Powerhouse actor Manoj Bajpayee just when he was getting typecast in character roles, sprung a surprise with his nuanced performance in the film Aligarh which won him several accolades. This, besides a slate of short films that he has been supporting. It reminded the audience and the film industry what it has known for a while – there’s a lot of acting left in Bajpayee. Give him a meaningful role and he is likely to make it memorable. Like his recent outing in Baaghi 2, an actioner headlined by the young gun Tiger Shroff with Bajpayee in a negative role, had the audience cheering when the latter was on screen — tough to pull off when sharing screen space with new marquee favourite. He recalls with a laugh that producer Sajid Nadiadwala and director Ahmed Khan really pampered him on the film sets. That Bajpayee is valued in the annals of commercial cinema is quite an acknowledgment for an actor who made a name for himself on the back of new wave experimental cinema represented by films like Bandit Queen and Satya. Of course, despite Bhiku Mhatre being emblazoned as one of the most powerful characters of all times, Bajapyee’s journey has hardly been easy.
According to the actor, “It took 20 years from Satya, a lot of sacrifices were made and I am talking about the time when Irrfan and Rajkumar (Rao) and Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) were not there. I was the only one who was taking all the brickbats from the trade pundits because I was saying no to so many bigwigs here. Somewhere I was very clear on what I wanted to do and I was ready to wait for it. I always say, you have to be ready to imagine the kind of success and recognition I got with Satya but I still had to wait for another year or so for another script and that script only came from Ram Gopal Varma – Shool and Kaun happened.”
Of course, he gives a lot of credit to his mentors and the movies they were making. “I would say that I was very lucky to arrive in a time when Ram Gopal Varma – that kind of a rebel director was getting more and more active in changing the grammar of storytelling. I was very, very lucky to have started my career with a director like Shekhar Kapur who was not agreeing with the stereotypical formula film happening those days. Also somewhere all the actors who were migrating from Delhi at that point of time, they were all rebels, not agreeing to be a part of anything, which was just going on. We shifted to this city in complete darkness. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves in this industry and even this industry didn’t know what to do with us. It needed one Ram Gopal Varma, one Shekhar Kapur and in the south, one Mani Ratnam to change the whole thing for actors like me. We just happened to be there at the right time.”
Bajpayee’s first steps towards a life in theatre and films began in his boarding school when he was entrusted with the reciting a poem in the annual elocution contest. “I was pushed into it when I was in the 4th-5th standard. I had to represent my class and I was chosen by the teacher. I don’t know for some reason he got the idea that Manoj should represent (the class). I feel it was also destiny. I didn’t know which poem I should recite at this stage and the elocution contest in my school used to be a huge affair. My teacher chose this poem written by none other than Shri Harivanshrai Bachchan’s poem “Jo beet gayi so baat gayi, Jeevan mein ek sitara tha”. That poem was given to me, a 9–year-old boy, so you can imagine the pressure! The teacher actually helped me prepare for it. And when I finished reciting it, I very clearly remember all of them standing from their chairs and clapping for me while I was coming down the stairs and that was the time I decided I will become an actor, ” avers Manoj.
This was in his school in Bettiah from where he later went on to Delhi to pursue his dreams. Bajpayee marvels at his own ability to traverse the path with its fair share of obstacles. For starters, there weren’t too many trains to Muzaffarpur or Patna—just the one Magadh Express back then which connected Patna to Delhi and yet he did to get to his destination. But there were other roadblocks too – he did not get admission to a college of his choice. It so happened that although he had secured the first division in Bihar board exams, the University, as a rule deducted 5 per cent marks for students from other boards and so Bajpayee could not make the college cut off. He had to seek admission in Satyavati College and gradually moved to Ramjas College on campus courtesy of his work in theatre.
He found himself in fact, walking distance from Hansraj College more famously known as superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s alma mater. Later they made their acquaintance under Barry John, Delhi’s theatre thespian who gave the Hindi film industry, two brilliant actors.
“Shah Rukh was with Barry (John) for one and half or two years when I was also working. We know each other very well so much so that I knew his family. When he left from Delhi, that was the time that we started losing touch. Then I started meeting him when I shifted to Bombay because he was my only connect but after a point I started realizing that I am becoming too much of a burden for him. So I kind of let it be and I am very happy and proud friend. I have told him the same so many times. I take pride in everything that he has achieved because I know what he lost before achieving any of this.”
Over the years, he made several friends because of his work in theatre and many of them – Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vishal Bhardwaj, Shoojit Sircar, Imtiaz Ali, Anurag Kashyap – trooped to Mumbai, infusing a fresh energy and thinking in the mainstream cinema.
In fact, Bajpayee got his first movie break courtesy Tigmanshu Dhulia who showed director Shekhar Kapur a photograph of him that led to his selection. It’s a different matter that he was earlier signed for the role of Vikram Mallah that later went to Nirmal Pandey. Bajpayee had to settle for the less prominent part of Maan Singh. However, destiny intervened yet again and his brief role as Maan Singh impressed Ram Gopal Varma so much that he resolved to cast him in a leading role in one of his films.
“No one cared about Maan Singh or the person who had played Maan Singh so I was back to zero. Struggling in this industry to survive. Sometimes I used to do two episodes in some series to just get Rs 500 or 700 or a thousand bucks. People agreed to give me a second look because I was part of Bandit Queen but not nothing more than that. And suddenly when I met Ram Gopal Varma for playing one of the henchmen of Paresh Rawal for Daud, he just jumped up when he came to know I am the one who played Maan Singh. I was completely dazzled because for four years nobody had cared for the actor who played Maan Singh and suddenly Ram Gopal Varma jumped up from his seat and started talking about my performance, how much he loved my look and presence in the film. And that is the time he promised that he was going to cast me in his next film,” reminisces the actor.
A few years later, Satya released and a star was born. The interim period was riddled with ups and downs but the actor has stoically withstood the test of time. Now happily married to Shabana (also an actress) with a 7–year-old daughter, he values and cherishes his own father’s unconditional support through this tumultuous journey. The one and perhaps the only thing that his father forbade him from doing was to change his name Manoj — named after actor Manoj Kumar.
Happily enough lady luck provided him several mentors like Barry John, Desh Deepak and Shekhar Kapur who were all been instrumental in opening doors of opportunity for him, something that he is grateful for.
And then his years of training in theatre, for instance, gave him a following among young directors – Anurag Kashyap was very impressed by his play Netuwa about a male dancer. It also exposed him to a different worldview – the boy from Belwa got an opportunity to travel to France, at the age of 23 and was introduced to the finest actors and theatre traditions. On a lighter note, he remembers his shock at seeing alcohol being served on the flight and thought it would be very expensive. On the way back when he learned that it was all for free, it was a different story – he consumed it in generously and was happily drunk on the flight. The joys of freebies, he recalls with a laugh.
Well, it’s certainly been one helluva journey, one good enough to raise a toast to!
Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior journalist, author, and digital-media specialist