Neel Sethi is about to become famous as the star of Disney’s The Jungle Book, but the 12-year-old first-time actor plays it cool.
“I’ve never done this before so I think this is normal – but it’s not,” he says, nonplussed, while on a promotional trip for his film in Mumbai, India.
He plays the “orphan-turned- man-cub” Mowgli, bare-chested, barefooted and sporting nothing but an orange loincloth and a mop of matted hair, and raised in the Indian jungles by a pack of wolves, a panther and a bear.
In fact, Neel, a first-generation Asian-American, is the only human star in the film, based on the book by British author Rudyard Kipling and given a multi-million-dollar blockbuster update with director Jon Favreau at the helm.
The movie is otherwise populated with animals voiced by a starstudded cast including Bill Murray as Baloo the Bear, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the Panther, Idris Elba as Shere Khan the Tiger and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the Serpent.
So obviously, Neel’s face is plastered on hoardings at cinemas all around the world including India, where the movie’s trailers and teasers run between every advertisement break on television, on every other channel, sometimes twice.
At a press conference in a cinema hall in the upmarket Mumbai neighbourhood of Worli, almost a hundred journalists from India have gathered, with an arsenal of video cameras and cameras, flashing at Neel’s every smile and animated gesture.
Meanwhile, members of his entourage – including his parents, who are both dentists, and his on-the-road tutor who spends about three hours with him every day – stand close by beaming proudly as he fields questions smoothly.
“What’s been the reaction from your friends at school?” one reporter asks.
“They don’t realise how big it is,” he says, before throwing his hands up and quickly adding: “But I’m happy about that.”
Another asks if “girls are impressed”.
He scrunches up his nose before replying, “I don’t really care”, drawing peals of laughter from the crowd.
During the promotional trip, he does not have Mowgli’s mop of matted hair – which he reveals are extensions that took 90 minutes to fix every morning. Instead, he is in a crisp shirt, sneakers and slicked- back hair, looking every inch the boy from Manhattan, New York.
He was chosen for the role from thousands of children from the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Canada who auditioned.
After his bhangra teacher in New York told him about the auditions, he went at the end of elementary school, aged 10, and got the part shortly after.
For the audition, he says he showed off some of his karate moves and “I also knew the lines off the book, I knew them in my sleep”.
Martial arts is a hobby he still pursues.
His energy, which he clearly has lots of, was crucial to his performance in the film, which was shot entirely on a blue screen soundstage in Los Angeles.
Not only did he just do “whatever everyone told me to”, but he also had to undergo training in parkour, the urban sport of free-running over obstacles.
“It’s really just jumping from one blue shaded platform to another and then they make that look like a 121.92m drop. When I first watched it, I thought, ‘I’m cool’,” he says, his eyes lighting up whenever he talks about his experiences on set.
Whether evading the manhunting tiger Shere Khan or running with the wolf pack through swathes of jungle, he had to learn to run like a movie star.
“It’s like slicing onions, the stuntman told me I had to do that,” he quips, swinging his arms furiously like, say, Tom Cruise in an action flick.
While the boy got to film with a few of his co-stars in real life – namely Murray, Kingsley and Christopher Walken, who voiced King Louie, the king of the monkeys who is in pursuit of fire – he interacted mostly with puppets and his acting coach, who was off-screen.
Director Favreau also got in on the action, pretending to be Baloo during the scene for the song The Bare Necessities, where the boy and the bear float down a stream singing about forgetting about one’s worries and strife.
That scene was shot in a water tank with what Neel describes as “a big lump of styrofoam with a fuzzy brown carpet on top that I was just laying on”.
He says: “Jon got in the water, so when Baloo splashes me, it’s really Jon who’s splashing me. Since he actually splashed me, I splashed him back. I had a real reaction and it wasn’t acting.”
For all the light-hearted moments, there are also heavy, emotional scenes in the film with Mowgli’s wolf mother Raksha, voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for 12 Years A Slave (2013). With his acting coach standing in for her during filming, Neel admits it was “hard to get into the emotions”.
But helped along by the rain on set and the sadness of the scene, he recalls how “she would cry and that would make me cry”.
When asked if he plans to act in more films, he says in a professional, rehearsed tone: “I hope to do more, I don’t know yet, but I have some stuff in the works.”
First, like any good Asian kid, he still plans to go to college and even follow in his parents’ footsteps.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely going to go to school and I definitely want to do everything because I want to be a dentist too. I want to do both – acting and dentistry.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network/Anjali Raguraman