Why Purab Kohli is Bollywood’s Most Overlooked Dependable Performer

Bollywood

Why Purab Kohli is Bollywood’s Most Overlooked Dependable Performer

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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nTypewriter, Sujoy Ghosh’s new horror-mystery series which premiered on Netflix last Friday, Purab Kohli plays Ravi, a cop and a single father. He shares a warm relationship with his school-going daughter, Sameera – one of the show’s young protagonists. There’s a sweet exchange between the two where he expresses his concern for Sameera’s constant yearning to connect with her late mother. “Koi bhoot woot nahin hote,” he tells her, to which she promptly replies, “Woh hote hain,” and goes on to explain her reasons for believing so. Kohli’s understanding and handling of the scene is harmonious; he is neither patronising his young costar nor is he getting waylaid by her precociousness. The specks of grey in his beard only add to the 40-year-old actor’s warm and patient persona. 

The scene had me reminiscing about Kohli’s debut at the age of 19 in the hit TV series, Hip Hip Hurray that I watched diligently during my growing-up years. The much adored teen show began airing on Zee back in 1998. A fresh-faced Kohli played Mazhar, a studious 12th grader, raised by a single mother. Mazhar’s mom’s (a glorious Seema Pahwa) nuggets of wisdom and the mother-son camaraderie was one of the show’s many highlights. The series introduced a flurry of talented, young actors akin to Hollywood’s Brat Pack of the ’80s and several Hip Hip Hurray alumni went on to have flourishing careers in showbiz. Kohli is a prominent one among them. It’s also a testament to how far the VJ-actor has come from his TV heartthrob days to being a dependable performer in Bollywood.

The actor made his film debut with Bas Yun Hi (2003), an offbeat indie where he played a cheeky mischief-maker. Straight off his Channel V days, the boyish charm and enthusiasm helped but weren’t sufficient to mask his greenhorn status. Some minor roles later, it was with My Brother… Nikhil (2005) that the actor’s competence shone through. The film is a heartfelt story of an HIV positive man and his sister’s struggle for his rights and dignity. Kohli appears as Nikhil’s gay lover, Nigel, and conveys the quiet fortitude of a man fighting against fate and for the legitimacy of his relationship with immense sincerity. Made in a pre-377 India, My Brother… Nikhil was among the earliest Hindi films that offered a empathetic take on homosexuality. Over a decade later, Kohli’s resumé is every bit eclectic. It has mainstream movies, experimental outings, and collaborations with some enviable names cutting across television, films, and the web. He even pops up in commercials, as a quizmaster, reality TV contestant, and even a travel show host.

In Typewriter, Sujoy Ghosh’s new horror-mystery series which premiered on Netflix last Friday, Purab Kohli plays Ravi, a cop and a single father.

Netflix

Kohli hasn’t had the most conventional film career, rarely playing the lead, but the actor never confined himself to a comfort zone. After Woh Lamhe (2006), his first major Bollywood release, he didn’t stay pigeonholed in the joke-cracking, filmi friend template. The next year he was playing a deranged villain in another Bhatt production, Awarapan. Even in films where he is part of an ensemble, Kohli remains a gracious performer who sets the stage for his colleagues to excel. There’s no better evidence of that than in Farhan Akhtar’s Rock On (2008). In what is his most popular role till date, the actor played KD, a flamboyant but cool-headed drummer buffering his rock band’s mercurial leads. Kohli understands the importance of control in his portrayal of a man with thwarted dreams who is trying to make the most of his second chance. So when KD finally puts his foot down about not letting petty squabbles ruin their band, his measured outburst feels like a genuine triumph.

My personal favourite Kohli performance is however in another film. In Airlift (2016), the actor broke out of his urban lad image when he reunited with his Bas Yun Hi director Raja Krishna Menon for an excellent supporting role. He plays Ibrahim, a distressed store employee searching for his missing bride in war-ravaged Kuwait; they had been married only eight days. Kohli conveys the uncertainty of the circumstances and Ibrahim’s feelings toward a wife he doesn’t really know with great candour and clarity. As he joins the protagonist’s (Akshay Kumar) crusade for evacuating the stranded Indians, his reserved but committed character becomes the perfect foil for the enterprising hero.

Kohli hasn’t had the most conventional film career, rarely playing the lead, but the actor never confined himself to a comfort zone.

And then there was last year, where Kohli featured as one of the male leads in Voot’s It’s Not That Simple – a web series about modern relationships headlined by Swara Bhaskar. His sardonic Angad is a far cry from his performance as Kifayat in Nandita Das’ Manto (2018). The biopic opens with the enactment of the writer’s story Das Rupay. As the car driver enjoying the company of an underage escort, Kohli gladly takes a backseat while its little heroine’s charismatic presence fills up the screen. It is this reliability that Kohli brings to the table. And the actor’s eagerness to work without obsessing over billing, screen time or stardom that makes him stand out, even today. It has resulted in performances in various capacities like the lead in festival favourite Jal (2013), the parallel lead in TV drama POW – Bandi Yuddh Ke, or as a secondary character in the Lana and Lilly Wachowskis’ global drama Sense8 on Netflix. Throughout his career, Kohli after all, seems to consciously embody the words that Angad says in It’s Not That Simple: “Kuch naya try karo.” The thing is, he has gotten pretty good at doing that.

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