Manoj Bajpayee: Performance-driven actors will be at par with superstars
With both, commercial and arty ventures on his plate, Manoj Bajpayee discusses how content-driven cinema has given his kind a new lease
In 2016, a 10-15 line monologue by intelligence agent Ranvir Singh convincing Taapsee Pannu's Shabana, in Naam Shabana, was proving to be onerous for Manoj Bajpayee. Unrelenting, director Neeraj Pandey had kept him going for 10 takes, and demanded yet another. That the role was offered to Bajpayee on a platter — Pandey literally permitted him to select his character — had made the feat even more cumbersome. "Any other actor in my place would have crumbled," says Bajpayee, who was "up for the challenge" that the filmmaker hurled at him. And it certainly was one, given that Pandey even refused to point out what it was that was going amiss. "He only says, 'Second take... third take... fourth take'. He is always looking for something, but the actor will never know what [that is]," Bajpayee says.
That his acting prowess is challenged 25 years into his career implies that Bajpayee welcomes a collaboration with Pandey. His fifth association, the forthcoming Missing, with Tabu, sees Pandey as producer, while the sixth, Aiyaary, has him wield the director's baton. The intellectual fodder that they offer each other implies that Bajpayee is sure to pick up a conversation with the filmmaker daily, even when they aren't filming. "Every week, we also grab dinner together at his office or at a restaurant, where stories and ideas make for discussion. Ever-so-often, he sends across a copy of his script for my opinion. He pays heed to them on some occasions, he rejects them on the others. We are similar, intellectually. He understands my dreams and expectations as an actor, and I trust him. But generally, we don't interfere in one another's business."
Bajpayee with wife Neha and daughter Ava
Even as he awaits the February 9 release of Pandey's Aiyaary, the actor has his hands full with three other ventures, each of which, interestingly, is targeted at a distinct audience. While Dipesh Jain's In The Shadows has been appeasing the festival-going audience, Sajid Nadiawala's Baaghi 2 hopes to draw viewers of mainstream cinema. Bajpayee also has Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK's The Family Man set for a digital outing, a platform he touts as the "next big thing". Evidently basking under the glory of the limitless offers, he credits the growth of contextually strong cinema for the increasing attention that cinematic talents have been acquiring. "We are finally heading towards a time when performance-driven actors will be at par with superstars. And that was exactly what the fight was about. The fight was never about mainstream cinema versus art-house films. We just wanted an industry where all sorts of actors could co-exist, and we're heading there."
Yet, the eventual exhaustion of commercial cinema is unlikely, given the far-reaching effects of mainstream films. "It [commercial cinema] is a genre that is important. It reaches small towns, villages and multiplexes too. But, because of the changing world, especially the growth of the internet, there's a large audience looking for great content as well. As a result, you get to see films like Aligarh and Budhia Singh." The demand for great content, he says, is coupled with the desire to see stronger performance from actors of his kind. "Viewers want actors who are known to deliver with their performances to be at par with Western artistes. Also, their demand from every actor is different. They want to see a Salman Khan in a [film like] Tiger Zinda Hai. When they come to see Manoj Bajpayee, they want him [Bajpayee] surprise them with new acts. So, our job is to be really good in every role. And fortunately, while a Tiger Zinda Hai is working, a Newton is too. And this is healthy. There has always been a Robert De Niro and an Al Pacino, but there has also always been a Tom Cruise."
While his fans would be up for a debate, Bajpayee insists, he has never been a talented actor. Harbouring the love for the craft since childhood, he says he knew he would need to off-set his perceived lack of flair with toil. "I need to work hard to recite every single line. I keep practicing it quietly before I'm required to deliver it. Also, I work on understanding the back-story of my character. If there isn't one, I try to create it. Because I hold on to it for long. I can't switch on and switch off. For me, if it's switched on, it is on for a long time."
A busy schedule sees Bajpayee neck-deep in work until August. But, after that he intends to take a four-month sabbatical to "refuel" himself for his forthcoming commitments. "It's an essential for an actor if s/he wishes to be ready for every venture," says the actor, as he goes on to spill the beans on how he intends to unwind.
"I have already started learning to cook. I've realised that it is something that I am slowly growing interested in. I want to cook meals for my daughter and surprise her with one dish or another. I want to give her the memory of her father's dishes."
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