Circa 1993. Those weren’t the best times for actor Manoj Bajpayee. Despite having done theatre for many years and being known in creative circles of Delhi as one of the best actors around, work was not coming through that easily. That was when good fortune came to him on an old, battered Lambretta. It was filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was then casting for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, who came to him with a role of a lifetime.
It was only half a decade later that Manoj could reap the benefits of the part he played as Man Singh, Phoolan Devi’s companion in the film. “I had moved to Bombay by then and was meeting Ram Gopal Verma for a small role in his film Daud,” says Manoj. “When I told him that I had played the role of Man Singh, Ramu couldn’t believe it. He told me not to do Daud because he had Bhiku Mhatre and Satya in mind.” But Manoj knew too well that it wasn’t the best idea to turn down what he had for sure in exchange of a project that may or may not materialise. And, so he did both Daud and Satya.
Manoj fondly recalls the time when he went to watch Satya, which released in 1998, at Mumbai’s Plaza theatre. “It had been a week since the release, but there wasn’t much noise about the film yet,” he says. “After the film got over, people came to know that Bhiku Mhatre was in the theatre.” What followed was utter chaos, a mob surrounded him from all sides, and fans picked him up in celebration. That was his first taste of stardom. In the following years, Manoj became a name to count on. He joined the likes of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, the actors he admired and whose path he wanted to emulate. Many noted performances in films like Aks, Kaun, Zubeidaa and Gangs Of Wasseypur followed. Cut to 2015, Manoj is celebrating the success of his latest film, Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, in festival circuits around the world. He plays a gay professor in the film, who battles loneliness and the horror of being isolated by the society because of his sexuality.
Based on the life and times of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was found dead in his house five years ago, following his termination from Aligarh Muslim University based on the fact that he was gay, Aligarh was a huge challenge for Manoj.
“The biggest challenge was to express the professor’s loneliness,” he says. “Here is a man who has been ousted from his family and society for no mistake of his. He seeks refuge in music. All this has to be shown without showing too much.” However, he is not too keen on revealing his process. All he says is that there is a lot of research and homework that goes into each of his effortless performances. “I don’t think my audience is interested in my method,” he says.
“All they want to see is my performance on screen. It doesn’t matter to them whether I had prepared for six months or just an hour for a particular character.”
Up next in line is Rajesh Pillai’s remake of his Malayalam hit Traffic, Saat Uchakke, Duranto and his own debut production venture, a psychological thriller, Missing. In Duranto, he plays coach to the young Orissa boy who ran a marathon, and in Traffic, he plays a cop who is “looking to make up for a mistake he committed”.
Unlike many others who preceded him, Manoj’s career graph is unique in the sense that he is not afraid to be part of an out-and-out commercial entertainer like Tevar. “The industry runs on numbers which makes it difficult for actors like me,” he says. “So I cannot afford to have a favourite genre or stick to a particular kind of role. So I choose the best of what comes to me.” However, he is glad that now actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan and Sanjay Mishra are getting the kind of recognition that they deserve, finally. Having already worked with veteran filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Prakash Jha, Neeraj Pandey, Shyam Benegal, Shekhar Kapur and Govind Nihalani, Manoj wishes to now work with Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj.
What keeps him grounded, says Manoj, is his family, his strongest support system. “My wife (actor Neha) is my biggest critic,” he says. “She puts me in my place by giving me honest feedback about my work.”
Even after so many years, there is nothing that he ever wanted to do other than acting, says Manoj, recalling his years as a struggling theatre actor. He is not the young man who jumped into a train to Delhi without a reserved ticket in the hope of finding a place at the National School of Drama anymore. He may have made mistakes, but he does not harbour any regrets. “Even today, when I act, I get into a zone. It is deeply personal. When I face the audience on a stage or a camera on set, I just feel that that moment should go on forever,” he says with his eyes glistening.