Nimrat Kaur has just emerged from a gruelling shoot for Nagesh Kukunoor and Vinay Waikul’s web series The Test Case. Kaur spent months physically and mentally training for the role of Captain Shikha Sharma, the first female commando of the special forces, with shoot days that would last between 12 and 15 hours.
As the trailer reveals, Shikha is a feisty and self-assured woman who has to prove herself as an able commando in a mostly male environment. The series, produced by Ekta Kapoor and also starring Akshay Oberoi, Atul Kulkarni, Rahul Dev and Sumit Suri, will be premiered on the streaming platform Alt Balaji on January 26.
“A lot more work, hopefully,” Kaur told Scroll.in. “I have a lot to offers. Unfortunately, what has happened is that a couple of projects have taken longer than I would have wanted them to. Of course, everything happens for a reason, and these are things you can’t really control. But I really hope opportunities come my way quicker and I’m able to churn them out quicker too.”
The Test Case was a shoo-in for the 35-year-old actress, whose father was an Army officer. “A one-line description of the show really had me – ‘first woman commando in the special forces in the army’,” she said. “It was really strange being in an environment that took me back to my childhood every single day. I would constantly be reminded of a moment from my memory, or from some cantonment or office I had been to, some uncle I know or a coursemate of my father. I have never been in the army, but I do know the vocabulary, the protocol, how people behave in certain scenarios – these are things I have grown up with. So, for me, this experience, as an actor, was very precious.”
Director Vinay Waikul agrees. “The fact that she comes from an army background really helped,” said Waikul, who makes his directorial debut with this series. “I cannot visualise anyone else as Shikha.”
Kaur’s father was killed by Hizb-ul-Mujahideen terrorists in Kashmir. She has seen the horrors of the profession from close quarters.
“At the end of the day, the army is a job, but a strange job, one that demands that you give up your life if necessary,” Kaur said. “I’ve seen my father stay away for months, and he eventually had to give up his life. You stand to risk everything and that includes your family and life. It is an extraordinary sacrifice.”
The armed forces, therefore, have to be dealt with a lot more maturity, respect and honour. “What I find lacking in the narrative about the Army today is awareness,” she said. “It is not just about patriotism or pride about being in the services. One must have a deeper understanding of it all. I hate the fact that politics, for instance, gets mixed up with the services. The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other and must be kept away from each other.”
Brought up in Patiala and Delhi, Kaur dreamed of a career in acting since childhood. She appeared in plays and made a quiet entry into the entertainment industry through music videos, roles in short films and modelling assignments.
Her breakthrough was in 2013, in Ritesh Batra’s acclaimed directorial debut The Lunchbox. Kaur plays Ila, a Mumbai housewife who forges a connection with a government employee (Irrfan) after the lunch box she sends to her husband gets mistakenly delivered to him. Kaur brings to the role the restlessness of a housewife who is trapped within her home.
Batra had auditioned a number of actors for the part before he met Kaur. “But the first time I met Nimrat, she seemed the right fit for Ila,” he said. “She really got her at a deeper level. She is also very astute and smart with the script. Then I saw her in a play Baghdad Wedding, which just confirmed my instinct to work with her.”
The movie was shot over 12 days, but Kaur prepared for the role for four months, Batra revealed. “We rehearsed, did improvisations, she made that home her own by spending time there. We would meet in cafes and go through the script together over and over.”
Ila was a role that was hard to get out of, Kaur said.
“It was one of my earlier experiences and I didn’t know how to shake that off,” she said. “I had stayed in that role for many months. It just suddenly got over and my mind was scattered and all over the place. But now I know better.”
She continues to spend as much time as possible with scripts. “I break down the script, I find an emotional journey of the character,” she revealed. “Everything depends on how much time I have to prepare.”
Another character that is going to be hard to shake off is Shikha Sharma. “You get used to the voices, the people, the textures on a set, the character you’re playing and the way you live as the character,” she said. “It is not just a part you’re playing, it becomes your life for those two or three months. I’ve been Shikha for close to a year now. Now, suddenly you’re plucked out of that and find yourself in a very plain life. I make myself extremely busy with many, many things so that I don’t have any time to think about what I’ve left behind because it can get quite depressing.”
Nimrat Kaur’s credits after The Lunchbox include playing Pakistani agent Tasneem Qureshi in the American television series Homeland. The role demanded nearly half a year’s work. When she came back to India, she signed up for Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, which is loosely based on the largest air evacuation of civilians in history. Kaur plays the wife of the fictional character Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar), an Indian businessman in Kuwait who singlehandedly rescues over one lakh Indians from the country after it is invaded by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. “I loved that it was based on a real life story and the fact that Akshay was helming the project,” Kaur said about Airlift. “I knew that a lot of people would watch that film by virtue of the fact that he was playing that part.”
Menon cast Kaur after watching her in The Lunchbox. “I wanted someone who wasn’t overly seen in Bollywood at that time,” Menon said. “I had seen Nimrat in The Lunchbox, and I knew that she was an actor of some calibre. She had just come off a small film. Although it did very well in the international festival circuit, it wasn’t a commercial film. I wanted someone real – she has that realness.”
Then there was also the fact that Nimrat Kaur is Punjabi. “The character was of a Punjabi girl,” Menon said. “Nimrat has something very Punjaban about her, and she fit the role and age of the wife of Akshay’s character.”
Menon observed that Kaur applied her background in theatre to her film roles, and brought the necessary rigour to the part.
“It was only her second film but coming from theatre, she approached the role from an actor’s point of view and not a star’s,” Menon said. “She would spend time trying to understand the mindset of the character, why they were doing what they were doing. And she had her views. For instance, she asked me to change the name of her character from Divya, which was what I had named her, to Amrita. She felt that would work better. She also said she wanted all her characters to have cool names.”
Kaur’s systematic approach has also elevated The Test Case, Waikul said. “She is hardworking and methodical,” he said. “She has a very good sense of drama. She knows how to pitch a scene. We would discuss a scene thoroughly before we shot it. It was an association that helped me a lot too.”
With two films, two television series (including Fox Network’s The Wayward Pines) and one web series, Kaur cannot wait to throw herself into the deep end. “I’m a major control freak,” she said. “If I had the chance, I’d love to control every aspect of my life. But I think god has really decided that as much as you’d like to arrange things your way, this is the one thing that I’m taking away from you. I know I’ll never be able to decide what I want to do next and I think I like it that way. We perform best when we don’t know what is coming our way, sometimes.”
Kaur is in the right place at the right time, Menon pointed out. “The stereotyped Bollywood heroine is making way for meatier roles,” he said. “Women are getting much better parts written for them. Nimrat fits that set of roles. She is perfect to play lead characters, not the heroine who runs around trees, singing.”
Ritesh Batra echoed the sentiment. “Nimrat is a very impressive actor,” he said. “People love to see her on screen because she has a great presence. The camera loves her, and she has a depth of talent that is rare. Her natural ability as an actor is complimented by a vast toolset that she has worked hard on.”