Nimrat Kaur, 33, is self made, sensitive, brutally honest, non diplomatic, adventurous and fiercely private, but she can also be short-tempered. She may put up a strong independent good girl image in front of her mother, but in reality, she is emotionally dependent on her.
Ahead of her first big film Airlift opposite Akshay Kumar, she opens up her heart to Bombay Times. Excerpts from our conversation.
1. You became a star with The Lunchbox. Tell us about your background?
I am a sardarni and was born in Pilani, Rajasthan, but my father was in the army, so we travelled everywhere. I changed schools and friends every 2-3 years, so I find it very fascinating when people tell me that they have lived in the same house for 30-40 years.
As an army child, you don’t have the luxury of throwing tantrums and you learn to make good with what you have. It makes you into an adjusting person.
My father was very intelligent as he never put us in army schools till he was alive. He wanted us to study in convents or public schools as he wanted us to also be exposed to the civilian life not protected by the army. Since I was academically strong, I was fortunate to get admissions to schools in every city.
2. Is there a city where you feel a sense of belonging?
Patiala. I was there for very important 3-4 years of my life. I remember every thing about Patiala. There was a market called AC market, which had an escalator so I would keep going up and down on a loop. That was the first time I had been on an escalator. Patiala for me is Punjab, very endearing. It was also the last time that we were all there as a family with my father before he went to Kashmir. He was a young army major, an engineer posted on the border roads of the army in a place called Verinag (if you travel to Srinagar from Jammu, there is a tunnel called Jawahar Tunnel that comes on the way.And the first valley after that is Verinag). Kashmir was not a family station, so we continued living in Patiala when he went to Kashmir.
We were on our winter vacation in January 1994 and visiting our father in Kashmir, when the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen kidnapped him from his place of work and after seven days, terminated him.They had made some ridiculous demands of some terrorists to be released that he obviously did not agree to. He was just 44 when he died. We got the news and flew back with his body to Delhi and I saw his body for the first time only in Delhi.
We then moved to Noida and lived with my nana-nani for a few months before my mother bought her own place (with my father’s pension money and our savings) and we moved out. We never went back to Patiala again except after a few months to pick up our luggage. The government gave us a piece of land in Rajasthan and my father was posthumously awarded the Shaurya Chakra.
3. How difficult was the transition for you post moving to Noida?
There was extreme discomfort. My life had turned upside down. I had no idea of what to take up and how to address life. My nana-nani became my surrogate parents.
But my mum is very strong and that helped us pick up the pieces and start a new life. And her spirit was always about moving forward and never about self-pity. I finished schooling from DPS Noida, did my BCom Honours from SRCC and then, I just knew that I could study no more. I am told that right from when I was just 40 days old, I had started imitating my nanaji. And imitation is the first seed of acting, they say. I have always loved being on stage. At school, I loved reactions and would make up stories just to get reactions. It was a tough decision, but I got a portfolio clicked from a family friend and just moved to Mumbai post college. I made multiple sets of my pictures and roamed around and gave my pictures to every production house. For nine years, I did a lot of modelling but felt no sense of belonging. So then I started to watch plays. And figured people I wanted to work with and did a play with Sunil Shanbag. Ritesh Batra, director of The Lunchbox, was looking for a new face and had heard about me as an actor and I got chosen for the role that changed my life.
4. Who do you love the most in the world?
My mother. She is everything to me and is really the strength in my bones. Everything I am today is because of her faith and her courage to let me do what I wanted to do.
She is a proud mother today.What does your mother like the most about you?That I don’t trouble her. I think she would like the fact that I am absolutely independent and that I have not needed anyone to make things happen for me. I think I remind her of my father. I am told that I have a lot to do with how he was as a person. He was a people’s person, he would make anyone comfortable right away, even if you met him for half a minute. I speak like him. The way I lead my life, my principles, my morals of not cheating anyone ever, to keep things clear and honest. It’s actually difficult for me to lie and I have no tolerance for hypocrisy.Do you miss your father? I have been different from outside and very different from inside when it comes to exhibiting your emotions. I miss him dearly more and more with age. I wish that he was around for me, specially at times when you achieve something in school and you want to turn around and show him that. There have been many many times like that when I have missed him in the last 3-4 years when things have really changed for me, when my life had changed, my career had taken a different turn.
5. Have you been in love?
Yes I have, a few times, but never with a film star. I have not been in a relationship since I did The Lunchbox.
You are working with Akshay Kumar for the first time in Airlift.
Akshay has been very exciting to work with for someone like me. I have actually grown up watching his films and literally to act with him, I have already had many out-of-body moments even though they are now settling down a bit. He has been fantastic to work with, so grounded and so funny. He is so Punjabi, so lovely and so warm. He is that person who will make sure everybody is comfortable and not star-struck.
I am absolutely charmed by him. Forget being a girl, I have seen even men being rosy-eyed with him.
6. Which was the lowest period in your life?
Has to be my father’s death. My life changed. It was not a financial threat. But that life that I had lived with those orderlies, those army cars went away overnight.
It was difficult moving to a civilian life. In the army, you are living in a shell and that’s why my father never sent me to an army school. You are used to three sevadars around you and suddenly, there are no army get togethers, so to just adjust to the new life without any fauji kids for friends was tough. I was undergoing puberty that time and that compounded my agony. But the army stands by you like a rock. They are your family and even today, they will come at the drop of a hat if you need something and they will do anything for you. I also think it’s to do with my father’s goodwill and his relationship with people. Coincidentally, he got awarded the Shaurya Chakra on my birthday, March 13. (His name is now written as Bhupinder Singh SC, SC standing for Shaurya Chakra). I remember my The Lunchbox premiered in Cannes and I immediately went back to Kashmir in June for the first time after my father’s death. I could sense that my life was going to shift in a big way and I wanted to go back to Kashmir for my closure and I did. I spent 10 days there all alone. I went to Verinag ( there’s a point there dedicated to my father). I came back and got a tattoo done on my wrist which reads, ‘Zenab'< , meaning a father’s precious jewel that brings glory to his name.