Kuljeet Singh’s Breathe: Into the Shadows is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.(Photo: PR handout)
In a world full of cops and a serial killer, he is a nobody. Breathe: Into The Shadows, on Amazon Prime Video, pivots on personalities that are towering, twisted or tormented — except Pritpal Singh Bharaj. “No personal vendetta, no property issues, no family issues,” says the detective played by Amit Sadh in the series, “Why would anyone mess with a guy like this?” It was up to Delhi-based theatre actor-director Kuljeet Singh to make sure that audiences cared and rooted for the ordinary Pritpal. Singh has made his web series debut with this role and, like Pritpal, held his ground.
Pritpal is the kind of character Singh has promoted on stage for 20 years to break the stereotypes of a Sikh character driving taxis, doing bhangra or dying in uniform. Pritpal is a soft-spoken family man even if he likes his pint and can pour a stream of abuses. “The initial roles that were offered to me, which I refused, were about doing shava shava and balle balle. I am very conscious of the process as a Sikh actor. I know thousands of sardars who don’t get up in the morning and say balle balle. This narrative has always troubled me,” says Singh, 42.
Kuljeet Singh has been on the Delhi stage since 1996. He handled backstage for the Partition drama Toba Tek Singh by Khalsa College, where he studied English literature. The following year, Singh became general secretary of Khalsa College’s dramatic society Ankur, and then its president. It was during this time that Singh was on stage for a college festival and heard the audience, unused to turbaned actors, hoot. “Somebody shouted, ‘Oye, tere barah baj gaye’. I come from this background of anxiety of whether I would be accepted in theatre,” he says.
Singh was with a friend at Starbucks at Ambience Mall, Gurugram in late 2018, when he received a call to try out for the role of Pritpal, a man of around 50 who is afraid of germs, filth and dirt. The script by Bhavani Iyer, Vikram Tuli and director Mayank Sharma had fleshed him out, but Singh developed his own relationship with Pritpal. “Not very polished but fun loving. Wants his son to do better than him. Would pronounce Hindi and Punjabi in a rough manner. Buttons the collar of his shirt so that germs from the air don’t enter his body,” he says. Pritpal makes an impact speaking less and low — a trait that Singh has honed in theatre.
As far as can be seen of Kuljeet Singh’s family tree, there is no artiste. His father, from Gujarat in Pakistan, and his mother, from Rawalpindi, came to India during the Partition. Neither could study beyond junior school and, when Singh graduated, he was expected to become an MBA or join a proper office. “Who does theatre?” his mother asked him. Singh acted in a devised production by Roysten Abel, titled Much Ado About Nautanki, and in a Rabindranath Tagore play Muktadhara, directed by MK Raina. He freelanced and conducted theatre workshops in school until, in 2004, he set up Atelier, one of the prominent groups for young performers and senior actors in Delhi.
Their first play was Goodbye Blue Sky, about violence in post-Partition India. There are scenes of domestic violence as well as institutional violence in schools (a teacher beating a child to teach him about Mahatma Gandhi). During this time, Singh was also cast in his first film, Amu, which dealt with the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. He played a auto-rickshaw driver who is dragged out of his home and burnt alive. Ten years later, Amu’s director Shonali Bose cast him in one of the critical works of contemporary cinema, Margarita with a Straw. Singh played the father to Kalki Koechlin’s character. Atelier was on tour with a selection of youth plays when COVID-19 brought the curtains down on theatres. “For four months, there has been nothing,” says Singh. Breathe: Into The Shadows has travelled far during the pandemic — despite a problematic storyline where a mental illness is conflated with a crime — and Singh expects that future offers will be for that rare entity, the ordinary sardar.