Hitlist Web Awards | Manoj Bajpayee: Professional life, even now, doesn't bother me much

Updated: Mar 07, 2020, 08:51 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Ahead of Hitlist Web Awards, the 'Family Man', over a long sit-down chat, traces his journey from farmland in Bihar

Manoj Bajpayee. Pics/Ashish Rane
Manoj Bajpayee. Pics/Ashish Rane

In a way, the journey of Bombay cinema's transition into millennial cool, late-90s/early-2000s onwards — what with even 'indies' beginning to merge with Bollywood mainstream — starts from a street in Delhi. It's officially named Sudhir Bose Marg, where colleges of Delhi University's (DU) North Campus are lined up one after another, on either side.

If you survey this street late '80s onwards, you'd find Manoj Bajpayee enrolled in Ramjas College, fresh off a train from Bihar. Bajpayee says he also used to perform in plays at the next-door Hindu College, where there was actor Ashish Vidyarthi. When not representing university in cricket, Vishal Bhardwaj (from Meerut) would score music for those plays. "Rekha, Vishal's girlfriend [later his wife], was learning classical music."

To the right of Shishir Bose Marg is Khalsa College, where Saurabh Shukla graduated from. To the left is Hansraj College, where Shah Rukh Khan was reading economics. Few years later, Imtiaz Ali (from Jamshedpur) founded Hindu College's dramatic society.

At about the same time as Anurag Kashyap (originally from Banaras), who was at Hansraj. "Oh there are just way too many people [to name]," Bajpayee trails off, as we stage an unscripted, hour-and-half long edition of Sit With Hitlist, before a live audience.

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Will continue to use full names, just so you can correlate them with their relevance to current Bollywood. The point for most of these DU students — who later made the move to Mumbai and cinema — wasn't quite to crack their final exam in history (Bajpayee), or zoology (Kashyap). It was firstly to gain access to the thriving theatre scene in the Capital.

This is where Bajpayee co-founded the theatre company, Act One. It had, among others, Imtiaz Ali, actors Gajraj Rao, Piyush Mishra: "Shoojit Sircar used to design background music, and assist director [NK Sharma]. Anubhav Sinha assisted [in direction], and was an important part of the circle."

During the day Bajpayee trained under Barry John and his company Theatre Action Group (TAG), to secure a place in Delhi's National School of Drama — that ultimately rejected him four years in a row. It's at TAG that he first met Shah Rukh Khan: "No matter how talented we were, girls always flocked to Shah Rukh." Nothing's changed.

"Shah Rukh, along with Divya Seth, Jeeturaj, were English theatre actors, from privileged backgrounds in South Delhi," Bajpayee recalls. While everyone really made it on their own in Mumbai/Bollywood, with zero family connections, the one to scale the steepest climb is still likely to be Bajpayee. He was born into a famer's family, with six siblings, raised in a village called Belwa in Bihar, bordering Nepal, where there wasn't even a local cinema, growing up.

Besides, being Bihari meant a strong regional accent that he had to shed, in order to ready himself for multiple parts on stage/film: "If you're an actor, you can't be 'one type' in your real life — a Bihari, for instance. You should be able to play a Marathi, Punjabi.... For many years, from my Hindi, many people couldn't figure out where I was from."

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What he worked on harder still is English. Which is just a language, yes, but it also denotes social access in India: "I always knew English is a tool to compete in this country; to fit in, and get your work done—even if I decide to work in the Hindi film industry. I didn't take it as a burden."

It was quite common for Bihari students (nicknamed 'Harries') to land up in DU, to pursue courses in sciences and liberal arts, and take a shot at several entrance exams later — chiefly for the civil services. Bajpayee made sure he spent significantly more time with the few foreign students in his college, rather than the 'Harry gang': "The Kenyan/Nigerian guys would listen to my English, quietly, without judgment. Five hours of my day spent with them meant only speaking English, flat-out — gaining command/confidence over the language. Barry John, who took me under his wing, started giving me roles in English plays as well."

This interview is wholly in English. He's as fluent as it gets. This, he says, surprises his former flat-mates — a full-on 'English medium type' in particular, who'd make fun of him back in college. By the early '90s, having spent enough hours perfecting his diction, reading literature, watching plays, doing street theatre, exposing himself to arts and [alternate] cinema, what he calls the "best days of my life", Bajpayee began to 'belong' — to Delhi's intensely active stage scene.

"We were Turram Khans [of the circuit]," he says, also of fellow actors Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, and the like. This is the catchment area filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, along with his assistant and casting director Tigmanshu Dhulia, tapped into to cast for Bandit Queen (1994). Post its commercial success, the Bandit Queen 'alumni' pretty much migrated en masse to Mumbai.

"Nirmal Pandey became a star. Seema Biswas got [the lead role with] Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Aditya Shrivastav got busy as well. Saurabh Shukla in fact was the busiest…" And Bajpayee? Because his character Maan Singh in Bandit Queen didn't have many lines, despite strong screen presence, he remained relatively unnoticed.

Manoj Bajpayee in conversation with Mayank Shekhar at the latest edition of Sit With Hitlist Manoj Bajpayee in conversation with Mayank Shekhar at the latest edition of Sit With Hitlist

He did move to Mumbai with a "major role in Prakash Jha's Mrityudand" though, and a TV series with director Pankaj Parashar in hand. Both fell through. He was kicked out after the first day's pilot shoot of the latter. As from three other leading roles — in a TV show, corporate film and a docu-drama — all on the same fateful day!

What followed is four years of "no work, consequently no food," and life in a chawl. The primary talent he developed in these years, Bajpayee jokes, is an ability to time his entry into friends' homes — right at the moment when lunch was getting served; or a booze bottle was being cracked open! An important lesson that showbiz teaches most aspirants though, and something that Bajpayee appears to have imbibed as a personality trait, is the strength/perseverance to repeatedly face rejection, and calmly move on, before it breaks one's resolve/spirit.

"I am basically dheeth [stubborn]," Bajpayee says more than once to describe himself. While playing the popular character Sunil in the television series Swabhimaan certainly turned his meagre fortunes around —"I could eat at fancies restaurants now" — the turning point in Bajpayee's career is obviously the iconic/immortalised 'Bhikhu Mhatre' from Ram Gopal Varma's Satya (1998).

Varma, Bajpayee reckons, is the man who singularly altered the landscape of Lokhandwala, and indeed (mainstream) Hindi films. Varma was looking for writers for Satya. Bajpayee introduced him to Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla. Satya led to Varma's Kaun? (1999), also written by Kashyap, and a role that Bajpayee says he practically remodelled on the first day of shoot — turning Sameer Purnavale into a goofy bloke, rather than a serious fellow.

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Shool (1999), written by Kashyap as well, followed. Among Bajpayee's contributions to this lead part of a quiet cop, diametrically opposite to the boisterous Bhikhu, was the name Samar Pratap Singh. Samar was what Bajpayee wanted to officially change his own name to, but couldn't do paper-work for, before the release of Bandit Queen: "Everybody in Bihar is called Manoj — Manoj Cyclewallah, Puncturewallah, Bhoojawallah, Littiwalllah…." His parents had named him after the actor Manoj Kumar (born Harikishan Goswami). Who, in turn, named himself after Dilip Kumar's character from the film Shabnam (1949)!

Up until Chandraprakash Dwivedi's Pinjar (2003) that won Bajpayee his second National Award (first was for Satya), what you sense is an unlikely Bollywood star, on an enviable dream run, both at the box-office, and with critical acclaim. And then everything starts tumbling downhill thereafter — for seven frickin' years straight!

He had a fall-out with Varma, when the latter was at the top of his game: "I used to be angry, sensitive — not an easy person to deal with." Kashyap and he parted ways. He was going to both act in, and co-produce Kashyap's debut: "Anurag had mistakenly presumed that I wasn't interested in the role/film."

He looks back at the fallow period, "Those weren't easy times. No work was coming [my way]. And whatever was, didn't match up to standards. Also, I was not keeping well." On the IMDb trivia page, Bajpayee may well boast of the longest list of shelved films for a filmography that could've been. There is at least one major movie mentioned on the user-generated page — Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti, that he was replaced from. It's true, he says.

Bajpayee's actual career graph effectively resembles a symmetrical ECG report, with extensive highs and lows, almost equally spaced out! He agrees, "I still call filmmakers for work, if I've enjoyed their recent film. The hardest part was to convince friends that I was still good enough — aur woh mooh chura rahe thhe [and they were sheepishly looking away]. When I reminisce [those times], I feel only I could've survived it. Because I don't take it to heart. The only thing that could break me is [upheaval on the] personal front. The professional life, even now, doesn't bother me much. Mumbai says it most beautifully, 'Yaar, load kyun leta hai [Why take stress?]'.

"TV crews that used to hound me started putting their cameras down, watching me enter events. I could hear the reporter, who wouldn't even lower his voice, instructing this to his crew. A friend with me felt bad observing this and said, 'Jabda tod denge [I'll break his jaw].' I told him, jabda tootega. And that happens with work. I was sure I was going to come back. But I needed a role. When I got Rajneeti, I knew this was it. I knew what I wanted to do with Duryodhan's role."

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Rajneeti (2010), a major hit that Bajpayee, 51, admits resurrected his floundering résumé, was an adaptation of Mahabharat, set within contemporary Indian politics. It was directed by Prakash Jha, whose offer for that "major role" in Mrityudand (1997; that eventually went to actor Ayub Khan) Bajpayee had optimistically landed in Bombay with.

Similarly, he earned matchless street-cred as Sardar Khan with Kashyap's masterpiece Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012). Kashyap and he are back to being friends. Of which he laughs, "Anurag is incredibly talented, but a loner. If you meet him for three days in a row, he starts hating you!"

Further, his most challenging lead role in the current phase could well be as the Marathi, gay Professor Siras in Aligarh (2015): "A leading journalist had written about how actors' careers got ruined, once they played gay characters on screen. My career got made as a result." Aligarh was directed by Hansal Mehta, with whom Bajpayee had collaborated in the under-rated cult film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000), co-written by Saurabh Shukla, during the first upswing in his career.

In 2019, Bajpayee stormed into mainstream web with Amazon Prime's smashing success, The Family Man, directed by Raj-DK, playing a spy Srikant Tiwari, who could be any other guy on a Mumbai street. As a basic brief, even that sounds a little lot like Bajpayee's breakout role in Satya: "Bhikhu Mhatre was the most real [gangster] that this country has ever seen on the big screen. He could be standing by a restaurant or a paan shop, and you wouldn't know he's a dreaded don. Which is true for people doing extraordinary things —they're extremely unassuming in day-to-day life. Srikant Tiwari has all the same elements, but we went a little further ahead in this realistic direction — he's even more casual, nervous, anxious [than Bhikhu]."

If life/career must indeed be shaped into a circle, let's look at Bajpayee's last major film, Sonchiriya (2019) that, while not quite creating waves at the box-office, finds itself nominated in critics' categories across most major awards, including winning the Filmfare black lady for Best Film (Critics).

The film is set in the same time-frame and location (ravines of Chambal) as Bajpayee's debut, Bandit Queen. Like with his debut, Bajpayee appears as a quiet dacoit named Maan Singh. It's directed by Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, Udta Punjab) who, like his mentor (and Bajpayee's contemporary) Vishal Bhardwaj, went to Hindu College, from the same Sudhir Bose Marg in Delhi.

Watch the full Sit With Hitlist interview below:

 

Cast your vote for the Hitlist Web Awards

  • Manoj Bajpayee has been nominated in the Best Actor (Male) category for Amazon Prime’s The Family Man. The other nominees are:
  • Arjun Mathur (Made in Heaven; Amazon Prime)
  • Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Sacred Games S02; Netflix)
  • Vikrant Massey (Criminal Justice; Hotstar)
  • Dhruv Sehgal (Little Things S03; Netflix)
  • Mohit Raina (Kaafir; Zee5)

The Family Man enjoys six nominations, including Best Series, Best Creator, Best Actor (Male), Best Supporting Actor (Male), Best Supporting Actor (Female) and Best Writing.

There are 14 categories that the public can vote in. Log on to www.hitlistwebawards.com to cast your vote.

You can also vote via SMS. Send HITLIST <space> category name <space> your choice (a/b/c/d as on the website) to 57575.

Voting lines extended by a day, to close on March 9.

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