The auditorium reverberates with wolf whistles. Sardar Khan, a much married man, is wooing Durga, a Bengali woman abandoned by her lover. Khan tries to imitate her moves as she washes clothes on a stone slab. And in that moment Manoj Bajpayee, portraying the role of a cold-blooded gangster in the new release Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW), wins over his audience. Almost effortlessly. Or so it seems on the big screen.
But at home he has a tougher role to play. There are no workshops, rehearsals or retakes. He is carefully feeding his 16-month-old daughter. Sitting in his lap, Ava Nayla, plays with a make-up brush as Bajpayee painstakingly breaks a bite-sized piece of a chappati for her. Once the lunch is over, his actress wife Neha (her real name is Shahana Reza) takes over. His eyes follow Ava as she throws a flying kiss at me and walks away with her mother into a bedroom.
My mind is filled with the picture of the bald Sardar Khan — and the contrasting image of the man in front of me. Bajpayee, dressed in a pale pink linen shirt and denims, is sitting on a spotless white sofa in his plush 9th floor residence in a Mumbai high rise. Viewers — and critics — are going gaga over his role in GoW. Many have described it as Bajpayee’s best performance till date. Over five hours long, the two-part film was lauded at Cannes last month — praised as much for its gripping tale of gangster rivalry as for Bajpayee’s riveting performance.
So does that mean he has finally arrived?
“Manoj Bajpayee is yet to arrive. The industry has utilised just 25 per cent of my potential,” he says.
Isn’t he being flooded with offers after the success of GoW? “Are you kidding?” he laughs. Can he command a price now? “No, actors like me don’t make money. The industry makes me sit at home most of the time,” he says. “Without being pessimistic, let’s accept that unless directors such as (Anurag) Kashyap make such successful movies, actors like me would have little work.”
Bajpayee should know. In an industry where stars and not actors are celebrities, he is aware of his options. He is no newcomer either, having spent 19 years in the Hindi film industry. That he started his career with a stupendous performance as dacoit Man Singh in Bandit Queen has long been forgotten. “Curiously, till date, people believe that my acting career started with the TV series Swabhimaan in 1995 though Bandit Queen was released in 1994.”
The film helped him get the prized role of Bhiku Mhatre in Satya. He had met Ram Gopal Varma for a small role in Daud but when the director learnt that Bajpayee was the one who played Man Singh, he was flummoxed. “He offered me Satya and insisted that I shouldn’t be doing an insignificant role in Daud. But I was desperate for money. Many directors in the past had promised me big roles which never materialised.” He convinced Varma to let him act in Daud, which was released in 1997. Varma kept his promise — Bajpayee acted in Satya, and went on to win the National Award for the Best Supporting Actor in the 1998 film for portraying the hot-headed but compassionate gangster.
The fortunes of his film career ebb and flow with time. His work was also appreciated in films such as Shool (1999), Kaun (1999), Aks (2001), Zubeidaa (2001) and Road (2002). In 2003, Pinjar won him a National Film Award in the Special Jury category. Then came Veer Zaara (2004), 1971 (2007), Aarakhsan (2011) and Rajneeti (2011). He has just wrapped up shooting for Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Wadala, is working with Neeraj Pandey on Special Chhabees and will be seen in Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh. But right now, the focus is on GoW.
“The success of GoW is entirely due to Kashyap’s vision and the powerful script besides his brilliant brand promotion. I am just a small part of it.”
His modesty is engaging. And it doesn’t ring false either, for Bajpayee — even at 43 — is at heart still the farmer’s son who grew up in Belwa village in Bihar’s West Champaran. One of six children, he studied in a missionary school in his village before moving to Delhi for higher studies. “I don’t know how and when the acting bug hit me. I remember watching Zanjeer as a kid and being completely mesmerised by it,” he says. His favourites, of course, were Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur and Amitabh Bachchan.
“I had read an interview where Naseer saab had talked about a diploma in acting offered by the National School of Drama (NSD).” He realised he could convince his father about his passion for acting by pointing out that it formed a part of an academic course and led to a diploma. “It wasn’t just nautanki as they knew it,” he laughs.
But Bajpayee’s NSD dream never worked out. He studied history in Delhi University and after being rejected four times by NSD, joined Barry John’s theatre group. John saw potential in Bajpayee, who soon started assisting the theatre director. “My first salary was of Rs 1,200. I worked from early morning till midnight.” In 1990, he started the theatre group Act One, with founder-director N.K. Sharma. The boy who left his village weaving dreams of becoming a film star found his calling in theatre.
“By then I was a known name in the theatre circuit in Delhi. I was happy.” But destiny had something else in store for him. Shekhar Kapur who was looking for new actors for Bandit Queen, zeroed in on Bajpayee’s picture from the 100-odd photographs that his casting director had left him with. “He later told me that he picked me for the role as I reminded him of Naseeruddin Shah.”
It was Kapur who encouraged him to pack his bags for Mumbai. “He is the best director in the Indian film industry, next only to Satyajit Ray.”
But the city of dreams offered him little comfort. Sharing a chawl with six other people, he realised work would not come easily. “The three or four years after the release of Bandit Queen were miserable. I was penniless, my marriage of two years had ended in a divorce, and I was unwell,” he says. “I hate to glorify it but those were the days when I went hungry for several days in a row. I was ashamed, yet I used to walk into a friend’s house in the hope of getting a meal.”
He visited film sets every day hoping to make eye contact with directors, but was mostly shooed away. “I used to imagine Subhash Ghai walking into my chawl and offering me a film,” he chuckles. Finally, he got his break with the serial Swabhimaan, which was followed by brief stints in a few other television series.
“I never ran out of money after that. Suddenly, I became popular and my beautiful co-stars started talking to me — some even dated me,” he says. A year later, in 1997, Mahesh Bhatt spotted him and offered him a role in Pooja Bhatt’s Tamanna.
We move to his relationship with Kashyap. The man who wrote the script for Satya and Shool was a friend till an ugly spat led to a bitter falling out. They didn’t interact for nearly 10 years. “We were almost like roommates after Satya. Then a misunderstanding cropped up and we were not on talking terms. And then GoW happened.”
Kashyap and Bajpayee re-bonded over a bottle of red wine, after the director called the actor to narrate the script of GoW. “He is the only filmmaker who can do justice to me. He knows my strengths and weaknesses.”
But Bajpayee regrets the lost time. “Selfishly I would say he took away Dev D from me,” he says. “But he has to be given credit for his vision as the casting for Dev D was perfect,” he adds. The character of Devdas is close to Bajpayee’s heart, a role he would like to portray. “But I don’t see it happening now as four actors have already played the role in Hindi.”
A good script is the force that motivates him to sign a film. But hasn’t the film industry typecast him with roles of cops and gangsters? “I never typecast myself. I am ready to do a mindless comedy, a David Dhawan film, whatever. But filmmakers just don’t offer me different roles.”
We’ve been served tea — which has remained untouched. I can no longer hear his daughter’s murmurs from the adjoining room. Bajpayee is lost in time. His soft voice and dreamy eyes take us back to his village. “My ultimate dream is to settle in my village with just a piece of land and enough money to sustain myself.” It’s a dream that he knows will remain just that — a dream. “I have to take care of my daughter’s education and for that I would wish to settle in London. Also, I dream of settling with my parents and siblings in Delhi. It depresses me. I am torn between these three dreams.”
But Bajpayee is going to keep dreaming. After all, it all started with a dream.