Nimrat Kaur has two cats that frequently disrupt her house. “That’s one way life tells me that nothing is completely in my control ever,” said Kaur, who once described herself as a “control freak”, which she attributed to her upbringing in an Army household.
“It’s a fool’s errand to try and control things,” she added. “So it’s best to just let things happen and do your best in that scenario. That way, acting is the most lifelike profession. You can prepare all you want but on set, something might happen and you’ll be completely thrown off.”
Self-control amidst volatility is an important characteristic of Kaur’s counsellor Nandita in the Disney+ Hotstar series School of Lies. Haunted by her own demons, Nandita feels her way through a fog of untruths and fantasies created by the disappearance of a student. After seven episodes of introspection, Nandita tells her therapist, “I don’t remember the last time I had any feelings.”
As an actor, does Kaur too feel overwhelmed to express honestly?
“Sometimes, it becomes difficult to let your guard down because as an actor, what you say in public that’s light, harmless or said in a nonchalant way can be misconstrued,” Kaur observed. “Sometimes, people put you on a pedestal and then you are in a place of disappointing people. So I am careful when I speak in public. I am a sensitive person. I can’t sleep peacefully knowing something I have said has been misconstrued. Sometimes, my filters are hard to drop.”
School of Lies is packed with characters incapable of asking for help – unlike Nimrat Kaur.
“I’m a discreet person, not secretive,” she revealed. “I carefully choose where I want to park my vulnerabilities. I am never shy of seeking help. Emotional hygiene is more important than physical fitness. Because if you’re not sound in your head, you can’t have a healthy body. My single-minded agenda is to travel light.”
Her Army background has stood her in good stead. “As an Army kid, and also as an actor, you have to uproot yourself and become family with new people, people you don’t know, from different cultures,” Kaur explained. “You have to familiarise yourself quickly because you need to be at your vulnerable best. You’re so used to making new friends. I have no childhood friends. My oldest friends are from college.”
She doesn’t have too many friends in the film industry either. “That’s a conscious choice – I find it limiting to keep mental and emotional engagements with people who have the same things to talk about.”
Kaur gained notice in the early 2000s through popular Indipop music videos such as Tera Mera Pyar. In between appearing in plays, she appeared in commercials for Cadbury Silk, one of which featured her School of Lies so-star Aamir Bashir.
Her breakthrough was in 2013, with Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. Kaur played an unhappy housewife who strikes up an epistolary romance with an older man, played by Irrfan. The veteran gave Kaur an important tip: “Don’t try to be an intelligent actor. Be an emotional actor.”
It’s a message Kaur has taken to heart: “don’t intellectualise something, don’t make it heavy. My job is to learn my lines well, come on set prepared, and see what happens. But with time, I am trying to find an ease on camera where the effort can disappear more and more.”
The belief carries over to her personal life. “Empathy is a quality every human being must have,” Kaur said. “It helps us navigate life with lesser judgments, understanding what life is like for everyone. The harshest, meanest, strangest people are that way because of circumstances or conditioning. So empathy, I think, is the number one quality any human should strive for.”
Kaur’s filmography suggests that careful choices are at work – or a discomfort with mainstream cinema and television.
She has been in only two features since The Lunchbox: the rescue drama Airlift (2016) and the comedy Dasvi (2022). Kaur had meaty parts in the American series Homeland and Wayward Pines. She headlined the 2017 Hindi-language series The Test Case as an Indian Army officer, a role close to her heart since her father, Major Bhupinder Singh, died in the line of duty.
“I actually never took any anything seriously to have expectations of any sort,” Kaur said. “Even now, I don’t have a goal or a plan for the next 10 years. What is most important to me is, has the last decade been fulfilling? Have I grown as a person? Have I had life-altering experiences? Am I in a place where I look back and I have no regrets? All the answers are yes. I don’t want any fatigue or baggage moving forward. I love my work. I love my life. I want to stay with this childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for the rest of my life.”
Acting is like a “mind game”, or a “multiple-choice questionnaire”, she added. “The choices, the probabilities, are infinite. I really love that. Building a character, understanding the script, that is my favorite part of the journey, when you don’t know anything about anything.”