That afternoon when I finally get through to him, Pankaj Tripathi is travelling someplace. The network is patchy and possibly further strained from my exuberance. So when I ask a question and hear what sounds like “aaa… aaa” at the other end, I assume it is a connectivity issue. I am still vacillating between repeating the question and interrupting him and disconnecting and redialling, when I hear him say very softly, “Lamba pause intentional tha.” In a flash as if it were I see them all, Kaleen Bhaiya from Mirzapur, Sultan Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, Guruji from Sacred Games, Anup Saxena from Gunjan Saxena, Sattu Tripathi from Ludo, pirouette and fade into each other to the strains of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Pankaj Tripathi, bhaukaal.
I had asked what acting means to him. He continues, “The question is such that I had to take a long pause to answer.” Then, he proceeds. “Acting matlab mere guzaara karne ka medium. It is the medium for my survival. I always wanted to act. And I always wanted to take up a career that would help me run my life and home. Abhinay ek aisa kaam hai jisme mazaa aata hai mujhe. And I get paid to do this thing which I so enjoy...” There is a pause and I begin to leap onto my next question when he says, once again very softly, “I know this was not an intellectual answer.”
Frozen mid-new-question, I think I can pin an expression to his words; the same that he wears in the scene where a wide-eyed Gunjan Saxena asks her father if it makes her a traitor of a cadet for wanting to fly for the love of flying instead of wanting to fly for the love of one’s country. In response, Tripathi’s face is suffused with the beginnings of a smile which he wipes away quite literally with his hand, clears his throat and proceeds to answer the question in complete seriousness. I unfreeze and finish my new question, when I hear him say ruminatively, as if it were one flowing stream of thought, “…Acting, for me, is also a process that helps me become a better human being. When you play a variety of kirdaars and portray their happiness and their pain, you evolve both as an actor and as a person.” By reflex, a dialogue from Ludo plays out in my head — “My full name Rahul Satyendra Tripathi. You do good. Good do you.”
Piroutte. Bow. Fade.
Like his portrayals, Pankaj Tripathi’s telephone self is all composure and well-weighed sentences. There is drama but it lies in the understated delivery. It is in the chaste Hindi he speaks in, in pauses short and long, in the very engaged long drawn out responses. There is drama in his quiet implosive humour, in the way he owns every word he says — no disclaimers, no off-the-records — and in the manner he punctuates conversation with references to paisa and guzaara as if to ensure his celebrity is tethered to the ground.
Speaking of ground realities, Tripathi is keenly aware of how the rest of India perceives his homestate Bihar. “As if it were an ajooba,” he says with a laugh. “And Biharis as portrayed in popular cinema are very stereotypical, melodramatic, loud and cliched. But that is not the reality. If you see my characters from Purvanchal or Bihar, they are controlled, underplayed and subtle,” he adds.
Tripathi says that the Bihar he experienced was “khoobsurat”, “progressive”. And in the same tone: “Main apraadhiyon wala Bihar bhi dekha hoon.”
But he himself was into the arts. “Ultimately, the company we keep defines us. I have been influenced by Bihar’s literary side. I came in contact with political leaders, with cultural activists and theatre artistes.” Wasn’t he a member of the Sangh-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP? He says without going into specifics, “I remember participating in one andolan where Left supporters and Right-wingers were both present. Some of us ended up in jail...”
This conversation is at the mercy of the network. Depending on when it vanishes and when it reappears we turn a corner or land up on a new street. From Belsand (Tripathi’s native place in the northwest corner of Bihar) we land in Mirzapur. The crime-thriller Web series is famous for a lot of things, and infamous for its violence — a live hair-dryer stashed into a man’s mouth, slit throats, guns going off at the drop of a hat, chopped privates... I ask Tripathi if the violence ever got to him. He replies, “Nahin nahin. Yeh Mirzapur aur inn sab mein toh tomato ketchup hi hota hai.”
He says, “Personally I don’t like watching violent scenes. And if you watch Mirzapur carefully, Kaleen Bhaiya himself has no blood on his hands. Instead, he comes across like a suljha hua vyapari… a sorted businessman.” This is clearly one of those things about which Tripathi has more to say. He says he was affected by one of his early films, Gurgaon (2016), in which he plays a guileless real-estate tycoon. He says, “When we engage closely with the characters we play, the characters also engage with us, some give and take happens… That film had a dark impact on me.”
Tripathi proceeds to explain that thereafter he taught himself to switch on and switch off from the role of the moment. I tell him about a recently viral meme saluting his acting prowess. It is a compilation of Tripathi’s shots from Mirzapur, scenes where he acts without delivering a single dialogue. And the text on it reads: “Pankaj Tripathi’s neck deserves an award for best acting.” For the first time I think he is close to laughing out loud. He says, “These meme-makers are all very talented these days.”
The 44-year-old actor is steadfastly shy of praise. I bring up the garter-belt scene from Ludo and I am in the process of making a connection between that and something I have read about him playing a girl in melas back home in Belsand, but he says, “The initial plan was to have me wear a lungi for that scene but it was not possible to hold the gun inside the lungi. Then Dada (director Anurag Basu) suggested we do this. I do what the director tells me to do.”
It is natural that one should be curious about Tripathi’s own cinema diet. What he grew up on, what he watches now. Tripathi replies, “Hum kahan kuch dekhte the... we would barely watch anything. Once in a while, I would go to a hall and watch a Mithunda or Sanjay Dutt film. That’s all.”
While it sounds unusual, Tripathi likes to watch unconventional things, independent cinema, talent shows. “I like watching films that go to film festivals from India. I like watching Kannada, Telugu and Punjabi films. I also recently watched my friend Srijit’s (Mukherji) Bengali film Vinci Da,” says Tripathi, who has acted in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil films himself. And though he doesn’t like to watch foreign films, he says he enjoys the British-American mockumentaries spun around Borat, a fictitious Kazakh journalist. Does he watch himself on screen? “Only sometimes. When people appreciate me too much, I watch the film or series to understand what and why.”
At the moment there are at least a dozen of Tripathi’s films and series that are running on OTT platforms. Many of these would not have existed without an OTT-enabled entertainment world. And yet there has been the recent gazette notification by the Government of India bringing all content streaming on OTT platforms under the purview of the ministry of information and broadcasting. In other words, subject to review and refereeing.
What role should the government have in determining what is good and bad entertainment, I ask Tripathi. He pauses for a few seconds and then says, “I have never thought about this.” And then, “It is not like our audience is not aware or intelligent. They know what is good or not for them. But at the same time, if there is no restriction, there are chances that people may misuse this freedom. It is a good argument. But you see, it is not so black-and-white.” In the same breath he points out that unless absolutely necessary he does not abuse on screen. “In Mirzapur, I have abused only two or three times.”
Is he saying that for an actor entertainment must go well beyond entertainment and the commerce of it? That he or she has a social responsibility? He replies, “Bilkul hoti hai. Though it varies from person to person. I keep getting offers from advertisers, but I am very conscious of what I am endorsing. Paisa hi sab kuch thodi hai.”
Would he say he has reached his destina-tion in terms of success, acting opportunities, way of life? Tripathi replies, “I had thought I’ll come to Mumbai and I will get a few good roles. I would survive. But now survival plus surplus ho raha hai.”
By way of wrapping up, he doffs his hat to Calcutta. His in-laws live in the city. And he pays a visit every year come Dussehra, though this year was different. “There are two small eateries in the lanes of Jadubabur Bazar that serve amazing Bengali food.”
1976: Tripathi is born in Gopalganj district of Bihar to Pandit Banaras Tripathi, a farmer and priest, and Hemwanti Devi
Moves to Patna after high school and joins the Institute of Hotel Management at Hajipur
2004: Graduates from Delhi’s National School of Drama and moves to Mumbai. Debuts in Bollywood with a minor role in the film Run
2010: Makes his television debut with Zindagi Ka Har Rang... Gulaal
2012: Becomes a household name with Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur
2016: Gurgaon is his first film as a lead actor
2017: Wins a National Film Award — Special Mention — for his role in Newton
2018: Debuts in Tamil cinema with the film Kaala. This is also the year of the now iconic Mirzapur series