In the fall of 2018, Nimrat Kaur got an unexpected call. On the other side was Alex Gansa, one of the creators of Homeland, the American adaptation of the Israeli espionage thriller, Prisoners of War, which is now in its eighth season, Kaur, who broke through on the global scene with Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, was asked if she’d be willing to come back on set to complete the character arc of Tasneem Qureshi, an ISI agent.
Kaur was taken by surprise. She’d acted in the Emmy-winning show’s fourth season but didn’t quite think that hers would be a recurring character. “They wanted to circle back to what they call the longest war of America: Afghanistan. I met them in LA where they asked me if I’d like to come back. I was one hundred percent on,” Kaur says over a telephonic interview.
In the last conversation that I had with the actor, Kaur was holed up in Cape Town, battling cold, American agents and anxiety, while filming the show’s fourth season. The current season has taken her to the picturesque landscape of Northern Africa as the crew shot in places such as Casablanca, Marrakech and Rabat. While she might have been in the same continent, Kaur has traversed quite a distance from South Africa to Morocco.
“I have a much healthier relationship with the profession now than I did when I started out during The Lunchbox or even when I shot my previous season of Homeland,” she says. “I don’t feel anxiety anymore. The last time around, I had a major bout. I didn’t know how to deal with different directors for different episodes. I didn’t know anything about anything and that stressed me out.”
The actor said hanging around international sets and dealing with a crew attached to a show as big on scale as Homeland has quelled a lot of her anxiety and bolstered her confidence as a performer. “I’m now able to dip my feet into the complexities of the medium a lot more. As an actor, I don’t feel limited anymore. Dabbling in movies and TV shows keeps my joints and bones well-oiled.”
The longform storytelling process, according to Kaur’s own admission, is disorienting, especially on Homeland where since she wasn’t shooting every single day.
“Unlike, say in The Test Case, where I was there in every scene, here I pop in and out. So when I go on location, I need to be really sure about where I am, what’s the tone of the moment in that part of the story for my entire arc to make sense.
It’s disconcerting because there is very little space for you to expand on your character. At times, you go without shooting for two weeks and the next day, you’ve to pick from where you left.”
The hallmark of any good actor is how they slip into a part wildy removed from their own realities and make it appear believable. What is the internal journey like, when playing a character who belongs to a nationality which has been demonised by self-declared nationalists?
We live in times when the right wing cultural narrative rests on Pak bashing, as if the only way they can look good is by making Pakistan look worse. “It’s interesting,” Kaur says.
“The only way I can play this part – of ISI agent Tasneem Qureshi – is by staying away from these descriptors. For me, she’s just a kickass woman. She’s an inspiration. I’m a woman first, then comes nationality and the profession. My choices come from places of what I face as a woman.”
In this season, one sees Tasneem Qureshi as the director general of the ISI, a part that’d typically go to a man, both in real and reel life. “She’s obviously somebody who has sacrificed a lot. She has overcome and won over a lot to reach where she is. She’s calculative and ambitious and that’s what attracted me, she could’ve been a Russian agent for all I care.”
Kaur also happens to be a martyr’s daughter. In the winter of 1994, her father, Major Bhupinder Singh, was abducted and subsequently murdered by Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants. “So if I get into those calculations, I won’t be able to do anything, given my profession,” she says.
“I didn’t give myself the option to get caught up into that trap. As an actor, you cannot have judgement on a character’s journey. One has to disconnect from the general perception of good and bad”
That most of her scenes were with Mandy Patinkin made the gig even more exciting. “In any case, Tasneem is a very empowering character,” Kaur says. “At a time when she’d typically been married off and had children, she’s the DG of ISI. This season explores her vulnerabilities through her relationship with her step-father gives you an insight into her psyche.”
And what about Mandy Patinkin? THE Mandy Patinkin? “It was surreal just to face this ball of energy. Our relationship is so high-octane and he’s the kind of actor who just comes at you. You’ve to bounce off that energy. He’s a force of nature so to work alongside him was immensely rewarding.”
After the heavy season of Homeland, she’s back in Mumbai and has moved into a new pad. “I don’t know why people think I live out of LA or something. I’m very much here, reading scripts. I want to now do a comedy,” she says wistfully. “Hopefully, you’ll hear about some new announcements soon.”