Not once in the 22 years that he has been part of Hindi cinema has Manoj Bajpayee stopped springing surprises. The actor, who was thrice rejected by the National School of Drama, has gone on to gain reputation as a fearless heavyweight performer. The charm lies in the ease with which he essays a gamut of roles onscreen, an ease that masks the single-minded devotion with which he plunges into his performances.
If he started out by grabbing attention with his manic gangster act as Bhiku Mhatre in Satya, the films that followed have served up an eclectic banquet of characters – a prince with two wives in Zubeidaa, a serial killer in Aks, a hitch-hiker-turned-psychopath-killer in Road, a greedy politician in Raajneeti, a coal Mafioso in Gangs of Wasseypur and recently, a tormented professor in the biographical drama Aligarh.
If his past performances are any indication, his upcoming movie Budhia Singh – Born To Run, a biographical sports film directed by Soumendra Padhi, is surely not going to be a run-of-the-mill entertainer.
Based on the life of the five-year-old prodigy Budhia Singh, who ran 48 marathons, Manoj goes for the gut again with his role as coach Biranchi Das to the boy.
‘The coach was murdered some eight years ago,’ says Manoj, a two-time National Award winner, looking relaxed in a white shirt and light blue ripped jeans, in an anteroom of a studio in Mumbai.
‘Biranchi discovered this boy’s ability to run. He adopted him also and concentrated a lot on his training. He wanted the world to stand up and take note of his ability. He had a mission to see this boy run in the 2020 Olympics but was killed by gangsters. The boy was then put in a hostel.’
The story has all the elements of a gripping film – a poor boy who overcomes the odds to become a champion runner; a coach who goes to great lengths to mould his protégé; and a murder... How satisfying was it to play this role?
‘It was great because I was following this story when it was happening eight years back,’ says Manoj. ‘I was watching it on every news channel. I found the coach not only controversial, but also somebody who could evoke a very different emotion in everyone. So, you know, he was a cut-out for a great role. It is very, very satisfying as I have worked very hard for this role.’
Research was mandatory, as always. ‘See, research is always there,’ he emphasises. ‘As I’d been personally following the case, it was enough, but there’s so much material available now also.
‘There is a BBC documentary on the boy and the coach, so I also referred to that. The director has met his family, so he too had a lot to put in. He wanted Biranchi Das to look and talk in a particular way.’
Prepping is something the 47-year-old actor is scrupulous about. Quiz him on how he gets into the zone before he faces the camera, and he reveals, ‘Preparation is long and divided. I have to prepare myself physically, theoretically, emotionally, mentally! Everything counts when you’re performing. So I have look at all those aspects.’
Manoj is heart-warmingly humble when it comes to assessing his strengths and weaknesses as an actor. He sees the hard work that he puts in as his major strength. ‘I walk the extra mile to get the nuances right, I take efforts to perform any kind of role,’ he says. ‘My weakness would be my laziness. I get very lazy sometimes, like I hate shooting at night. I cannot do it. I start feeling lazy after 6 or 7 in the evening. I want to be left to myself.’ As if that wasn’t enough, he says again: ‘I cannot deal with night shoots. They are torturous.’
At this point, a huge yawn escapes him. ‘I told you... I’d a late night yesterday,’ he grins.
No laughing matter, though, is the recent controversy over his short film Kriti, which has been mired in controversy after director Shirish Kunder was accused of plagiarism by a Nepali film-maker. The entire affair has left a bitter taste in Manoj’s mouth, especially since he didn’t just act in the film but also mentored Muvizz.com, which produced it. ‘We thought of making short films and pushing people to make short films in different genres and many other ways,’ he says. ‘Taandav was a very successful attempt. We put in a lot of effort. Kriti created an interest but controversy too... It hurt me a lot.
‘Also I was very angry, and in anger I said many things, but now I’m in a happier place as all charges of plagiarism have been cleared and Kriti is back on YouTube.’
Mentorship is an interesting concept and Manoj says that what he does is create a support group and garner people’s attention about the platform. ‘It is about providing films or content of the kind that people haven’t seen earlier. These are very niche kind of films, and rare, so they are curated and there is no risk of losing or wasting money.’
The actor is clearly expanding his ambit, evidently fuelled by his personal growth. ‘I’ve definitely evolved as a person,’ he says. ‘Acting helps you evolve, and if I stop evolving as a person then my actor will never grow.
‘As an actor I do what I do because of the experiences I have had. But I think I have much more to learn and evolve further.’
When you probe for details about his experiences, he’s self-effacing. ‘Me?!’ he quips. ‘I lead a very regular life. I do not want stardom or that glamour quotient. That is baggage I don’t want in my life. I want to be completely easy.
‘When people say I should buy a bigger car, I buy a smaller one instead because I just want to do the opposite of what people may expect me to do.
‘If somebody says I must behave in a certain way, I’ll do the complete opposite. I keep myself away from the limelight. I go to sleep by 10.30pm. I don’t think you’ve even seen me at any parties!’
True, Manoj is not the social bird spotted flitting around Bollywood’s frenetic party circuit. But does his reserved image sometimes work against him when it comes to snaring plum projects? His answer is a firm, ‘No it doesn’t.
‘It has been 22 years and I’m still getting work. I’m not always reserved, I do open up but I take time. But when I open up, I’m a freaky guy. I’m mad.’
Manoj has never been a part of the commercial song-and-dance format of Bollywood, veering towards realistic films, which are the flavour du jour. ‘Yeah, this is what we have been trying to do for many years and this is what I wanted the industry to make – more content-oriented films,’ he says. ‘These films are happening, they are being talked about, they are being appreciated and more films are being made in that space. It feels great that I have also contributed to this in my own small way.’
But there is no getting away from number-crunching in Bollywood. The industry’s obsession with the millions that a film is supposed to make continues unabated. Manoj’s view about the business of film-making is realistic.
‘I want the producer to make money,’ he explains, ‘but at the same time, the quality of a film cannot be decided by the three days of turnout. And there are so many films, which have earned so much money over the years but are not even remembered today.
‘My choices have been different. I want my films to be remembered. I want my characters to be remembered. These films will keep on making money and will be watched even after years. These are not typical weekend films, people will not enthusiastically head to watch them. They’ll go at their leisure. And if they like it very much, they’ll get the DVD, or watch it on TV. These are films that go to festivals and these are very important to me.
‘I love cinema and I am here to tell stories.’
Needless to say, the script and the character are what drive Manoj’s movie picks. ‘But they have to complement each other well,’ he emphasises.
‘Sometimes, the script is good but the character isn’t appealing. At other times, the character is perfect, but it doesn’t complement the script. Sometimes both are fantastic but the director doesn’t have the ability or the vision, so I don’t do that film.
‘For me, when I choose a script, I put my heart and soul into it, and that is exactly what I look for in a film.’
But what of his recent statement that he gets roles that other actors reject?
‘Yes, in mainstream cinema, most of the roles that come to me must have gone to other stars and they might not have shown interest so that’s why they come to me,’ he laughs. ‘Otherwise, mainstream cinema people do not approach me at all. I do not fit into their scheme of things.’ What he does however fit into is challenging roles. ‘As an actor, I love taking on such roles, and Aligarh was one such challenge. That role has been appreciated a lot and I’m happy.’
However, the role that viewers still remember is Bhiku in Ram Gopal Varma’s iconic Satya. Manoj’s portrayal of a nondescript underworld don who rules the streets and slums of Mumbai not only won him several awards, but also the accolade of being the master of the Mumbai noir genre.
I think people of my generation particularly remember Bhiku,’ he says. ‘This generation remembers me for my Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 1 character Sardar Khan, or for my role in Raajneeti.
‘But we have to go on acting, go on doing something new and forget about the roles that you have already done – those are gone. We need to prepare ourselves for the new. You have to evolve through them as a person and as an actor all the time.’
Even though Manoj believes that the greatest challenge is acting itself, ‘as you are playing somebody else’, he admits that he will never forget Bandit Queen, in which he portrayed one of his first feature film characters – a dacoit. ‘I was working in theatre when I was picked to play this role,’ he says. ‘And it taught me so much. I was working with one of the best directors, Shekhar Kapur, the man who directed Oscar-winning films Elizabeth and its sequel The Golden Age. It opened up avenues for me.’
Over two decades later, much has changed in the industry, he feels. It has become more organised and transparent; ‘both these qualities did not exist when we came in’, he points out. He believes things have become easier for newcomers, largely because, for one thing, there are casting directors now.
‘You know where to go, you know where the audition stage is… When we started off, we were just going around and waiting for lady luck to turn in our favour.’ he recalls.
So is he comfortable in front of the camera today?
‘Oh no, I still have the jitters,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I know how to hide it better. After so many years you know how not to show that you are actually wrecked inside, how not to show your nervousness on your face.’
Does he get the jitters on the eve of his movie’s release?
‘No,’ he says. ‘I have no pre-release anxiety. I am off on the Thursday. Once we say bye-bye to the corporate team of the film, and the promotions, that is the time I am completely off the film.’
The award-winning actor says success to him is the freedom to do what he enjoys doing. ‘It takes time to reach there. The success of the film, who sees it and if they really like it – it counts as success. How many people came to see it, what is the number, how much money it has made – that is not success. And people who watch it today and who will watch it in the future, 10 years from now, and if they love it, then, of course it has been successful.’
Manoj doesn’t rule out direction in the future. ‘Direction will take time, which is a constraint,’ he says.
He admits that hectic work schedules take a toll on family time. ‘I am only for my family – wife Shabana Raza [former actress Neha] and daughter Ava Nayla – once I am done with work. At home, you try and compensate for the time that you have lost.’
As I finish talking to him though, the actor is excited about a packet his friend has brought to the sets. ‘This is my favourite – Hyderabadi biryani,’ he says, as he begins to open it.
Even creatively voracious actors are prone to hunger pangs, I realise.