If she wanted to make a dramatic entrance then she succeeded. Almost all of the other Gr8! Women award winners – including Bollywood star Parineeti Chopra, the crowd’s favourite, Alia Bhatt, and choreographer Pony Verma – had already walked the red carpet at Sofitel Dubai The Palm Resort and Spa, for the fifth edition of the Gr8! Women Awards, which recognise achievements by Indian and Arab women.
The flashbulbs had popped, and microphones, smartphones and recorders had all been thrust towards the stars to capture their sound bites on what they thought of Dubai, women, female empowerment and the Gr8! Women awards – the brainchild of Anu Ranjan and her husband Shashi Ranjan, founder of GR8 Entertainment.
And then there was a lull of about half an hour while the throng of media rubbed their hands in the unusual fog that had descended on the city, no doubt trying to fend off the boredom of hanging around as much as the cold.
It was close to 10pm when a white limo pulled up and actress Nimrat Kaur stepped out. Dressed in a pale pink gown, the star looked shy as well as stylish but was quick to flash the smile she used to such dramatic effect in the Cadbury’s chocolate advert that made her a household name in India. And then, with all the others inside, and her arrival timed to perfection, The Lunchbox and Homeland star had the red carpet and the media all to herself.
“Actually, I was asked to tone down my [seductive] looks a bit for the ad,” says the 32-year-old, giving a throaty laugh much later during an exclusive interview for Friday.
While the 2013 TV commercial’s success first brought her to the small screen and gained the country’s attention, it was her role in The Lunchbox that same year that launched her into the spotlight for her acting and not just her looks. “I guess you can say The Lunchbox chose me,” she says. “The moment I read the script, I loved it and knew that I wanted to do it.”
In the film – directed by Ritesh Batra and starring Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui – she played a lonely housewife who, to bring the romance back to her marriage, prepares a special lunch and arranges for it be delivered to her neglectful husband.
However, the delivery goes wrong and the lunchbox ends up in the hands of an irritable widower. It soon leads to an exchange of messages between the two – passed back and forth through the lunchbox – and an unlikely relationship develops.
A critical and commercial success, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Critics’ Week Viewers’ Choice Award and was shown at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It went on to win 20 awards around the world and helped Nimrat get nominated for the Screen and IIFA awards for best actress.
Although she didn’t win – Deepika Padukone won both awards – Nimrat feels at home in front of the cameras off screen too, having first graced the red carpet at Cannes for her previous film, Vasan Bala’s critically acclaimed Peddlers.
“I can never forget the feeling I had while walking the red carpet the second time – at Cannes last year for the premiere of The Lunchbox,” says Nimrat. “It was so special and without doubt one of the high points of my life.”
There seem to be plenty of those moments nowadays, though.
“Ah, yes, I must tell you this,” she chuckles. “One day late last year I happened to meet [Bollywood superstar] Mr Amitabh Bachchan at an event in Mumbai. He was walking past me when he stopped and turned around and said, ‘Hi Nimrat, how are you?’ I was absolutely floored.
“He then said, ‘It’s an honour to meet you, Nimrat. You were absolutely wonderful in The Lunchbox. And I love your Cadbury’s ad. It’s one of my favourites.’ The fact that Mr Bachchan knew my name and recognised my face was truly amazing. That was the best comment I ever received. A true high point in my life.”
And has she experienced any low points? “There have been many,” says the star. “You know, I live alone in a one-bedroom apartment with my two cats – Kit Kat and Karamchand – in Santacruz, Mumbai. I was in a relationship but no longer am.
“My cats are the perfect companions although sometimes I wish they could talk. That would be great. You know, sometimes your mind can play games with you, you feel a bit lonely, you may begin to feel that some problems are more difficult than they actually are. There are days when you wake up and wonder if you are good enough.
“But those moments quickly pass and I find happiness doing the kind of work I’m doing, and in the kind of roles I’m getting.”
Nimrat, who has acted in six films to date, is happy with the way her career is panning out. “Even as a kid, I always knew that I wanted to be an actor,” she says.
“But then you know how it is – when you are growing up you want to be an astronaut, a pilot… At one point I also wanted to join the army.”
The last career choice was probably the influence of her father, Major Bhupender Singh, an army officer, who was killed in an attack in Kashmir, India, when she was 11. “His loss is a massive vacuum in my life,” she says.
It was up to her mother Avinash to bring up Nimrat and her sister Rubina, 30, now a psychologist based in Bengaluru, and she “didn’t allow us to wallow in self-pity”, says the star. “The one thing that was a constant while I was growing up was that I was always on stage – acting in plays, debating… I was happiest when I was performing before an audience.”
So when it came to choosing a career after college – Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi – Nimrat decided to pursue her interest in acting “because I found that this had become very pronounced and it was something that interested me deeply”. As a first step, the then 20-something decided to move to Mumbai to see if she could make a profession out of her passion.
A few plays and modelling assignments – for Britannia, Aircel 3G, Suzuki Swish, among others – came her way. “I was happy because I think modelling is the most logical way to go if you want to make it to acting in movies, especially for someone like me – who grew up in Punjab and Delhi – and who has no connection with Bollywood,” she says.
Nimrat did several plays including Baghdad Wedding, All About Women, Red Sparrow and Damages, which “taught me a lot about the craft of acting”. Her looks and talent were soon spotted by casting managers and in 2010 she landed a role in Anurag Kashyap’s short film, Encounter and, two years later in Peddlers. The same year, 2012, she also played a key role in the hit romcom Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana with Kunal Kapoor and Huma Qureshi. From there it was that chocolate commercial that seared her in the nation’s public psyche and led to The Lunchbox.
“The role in The Lunchbox happened by chance,” she says. “I guess it was destiny and hard work that got me the role. And maybe I was in the right place at the right time.”
So does she think that she arrived in Bollywood due to destiny or hard work?
“Destiny plays a big part in you being in the right place in the right time,” she says. “I believe in it. I’d be a fool to say ‘no I don’t believe in destiny’.
“But I also believe you have to make the decisions that will give you the opportunities that you are seeking.
“I think at one point in life you have to take charge and decide what it is you want to do and then the harder you work the luckier you get.”
So what does she look for when choosing a movie – the stars, script, cast, production house…? “I consider all of it,” says Nimrat.
“When you sign a movie, you are committing to spend two to three months of your life with a team of people. So you should be happy and comfortable to be with them or it could reflect in your work. More than anything, the three months of your life has to be worth it.”
She also places great emphasis on the script. “I look at a script and my role in it from the point of view of a viewer,’’ she explains. “I ask myself would I, as a viewer in an audience, pay good money to watch somebody do this role?
“If the answer is yes, then I look ahead and find out who the director is, who my co-author is, the production house… At the end of the day you have to realise that movie making is a business. It’s not purely an art. It’s a profession and a business and a lot of things – including a lot of money – are at stake.
“So it has to be a film that will work. So yes, before I sign I make sure that it would be a movie that I would like to watch on screen as well.”
And are there any subjects that are close to her heart?
“Education,” says Nimrat. “I would like to encourage children, particularly girls, to get a good education. I think in a country such as India, a majority of the problems people experience are because of a lack of education. If we can solve that, we would be in a much better position.”
But that doesn’t mean she is willing to take on only activist-related roles in films. “I think at the end of the day cinema is an entertainment medium. But in the process of making the film if there is a message for our society, then well and good. But the movie has to be worth the money and your time.”
Despite tasting phenomenal success in recent times, why don’t we see her in more films? “I believe in doing one thing at a time,” says the actress, who has been busy playing the role of Pakistani agent Tasneem Qureshi in the HBO series Homeland. “It’s not that I’m choosy. I guess destiny, too, has a role to play.
“I’ve been busy for the past four to five months doing Homeland. That took a lot of my time. I was travelling from Mumbai to South Africa for the shoots.”
Was it easy to slip into the role of spy/villain after portraying a bored housewife? “It was a lot of fun,” she laughs. “It was just incredible – to be able to play a role that was so evil and was responsible for so many twists and turns in the plot – it wasn’t difficult to slip into the role of a villain. Actually, it was amazing even for me to see my character being able to create such havoc. I think I’ve been very fortunate to get these hugely different roles.”
Nimrat’s eyes light up when she talks about her craft. “Acting is like driving,” she says. “You have to learn the rules before you sit behind the wheel. You need to have a rough plan of how to get from point A to point B, but there could be a lot of surprises on the road where you will have to use your instinct and negotiate.
“Once you’re on the road, you can’t keep referring to the rule book. And sometimes you may even have to unlearn and let go of a few things and adapt to the situations to ensure you have a nice drive. You have to be instinctual but you need to be prepared.”
The actress admits she has different ways of approaching a role. While she spent time living in a small room in a busy part of town in Mumbai to get a feel of what it is to be a lonely housewife for her role in The Lunchbox, she says she would not repeat that technique for every role she plays.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to do it every single time and I don’t know whether it would even be necessary,” she says.
And is she enjoying the dream life of a Bollywood star? “The agonies and ecstasies of this profession can truly send you to dizzying highs and terrible lows,” Nimrat says.
“But if you are able to come to terms and accept your shortcomings and work towards improving them, and stay true to who you are, then you can stand tall in this world. That is really the key to success in Bollywood.”