He is undoubtedly one of the best actors in the industry and his filmography tells you that in big bold letters. But he is also rather hat ke – he does his work, takes his pay cheque, and goes home rather than tom-tomming his great achievements. “I don’t take my work seriously,” says he. But the man is a gold mine of talent and like a chameleon, his persona transforms magically from one character to the other. Meet the super talented Manoj Bajpayee, an actor par excellence, who in a candid interview with Sumita Chakraborty talks about his eventful journey as an actor, his films and the OTT, and gives an honest take on ‘insiders versus outsiders’ and more. Read on as Manoj Bajpayee takes you to a magical tour through his life.
Manoj, you’ve had a remarkable journey and you are one of our best actors. But, I believe your struggle story before entering the industry is unique. Could you tell us about it?
I personally believe that every struggle is a milestone achieved, though I don’t want to call my journey a struggle because this is something I always wanted to do – and I don’t believe you are struggling even if you are facing difficulties because your eyes and your mind is always focused on the goal. And what will make you achieve that goal is the craft and your whole purpose is to learn the craft and to keep going on every story. Every person who has big dreams in their eyes is unique and their journey too is very unique and I personally don’t want to glorify the journey. People give you so much respect not because of your journey but because of the work they see – and that makes them curious about knowing your life. At the end of the day, what I always believed in is that one should always focus on the work one wants to do and the dream you set out for and the craft… everything after that just gets blurred. No matter how many difficulties you face, the passion for the craft always takes you there – it makes you forget everything in between.
You were not from the film industry so what made you think of becoming an actor?
I don’t know you’ll have to ask the divine God that because I really don’t know what made me believe that I’m an actor. Since the time I started doing theater, participating in art and culture activities and poetry recitation since that time, I wanted to become an actor. If you ask me the reason, I don’t know maybe I’m born just for this purpose. The whole material purpose of my life it seems has been just to act and express myself creatively.
You are an integral part of the industry today…..What is your take on the ‘insiders versus outsiders’, nepotism issues?
I don’t know if I’m an integral part of the industry or not. What I see and read has always been very saddening for me because there is a whole PR machinery that is hired to create an aura or create an image around a few of them. Yes, definitely, they can afford it and the whole ‘outsider and insider’ thing at the end of the day – it’s a private enterprise. It’s all reduced from passion to private business firms. So if the father is getting older, he would like his children to take his place. I look at it this way and when that happens you really don’t have much to say about it because if someone is putting in money on his child, you can’t have any complaints about that person because it’s his money at the end of the day, and however he wants to use it, he will use it. But I always felt that it’s better to be on the fringe than try to be the insider – and I never had this dream of becoming an insider. I call myself an outsider. I always felt comfortable staying on the fringe and just going out to work and coming home, taking my pay cheque and spending the rest of the time with the family and friends… and letting my work speak for itself. This whole debate of ‘insider-outsider’ or nepotism takes a back seat in my mind. It really doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the work that I’m doing and the filmography I want to create in this lifetime. That’s all!
You are a brilliant actor…. In fact, each of your films showcases your superlative talent…Is there any particular way you tackle your various characters….Are you a method actor?
First of all…thank you very much for complimenting and loving my work. If you ask me about my method, yes I have really trained myself rigorously and take great pride in saying that when I landed in this city and decided to be a part of the film industry, I was ready! I was all prepared. I have spent 8-10 years just learning the craft – doing years of theater before coming into this extremely professional industry. I knew that since there was no one from my family or friends who belonged to this industry I really had to be prepared to go for any kind of opportunity which might come my way. So every role that I do, yes I always devise a plan and an approach and make an extra effort to do that role – and this has been the case with every film that I have done… nothing happens on the set just like that. There’s a preparation – if you’re not preparing then… God bless you! I feel that this is my passion. I love acting, I love working in films and throwing myself completely into the role I play. It’s quite immersive – at times it’s painful, even tortuous but that pain and torture is extremely pleasure giving, if everything falls in place. I enjoy myself on the sets too once the character is set, once I know the soul of it, once I know after 10 days that now the character is in my hand and everything is just shaping out well. After that, I started enjoying it. But, yes to begin with, I must say there’s an approach I devise for each and every role I play. There’s not one or two approaches that I have but while reading the script I think of a plan and I chalk out the plan and just follow that.
You did a path-breaking movie like Aligarh, were there any challenges you faced while doing this film?
Yes, Aligarh was not only path-breaking but also one of the most difficult characters that I have played. It was never about Professor Siras or his sexual preference. I never focused on his sexual preference because for me it was not his sexual preference that was of any interest to me. For me, my interest was more on his likes and dislikes, more on the human being who is there in the script. It was a month or two months of reading the script and really following the plan that I had that it all worked out so well and I thank God that I could think about that method or that approach to do that role.
Do you think the pandemic changed the way films are perceived in terms of content and the entire concept of superstars to just good content?
I always believe that ‘larger than life’ films will do well because all the ideas that you get about the audience and film reactions are from the West and even during the pandemic, some of the super heroes films were doing well. So that was giving an idea that if you make those larger-than-life kinds of films, people will appreciate them. ‘Pushpa’ is an example. There have been so many other films from the South that have become national phenomena. They have been accepted nationally, and so even when films and theaters open completely, these are the films that will be lapped up well. People will welcome them if they are made well and the story is good. It creates an enthusiasm in the audience. I believe theaters will never go away or any other medium will never go away but yes. OTT has become an addiction for people. I see that every content – if it is good, it is being welcomed and binged upon immediately, so the vastness of OTT will always be very attractive to the audience.
You are a fabulous actor….Do you think this new wave of entertainment is the perfect setting for good actors?
A new wave of entertainment has proved itself a boon for not only good actors but for any good professional from any department. I’m so happy that most of the people are busy today and don’t have dates so they’re not only looking at films to express themselves as there are opportunities coming their way from OTT – and it is really justifying that their talent is out there.
You always choose challenging roles like in films like Aligarh. Do you think the way you portrayed your character in Aligarh helped change people’s mindsets?
‘Aligarh’ or ‘Bhonsle’, all of these films have really put a ‘chaar chand’ into my filmography and I’m so happy that I chose those films and these roles. ‘Aligarh’ has not only entertained the audience very well but also somewhere when the Supreme Court has given its ruling – they have also mentioned the film Aligarh. It happens very rarely and if Aligarh has created some kind of a debate, I’m very happy to be part of a creative process or part which has indirectly helped in taking the debate or the discussion forward. I’m the person of the belief that a film alone cannot change the world and it can only contribute a little bit to the discussion and the debate which is going on.
From films to OTT, how was the transition…especially doing Family Man which went on to become hugely successful?
It is no extra effort that one has to make coming from films, OTT, or TV because you’re facing the camera, you’re acting for the camera so you just have to be truthful to the character and work hard. Yes, the series are tedious, they take so much juice out of you, they exhaust you, especially when you’re making it for that long, you have to be physically and mentally fit to be able to go on for a very long time – and also you need to know the character and script backward to really maintain the graph and consistency. These are the challenges that one faces I have been doing this even for films but yes, the OTT series are far more tedious than any film. They’re like shooting four films together!
Which are the projects you are looking forward to?
I am very happy about myself that I’ve chosen some great films and projects with some amazing directors of our time – and I’m learning so much just by working with them. All of them have been contributing to my work and my ethics of work so I have been gaining exposures and education in cinema lately from people like Raghuram Reddy, Kanu Behl, Abhishek Chaubey, Devashish Makhija, Rahul Chitella – all of these are fantastic directors of our time and probably some of the best. Like Abhishek Choubey, I feel that this hugely gifted man is somebody we should really stand up and salute every time he comes out with something – and I’m very sure that the day will come when this industry will understand what a fantastic director he is who has been working in our time. So, yes I’m looking forward to the films that he is going to make and the projects that he is going to showcase his talent in and I’m so privileged that I have worked with him in Sonchiriya, Hungama Kyon Hai Barpa – a great anthology and the project that we’ve just finished. Yes, Raghuram Reddy, Kanu Behl, Abhishek Chaubey or Devashish Makhija, Rahul Chitella are all so gifted… and I have got a such great opportunity to work with these directors.
Changes & More
When you look back at your eventful journey in films, is there anything you’d like to change?
When I look back at what I want to change, I wish the OTT happened 10-15 years ago. Sometimes, we even feel envious of the generation that has come after us – when they started working on the OTT – they had so many choices with great content, great projects, and directors to work with. That’s all! Otherwise, there’s no regret I feel proud of the fact that I have worked with almost all the great directors of my time and I’m working with some really great and gifted directors of this time.
Manoj, we expect many more fabulous performances from you. But, do you think someday you’d write a book or make a biopic on your eventful yet inspirational life?
It’s very difficult to take myself very seriously I take my work very seriously but like I said, I just take the pay cheque and go home. Yes, I take great pride when I look at my filmography – and think about the circumstances in which I took those roles and have done those roles. But to write an autobiography or to make a film about one’s life, I think one needs to have the quality or the element of taking yourself seriously. I don’t have it! I really don’t think I have done that much great work or have been that kind of an actor or seen my journey as that unique to tell the world – look at me or look at my journey – somehow that’s not me or my character. I don’t think I will ever do it. Autobiographies are very rarely truthful and at the end of the day, you are only glorifying yourself and putting certain parts of you away from the pages as you don’t want people to know about them. I don’t have that strength in me. If at all I write ‘it’, I’ll write it truthfully or maybe I’ll not write it at all.