A PROLIFIC stage actor who was listed in Forbes India’s 30 under 30 list in 2015 for his contributions to the Mumbai theatre industry, Jim Sarbh, notched up his first cinema role in the acclaimed biographical drama Neerja (2016), as the terrorist, Khalil.
The award-winning actor has since then delivered winning performances in films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018), along with web serials like Smoke, and Four More Shots Please.
Sarbh reached an even bigger audience with the role of Dr Homi Bhabha in SonyLIV’s critically acclaimed two-season show Rocket Boys. His layered portrayal of the nuclear physicist who is widely credited as the ‘father of the Indian nuclear programme’ has now earned him a nomination in the best actor category at the International Emmy Awards 2023.
Eastern Eye recently spoke to the actor about his excitement over bagging an Emmy nomination, what motivated him to take up the role, various challenges of playing a historical figure, and if it changed him in any way.
How does it feel to receive your first International Emmy Award nomination?
I am grateful to be nominated under the best actor category at the International Emmy Awards for my portrayal of Dr Homi Bhabha in Rocket Boys. It is an honour to be recognised among such talented individuals from across the world. This nomination is a testament to the hard-working, dedicated, and extremely talented cast and crew, who brought the incredible story of Dr Sarabhai and Dr Bhabha to life. I loved working on Rocket Boys, a project that salutes some of India’s scientists, artists, and leaders – the pioneers of a newly birthed nation.
How did you get to know you had been nominated for the prestigious honour?
Abhay Pannu, the writer/director of Rocket Boys, texted me, and Nikkhil Advani, one of the heads of Emmay Productions who produced Rocket Boys, called me up.
Do you consider Rocket Boys a turning point in your career?
Well, I considered the project very exciting. I could sense what an opportunity it was to play such an interesting historical figure.
Since the show traverses between seeing the narrative through his eyes, and through Dr Sarabhai, I sensed that I had an opportunity to explore my range with a character that cannot be summed up easily. His struggles, ambitions, and personal connections, over so many years of his life, offered me the opportunity to shade the character in nicely.
When you first started working on it, did you have any idea it would become such a landmark show?
We sensed that there was something special about the project. The bravery of the producers and platform to take on the subject, the overall dramatic structure in the two-season arc, the funny and poignant moments in scenes, and the expert team assembled to bring it all to life, gave us hope. But you can’t know what the fruits of your labour will be.
How did you land the part and what was the motivation behind taking it up?
Nikkhil and Abhay had a Zoom call with me during lockdown, presenting the narrative and character. Being a Parsi myself, I was immediately drawn to the idea of being able to represent such a renowned member of my community. I was fascinated by just how much Dr Sarabhai and Dr Bhabha did in their lives, and the beautiful ‘odd couple’ dynamic Abhay had set up.
Tell us more about that…
Sarabhai being outwardly more sensitive and thoughtful, Bhabha being more outwardly mercurial and brash. I enjoyed that the show explored how, despite their outward representation, inside, Homi is just as thoughtful and sensitive as Vikram, and Vikram as brash and mercurial as Homi.
What was the most challenging part of playing Dr Homi Bhabha?
I think the biggest challenge was to try to think of how to present a character who thinks a lot faster, wider, and deeper than I do. We worked to try and represent an approach to life that was different from ours.
How does a genius think? We know what he did, and by reading his writing we get a little window into his thought process, but how does he deal with loss? How does he run a board meeting? How does he beg for funds? How does he flirt? How does a person who thinks faster, deeper and broader approach all of these moments? We would struggle with moments, with problems Homi was facing, and brainstorm solutions. Sometimes it would take us weeks to land on what Homi thought of in a moment.
How much liberty do actors have when they portray a historical figure?
The show’s creators did extensive research during the scriptwriting and production planning process. They were very clear, however, that they wanted to show not only Dr Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai, but also Homi and Vikram, the men who did not know what their legacy would be, but worked to solve problems that were before them. Therefore, I tried to approach my performance in the same way. Homi does not know what his legacy is while he lives, nor does he care. He wants to complete the task at hand, with an astounding attention to detail. That is enough.
Did playing Dr Bhabha change you in any way?
Dr Bhabha was a fascinating and complete man. He was a scientist, first and foremost, but he was also a painter, a violinist, an architect (he designed most of his institutes), a diehard supporter of the arts, a loyal friend, and a charming partner. He was full of life. He believed in increasing the longevity of his life by increasing the intensity with which he lived it. How you do something is how you do everything, and his attention to detail, appreciation of showmanship, and pursuit of perfection shows in every aspect of his life.
Has any of the immersive role stayed with you?
What has stayed with me about Dr Bhabha is that he was infinitely curious and was unafraid of the hard work required to turn his curiosity into expertise.
Is there any other historical figure that you wish to portray on screen?
Yes. Jim Corbett.
Shefali Shah and Vir Das are also nominated from India. Did you have any word with them post the announcement?
No, I have not spoken to them yet.
You are competing with Gustavo Bassani, Martin Freeman, and Jonas Karlsson. How does this make you feel and have you seen the work they are nominated for?
I have not seen the work of Gustavo Bassani, and Jonas Karlsson, but I am very interested in watching the shows they have been nominated for. Martin Freeman? I have followed his career for many years and absolutely love his work. He always pops up in one of my favourite directors Edgar Wright’s films. In addition, there is The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Fargo, Carnage and, of course, Sherlock. I have not watched The Responder, but I am very eager to.
What do you like about his work?
I greatly admire his ability to represent an underdog, an everyman, with so much grace, depth, bravery in the face of sadness, quiet charisma and humour. He always has me rooting for his character. I imagine he is the favourite to win.
What else is in the works for you?
I am working on an interview show with Zoya Hussain, which should drop by the end of October. I have also been cooking up a new film with Abhay Pannu and Nikkhil Advani and the good people at Emmy Productions. I acted in two short films, one directed by Dibakar Banerjee, and one by Rishav Kapoor (creatively produced by Chaitanya Tamhane), and a third is in preproduction. I also acted in a film called Pune Highway directed by Bugs Bhargava and Rahul Da Cunha.