The ‘four-times-rejected-for-NSD’ Manoj Bajpayee speaks on the cinematic art of acquired leching, his willingness to call up directors to ask for work, and how he’s seen good movies fail for lack of publicity, so he’s not shying away from it any longer.
You were never the one to be seen at movie promotions. Isn’t the current campaign – unfamiliar territory – tiring you?
Things have changed a lot; the fact that everything is temporary was perhaps never as true as it is now. Meri kuch filmon ka jo hashr hua woh mujhe yaad hai, when I faced situations where the producer could not ensure much visibility for my movies, sometimes from lack of funds, or from other reasons.
“1971” is the prime example! It is one of the best films of my career. Uss film mein har cheez thi. It was the first real film on the Army in a very long time. But due to a lack of resources, or attention, or visibility, woh kab aayi kab gayi theatres mein, pata hi nahi chala. Yeh aalam thaa ki jin theatres mein film lagi thi, un ke baahar tak film ke posters nahi lage! Aur usi film ko National Award mila for the best film of the year! So I don’t know whether the promotions work or not – yeh fact hai ya myth – but I am not going to find out. Sometimes, publicity can be a brain dead thing, but I say, let it be, if it is working for a film, I am available, because I have suffered the cost of no publicity – not in one film, but in two, three films very dear to me! If it’s fruitful conversation, I am very happy – but even when it is not, I tell people, no, I don’t mind it (laughs)!
Some scandals, some fights, may help?
(Laughs) I am not somebody who would like to show his emotions publically. I may be able to speak to you one-to-one, but if we were to be speaking in front of ten people right now, I would not really say much. That’s a personality defect. But I am working on it. Jaise ki, Bandstand pe, abhi, banners lagaye gaye thay, posters lagaye gaye thay, and we were supposed to dance. And I was the only one who was dancing away! Because I have seen the consequences of not having attention for my film, so I am prepared to change myself in some ways to get it. And this film is for the people – it is not for drawing room conversation, that’s very clear to me. I don’t mind if people come to me and say, ‘Manoj, we didn’t like you’ – lekin dekho toh sahi! Kab tak main hi kehta rahoonga apni films ke liye ki bhai, achchi film hai!
It’s far easier to visualize you as the protagonist for a film like “Shool” – upholding a certain line of thought. In “Zubeida”, there’s a fair shade of grey in the protagonist, and moving further, in “GOW” (since I’ve seen the film and the readers haven’t) there’s a lot of grey – kaafi grey hai, morally…
Sirf grey hi grey hai (laughs)! There’s nothing right about this person; this is why this role is so interesting. He has no sense of right and wrong, he has no sense of morality. He leches at this girl, openly, and the next day he goes and kills someone who is harassing a girl. It’s a contradiction, but not for him, since he has no sense of right or wrong. What he’s doing right now is right for him.
I assume, for you, a grey character is more difficult to execute?
It’s much more difficult to execute. Much more! Grey ka mindset… (pause)
I can only ask this in Hindi, there’s no exact equivalent – iss character ki kameengi ko on-screen laana kitna mushkil thaa?
Kameengi ka reference dhoondna bada mushkil ho jaata hai. Mujhe ek shot yaad hai – one of the most difficult shots. Reemma is cooking, and I am looking at her back. And mujhe kaafi orgasmic look laani thi uske liye. Now that’s something that is not from my world. Hum jis duniya mein rehte hain, jis duniya se aaye hain, if I have found a girl attractive, sometimes we have managed to say it, sometimes you have stayed in touch over the phone and dheere-dheere dosti badhayi hai uske saath… but to just lech at someone’s back and accompany it with such a voyeuristic, orgasmic expression is something I have never experienced in my life (laughs)… woh kameengi…
Lecherousness ki intehaa hai woh!
You get a main lead after quite some time and you’re still not a hero, but quite possibly the wickedest man in the script?
This is possibly the first time in Indian cinema in a while that you have the main protagonist jo saari galat cheezein karta hai. There’s nothing right about him.
Our heroes are often gangsters and what else, but dil ka achcha is taken for granted. Not here?
Na. Yeh dil ka bhi bura hai! Iss tarah ke aadmi ko play karna, and by a completely different person altogether…
… you sure about that, right?
Arrey, I would like to believe that I am a very responsibly family type of guy (pause for laughter outburst). I know how to behave myself. On a serious note, kudos to Anurag, for his casting decision, and for his trust. I wouldn’t have thought I could pull off this role, frankly.
So, family person, how are you looking forward to having your family watch your super lecherous avatar on screen?
I am scared! I am going to tell them to go one by one and see it alone. Please. It will be very embarrassing if my brothers and sisters watch it with my parents; it will be quite an issue in the family! We basically come from a small village near the Nepal border; the family sensibilities are like that.
Belwa naam hai. Betia is the district town – in fact, Shool was shot there.
You’ve talked of “GOW”, then of “Chakravyuh”, then another one you’re working on – you seem to be quite busy at the moment.
I have never been this busy, never had this much work in my career, in my life. Nobody still believes that I did no work for a year after playing Bhikhu Mhatre in “Satya”. There were no directors for people like me. An Anurag Kashyap was still trying to prove himself. That crop of directors that are around today – they weren’t there. I often feel that all this came five years late for me, and I am jealous of the actors in their prime who are able to work with such directors today. Even Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has got his due very late; he’s also a victim of no directors being around when he was entering the industry.
And the likes of you, Nawaz, Irrfan have been conspicuous by their absence from the 100-crore club of movies, haven’t you?
Hum logon ki wahaan jagah nahi hai basically… sometimes we are called there, but only to fill in the blanks. Are we actually welcome there? No, we are not. And I have come to terms with it. If somebody is not opening the door for you, I will not feel bad; I’d rather knock on another door. But the painful time was when there was only one door, and all the other houses were walled; there were just no doors. Today, even today, if I like a director’s work, I pick up the phone, call his number, and ask him for work. I asked for work from Vasan Bala, from Shlok – who is directing Anurag’s next production – from a director called Amit Kumar, who I think is fantastic, he made a short film with Nawaz which I saw.
There must be young people trying to break into cinema who come to you for advice. What do you tell them?
Yes, many of them come, but I don’t know what to tell them, there are no easy answers. You have to keep going to people, you have to keep auditioning. In my time, you didn’t even have the culture of auditions. I still remember pestering Mahesh Bhatt during a lunch break to switch on his camera. And I was so insistent – so aggressively insistent – that he actually switched on his camera and took my audition. Acting is my passion, not celebrity status. I left theatre only because theatre was not paying me anything and I was not getting any younger. I tell young people to ask themselves whether they want to enter acting for the sake of acting, or for something else that it will give them – because then it can break you. Not all will become Shah Rukh or Salman. I wanted only acting. Nothing through acting.
Your take on just wanting to act, not the fringe benefits, is rather philosophical, isn’t it? Is it inspired by the “work for work’s sake and not for the fruits thereof” line of gyaan?
It’s not too far from it, frankly. I am always conscious of my own mortality. Guru Dutt isn’t here anymore, Raj Kapoor was here, he’s gone… My story isn’t going to be any different. If I can move towards the very end of my lifespan doing what I want to do, that, for me, is the biggest achievement. My movie may do well, my next movie may or may not do well. Uske baare mein duvidha ho sakti hai. Lekin iske – mortality – ke baare mein kaisi duvidhaa ho sakti hai?