There are not one but two tales of unrequited passion in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. The second one is more interesting – Khilji’s slave-general Malik Kafur’s ardour for his master.

Kafur, played with aplomb by Jim Sarbh, makes an impression in his introductory scene. Covered from head to toe in a white silk robe, he is a gift to Khilji by his uncle. Khilji puts Kafur through a loyalty test that the slave passes with such finesse that Khilji turns frantic with excitement.

Kafur’s passions run deeper – he is as much in love with Khilji as the Delhi Sultanate ruler is with the idea of the queen Padmavati. Kafur’s longing for Khilji finds expression in several scenes, and Sarbh’s performance ensures that the character lingers in the memory as much as the leads.

Sarbh made a stunning debut as a Palestinian hijacker in Neerja in 2016. The 30-year-old actor has been in A Death in the Gunj (2017) and Raabta (2017), has a role in Rajkumar Hirani’s upcoming Sanjay Dutt biopic, and plays the lead in Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s independent movie Jonaki, which has been premiered at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Excerpts from an interview.

What made you agree to play Malik Kafur in ‘Padmaavat’?
I found the character complex, fascinating, dangerous and quite funny in his expression of dissent or jealousy. Sanjay sir obviously seemed to truly love this character, and I could see very clearly the potential this character had. Kafur is the only one who had the opportunity to oppose, even subtly, the inimitable Alauddin Khilji, who was, to me, the meatiest, most interesting character in the script.

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Binte Dil, Padmaavat (2018).

Malik Kafur is a complex character – deceitful and vulnerable, cruel but also fiercely loyal. How did you prepare for the role?

I thought of him as a warrior, but not a Hulk Smash kind of warrior, more like a dancer with a sword: extremely efficient, graceful, and deadly. I thought of Alauddin as a giant, grizzled tiger, and Malik Kafur as his little black panther.

Kafur has an almost ballet-like grace in the movie – he moves as though he were in a musical production.
Yes, I was trying to keep him fierce and graceful, which is very much the spirit of a ballerina, I suppose. However, I was not thinking of him balletically, more just trying to add grace, flourish and efficiency to his movements.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali is supposedly very challenging to work with. What was your experience?
I thoroughly enjoyed working with him, for everything that I would learn.

It has taught me all the basic things that a film actor should know how to manipulate, things that I sadly did not: eyeline, the magnification of the frame, the power of imagination, the awareness of the camera.

Specifically, however, it has helped me to understand precision: that there is a beat to the scene, and the line has to come at that beat, and you have to find the way to make it come at that beat, you must find the motivation, you must find the way so that it appears natural, and once you know, you really know, the beat of the scene, then you can play around with slightly early, or slightly late, to surprising effect. But first you must find the beat.

He has helped me think of economy of gesture: extra is only necessary if it is absolutely necessary, otherwise see how simply you can convey your point.

He always pushes you to dig to find hidden layers in a scene: he is extremely improvisational by nature, and if he appreciates what you bring to the scene, he is ready to restructure the scene accordingly, from the lines, to the camera set up. Therefore, if you can find a new way to approach something, he often incorporates it into the scene, in addition of course to throwing new things at you that you might not have considered: often this new addition becomes the fulcrum of the scene, and through it, you can find different ways to express an otherwise fairly straightforward scene.

All your scenes in the film except one are with Ranveer Singh. How did you play off against him?
Ranveer is a wonderful co-actor, the kind of actor with whom one is always hoping to strike magic. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t, but the attempt was always there. I felt my character could easily understand his principles, because I was a version of him, just born in very different circumstances. Kafur was also extremely ambitious, dangerous, and was not bound by the same morals and scruples as the people around them. A good pair of sociopaths.

Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) makes his entry in Padmaavat. Viacom18/Bhansali Productions.
Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) makes his entry in Padmaavat. Viacom18/Bhansali Productions.

‘Binte Dil’ is really your song – it expresses Kafur’s love through coded lyrics.
All I did was try to match the emotion in the extremely soaring lyrics voiced by Arijit Singh, and as Sanjay sir once told me after he heard the song: lip syncing to this is an actors’ nightmare.

Using Khilji’s obsession with Padmavati, Malik Kafur could express his own love.

What have you heard from viewers about your performance?
They seem to dig it.