J. Bhabha. There’s very little known about him in terms of visuals. What has been you approach in playing him, in humanizing his character so brilliantly?

You know as an actor you want to read a little bit about him, what people have said about him, he writes, so what his quotes are, to get the flavour of who you think the person is. Then of course the team has a written a brilliant script, Abhay Pannu (writer-director) particularly. It felt there was a lot to dive into in every scene. Abhay and I worked on that foundation that was already brilliant.You can really improve if the foundation is really good otherwise you don’t even know where to start. I feel very defeated if the foundation is not very strong in the beginning.

It is really a technical show in terms of scientific terms and explanations. Yet, viewers have connected with it. It’s done so well. What was the process making it appealing to a normal viewer? And was it always planned as a two-season story?

Yes, since the beginning. You know you’re writing a two-season show, characters arcs plus there are so many things a writer needs to pay attention to. I really enjoyed the workshopping and rehearsal process with Abhay. We would sit down and decide what information absolutely needs to be there and how we can potentially put the information a more organic and character driven ways. We can root scientific explanations specifically because the characters needed to get something that they want…not just a science lesson for no reason. Or, how do you approach a character that is a lot smarter than you? Problems that take me and Abhay days to solve and suddenly it comes to you after four-five days of struggling with. But you make the character come up with it in a moment (in the series).

Where are you really taking it in season two in terms of your character?

Taking it to the next level (laughs). I think the characters have matured they are older. You’re watching people who have moved into a different phase of their lives. And now it’s about fulfilling the promises that they made in season one.

I’ve also heard there is a Dr Homi Bhabha desk in your house? What’s the story?

Actually my uncle, my mom’s brother runs an auction house called The Pundoles and he was given the rights or the charge of auctioning Jehangir Bhabha’s family estate and everything in it. So meticulous work was taken into cataloguing everything writing little histories about everything that is going our there, valuation, you know he did all of it. Immense work. And one of the items was a desk that’s like a semi-circular art-deco desk which this laptop is on right now. Apparently when Homi Bhabha used to visit his brother’s house this desk was in his room and he would work on it.

Fascinating! So it was much before Rocket Boys was even conceived?

Well before! I didn’t even know what I had. I mean I knew but I did’t realize.

So in a way you were destined to play Homi Bhabha…you have his personal desk.

I’ve started collecting things from other people also who I wish I could play their roles (laughs).

You spent time in Australia as a kid, then studied psychology in the United States, and then you decided to come to the Hindi film industry. Tell us about the journey.

When I was below the age of four, I was not only exposed to art, I was also on a ship, traveling for long periods of time because my dad was a captain on a ship. I don’t know how all of that has affected me. Can’t say!

Well I lived in Bombay before so Bombay is my hometown. Then I went to the states and I acted there in theatre for a while. Then I wanted to take a year off so I just wandered around. I came back to Bombay with a play and then just kept doing theatre in Bombay. I did a bunch of auditions in that phase but didn’t get cast. Finally got cast in Neerja. Then kept getting cast and continued to act.

Most of your characters be it the bad guy Khalil in Neerja, Malik Kafoor in Padmaavat, or a journalist in Gangubai Kathiawadi, most of the roles have been very strong ‘supporting roles’. Do you also want to play a conventional Bollywood hero?

Well of course I want to play those roles. But what do you mean by hardcore conventional roles? It depends on what you mean? I think there are good conventional, commercial films and then there are really bad conventional commercial films.

I am talking about the good ones

Yes, I want to be in all good films.

You’re still very active in the theatre circuit in Mumbai? What attracts you to theatre or live performances now that you’ve your hands full with films and web series?

I wouldn’t say very active. Somewhat active. It’s usually to learn from another actor or from a director. You learn from an actor different approaches to playing the scene and you learn from a director different approaches to attend to the texts.

You seem to slip in and out of your characters effortlessly. But as an actor, is the process so effortless? For instance your debut in Neerja?

It’s a lot of hard work. For Neerja it was Arabic lessons and workshops. Making sure we knew all our lines about a month before the film even started. It’s always rehearsals. Nine times out of ten when you see something incredible and say, ‘Wow! This is incredible.’ It means the actor is really prepared.

Yasser is a film commentator and author based in London


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