By Uday Bhatia
As Bheeku Mhatre in ‘Satya’, he lit a fire in Hindi cinema. When he catches attention, he grabs it hard, as he has done again with the most nuanced role of his career in ‘Aligarh’
A man sits alone in a dark room listening to a cassette player. He’s drinking whisky, humming along to Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha from the 1962 film Anpadh, occasionally murmuring the words. He’s transported by the music, but he also looks, to borrow a line from Heartbreak Hotel, so lonely he could die.
This is Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, the tragic centre of Aligarh, Hansal Mehta’s film on the Marathi literature professor at Aligarh Muslim University whose sexual encounter with another man was caught on camera and leaked to the press. It resulted in his suspension by the university, which he challenged in court. He won the case and was reinstated, but died shortly afterwards under mysterious circumstances.
Siras is played in the film by Manoj Bajpayee. Those who know him only through his barnstorming roles in Satya, Shool and Gangs Of Wasseypur might be surprised at the ease with which the 46-year-old actor slips under the skin of the quiet, self-effacing Siras. Out of little tics and hesitations he builds a tender performance, one that makes possible a deep empathy with a character far removed from most viewers’ experience: a middle-class gay intellectual in small-town India.
“Even the finest actors will have great difficulty showing somebody’s loneliness. To put an actor on a chair and ask him to do nothing and yet tell the viewer everything about the character, it’s a difficult task,” says Bajpayee. We are in his Lokhandwala apartment. He’s been keeping one eye on his spark plug of a four-year-old, but she’s leaving now with her mother, the actor Shabana Raza, whom Bajpayee married in 2003. He goes back to talking about the singing in the dark scene. “Hansal’s an easygoing guy, but he just enjoys thinking up these bizarre shots and throwing them at the actors.”
This is the second time Bajpayee and Mehta have collaborated. Their first film together was a fascinating, largely forgotten 2000 comedy-drama called Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, though they’d been friends since Mehta directed the actor in a TV series called Kalakaar back in 1994. Despite their long friendship, Mehta hadn’t considered Bajpayee for the role of Siras until casting director Mukesh Chhabra suggested his name. Bajpayee remembers Chhabra calling him up and telling him not to pass on the role. “I said, I don’t even know about this movie. I asked him to tell Hansal to give me a call. When Hansal called, I started abusing him.”
Aligarh premiered at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea in October, travelled to the BFI London Film Festival and was the opening film at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in November. Its India release is set for February, by which time Bajpayee would have completed 22 years in the industry. It’s been anything but a smooth run. Several times, the man whom Mehta calls “India’s most versatile actor” has had to claw his way back into the public’s consciousness after fallow periods brought on by limited options and bad choices.
Comebacks are for cricketers; Manoj Bajpayee is a resurrection specialist.
Bajpayee was born in Belwa, a small village in Champaran, Bihar, not far from the Nepal border. He was the second of six children. His father, a farmer, never achieved his dream of going to medical school and was determined that all his children complete graduation at the very least. Bajpayee describes his own childhood as “blessed”. “You will never understand unless you come from a farmer’s family,” he says. “It’s difficult for the father to bring up those children, but it’s such a beautiful experience for them to be in that environment.” One of his early memories is of hiding his father from the co-operative bank loan recovery men when they came around to collect.
Bajpayee’s parents were film buffs—he was named after actor Manoj Kumar—and whenever they went to Bettiah, the nearest town with a cinema hall, they’d try and catch a show. So would young Bajpayee, whose earliest film-related memory is watching the 1968 comedy Padosan. Like most small-town theatres, the cinema could not afford to procure reels of current hits most of the time and played reruns of old films instead. Bajpayee remembers seeing classics such as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Awara, Yahudi, even the 1935 “Fearless Nadia” film Hunterwali as a child.
He began performing in school, in elocution contests (prompted by a teacher who felt the experience would make him more social) and skits. It was here that he developed a love for reciting poetry—a practice he believes has benefitted him tremendously and which he recommends to aspiring actors. There’s a YouTube video of him from earlier this year reciting Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s epic poem Rashmirathi. Even in a performance this informal, it’s revealing to note how easily the words roll off his tongue, how he knows just when to slow down and speed up, raise an eyebrow, bring those expressive hands with their long fingers into play. You can gauge how seriously he takes his characters’ vocal rhythms from the fact that he immersed himself in Marathi literature while preparing for Aligarh, even though he doesn’t speak the language in the film.
Like so many actors of his generation, his life changed after watching Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer. That was the moment he knew he wanted to be an actor, though he couldn’t bring himself to tell his folks. So he went to Delhi University (DU), first to Satyawati College, then to Ramjas, ostensibly to study. There, he threw himself into the campus theatre scene, performing in street plays and stage productions, reading, strengthening his grip on English. “Those three years of DU were life-changing for me,” he says. “I went from someone who could not read the front page of The Times Of India to reading George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare.” However, he was also living hand to mouth. His father would send ₹ 200 a month; once he paid his rent, mess fees and bought a bus pass, he’d be left with ₹ 20.
Bajpayee’s all-consuming goal was to join the National School of Drama (NSD). During his three years on campus, he’d built a bit of a reputation as an actor and was confident he’d be accepted. He wasn’t. The rejection sent him into a spiral, and thoughts of suicide entered his mind. A friend convinced him to attend a year-long workshop being conducted by the Sambhav theatre group. This led to roles in plays, some of which were directed by NSD alumni. The actor Raghubir Yadav pointed him towards a workshop being conducted by director and acting coach Barry John. He attended this, alongside another unknown young man called Shah Rukh Khan. John was impressed and hired Bajpayee to assist him with his teaching. This left Bajpayee free to act for other troupes. He soon became a sought-after actor on the Delhi theatre circuit and formed his own company, Act One, with N.K. Sharma in 1990.
Bajpayee’s NSD dream, meanwhile, had a bittersweet ending. He applied the year after he was rejected, and the year after that. When he tried for the fourth time, they offered him a teaching position at the school instead.
One day in 1992, his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia, then the casting director for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, sought him out. Kapur had seen his photographs and was considering him for the role of daku Vikram Mallah in the film. That role eventually went to Nirmal Pandey; Bajpayee remembers seeing a “tall, Jesus Christ-looking guy” with Dhulia and telling himself that the part was no longer his. Bajpayee was cast in the smaller part of Man Singh, one of the dacoits who joins up with Phoolan Devi. In a film bursting with great performances, his intensity is palpable, but because he had only 15-odd minutes of screen time and about as many lines, he went, in his own words, “completely unnoticed”.
Well, not completely. Two years after Bandit Queen released, Bajpayee met Ram Gopal Varma for a supporting role in Daud. He’d taken Kapur’s advice and moved to Mumbai to pursue a film career, but the initial years were a struggle. His first marriage ended in divorce, his health deteriorated, and roles just weren’t forthcoming. A part on the TV soap Swabhimaan ensured that some money was flowing in. Still, when he met Varma in 1996, he was desperate for work, any work. When Varma heard that Bajpayee had played Man Singh in Bandit Queen, he jumped up. “I’ve been trying to locate you since then. Where were you?”
Varma promised Bajpayee a role in his next venture, an as-yet-unnamed gangster film set in Mumbai. This, of course, was Satya, the film that would change Bajpayee’s fortunes forever. Bajpayee was given the task of finding writers for the film. The first person he brought in was a young man who met him at director Sriram Raghavan’s office and told him how much he admired his performance in a play called Netua. That was Anurag Kashyap. The second was his former roommate Saurabh Shukla, who also played Kallu Mama in Satya.
The rest of the team soon fell into place: actors J.D. Chakravarthy, Urmila Matondkar and Shefali Shah (then Chhaya), cinematographer Gerard Hooper, editor Apurva Asrani (who would go on to write Aligarh). Though the titular character was being played by Chakravarthy, everyone associated with the film knew that the lit fuse at its centre was the role in which Bajpayee was cast, that of the gangster Bheeku Mhatre. The film released in July 1998.
Much has been written about the seismic effects of Satya, of how it introduced a welcome grittiness to romantic, choreographed 1990s Bollywood, the ways in which it changed the grammar of Hindi cinema. Yet, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the centrality of Bajpayee to the film’s success and ensuing legend. Time has done little to dim the danger and magnetism of Bheeku Mhatre, but even so, viewers who were too young to see it in theatres will have to imagine the thrill of seeing him shout “Mumbai ka king kaun?” for the first time. I was in school when Satya released, and I remember all anyone could talk about was this new actor called Bajpayee. Was he the hero? No, but he wasn’t the villain either.
In truth, it was a new kind of performance. In it lay the seeds of compelling, many-shaded roles by actors who emerged in Bajpyee’s wake: Irrfan Khan in Maqbool, Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Gangs Of Wasseypur, Kay Kay Menon in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Just like Bajpayee saw Bachchan in Zanjeer and tried to recreate the police station scene, so hundreds of young performers now tried to imitate the infectious laugh that seemed to bubble up through Bheeku. Chhabra says he gets around 200 aspiring actors a month telling him they took to acting after seeing Bajpayee in Satya.
“Manoj’s contribution to this whole indie scene has gone unheralded,” Mehta says over the phone from Patiala. “He’s the man who opened the doors for everyone else. He began that whole alternate star cult.” In a 2014 interview to DNA, Kay Kay Menon was even more emphatic. “If it were not for Manoj’s brilliant performance in Satya, actors like Irrfan and me might still be waiting to be accepted. Manoj opened the doors for us.”
Ashish Vidyarthi, who knows Bajpayee from Delhi, says the hallmarks of his approach—obsessive preparation, commitment to the material—were evident even in his early theatre days. He speaks admiringly of Bajpayee’s gift for “detailing”, a factor he believes sets the actor apart from his peers. “He’s willing to take that leap—to embrace fear, to be vulnerable, yet confident in his craft,” Vidyarthi says.
As is the norm in Bollywood after a breakthrough, Bajpayee found himself being offered more of the same. The “Hindie” didn’t really exist then, and the industry was dominated by commercial film-makers. “They had to offer me something,” he says, “but they couldn’t change themselves. They could only change the doctor or the inspector into Bheeku Mhatre. It was hard, saying no to loads of money, still staying in a rented place.” Eventually, he found his next two roles through the Varma-Kashyap combine.
Eight months after Satya, he appeared in Varma’s three-character psychological thriller Kaun?—his wheedling insurance salesman makes an entry 20 minutes in, after we’ve seen a jumpy Urmila Matondkar alone at home on a rainy night, watching a news flash about a serial killer on the loose. Bajpayee takes credit for introducing comic tones into what had been, on paper, a serious part. His aim, he says, was to maintain a balance of “annoying and suspicious”—enough to break the tension, but not so relaxed that the audience stop believing he could be the killer. It’s a lovely bit of horror film acting: rapid-fire line delivery, unblinking eyes, tense, high giggle.
Later that year, Bajpayee headlined a film for the first time, in Shool, directed by Varma’s former assistant E. Nivas and written by Kashyap. This time, there was no trace of levity in his performance. If one were to crown the angriest Hindi film character ever, Samar Pratap Singh would be in a dead heat with Om Puri’s tortured cop in Ardh Satya. Shool was a fairly standard honest-man-against-broken-system drama, but was elevated by the specificity of the writing and the rural Bihar setting, and by Bajpayee’s volcanic performance. “I knew that if I don’t maintain the intensity, this film will fall flat,” he says. “If you see the film, even if I smile a little bit, I wipe it off immediately.” Staying in character took a toll on him; months after the shoot, he was snapping at people and having nightmares.
Over the next two years, Bajpayee continued to subvert expectations. In 2000, he was the shy, soft-spoken Ram Saran Pandey in Hansal Mehta’s Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!. The film went largely unnoticed, but seen now, it feels like one of his most personal performances; one can imagine him drawing on his memories as a migrant to Mumbai (Pandey is from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh) and the culture shock he experienced. The following year, he got a chance to appear alongside Bachchan in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks. Playing a psychopath who, midway through the film, enters the body of Bachchan’s upright police officer, allowed Bajpayee to go boldly over the top; he seemed thrilled when I told him I thought his performance predicted Heath Ledger’s as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Three years later, he won a Special Jury National Award for his performance as Rashid in the partition drama Pinjar.
Then, just when it all seemed to be going so well, it started slipping. Unwilling to play another villain, he told his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia to cast Irrfan Khan in Haasil. He lobbied for the lead in Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, but Bhardwaj, whom he knew from his Delhi theatre days, decided to go with Khan. Films such as Fareb, Bewafaa and Inteqam came and went, making little if any impression on the public. 1971—a little-seen, underrated army drama—was a bright spot, but by 2007 the actor had, by his own admission, “disappeared”. A shoulder injury kept him out of action for a year. Worse was to follow: Money Hai Toh Honey Hai, Acid Factory, Jail.
The kind of cinema Satya had helped foster was now gathering steam, but Bajpayee wasn’t a part of it. “All these directors were coming up—Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali—but because of my failures and some wrong choices I made, I was down and out,” he says. Yet, he remained calm, waited for that one special role to come along. Supporting turns in Prakash Jha’s message-driven multi-starrers Raajneeti and Aarakshan kept him in the public eye. Then, one night, Kashyap called and asked him if he’d come over and listen to an idea.
Chhabra, casting director on Gangs Of Wasseypur, recalled how Bajpayee’s name was being thrown around from the beginning for the gangster Sardar Khan. “It was his space, his style, his language,” he says. “The combination was right.” Bajpayee felt so too and joined the production. He also agreed to a drastically altered new look, agreeing to go bald for the role—Kashyap felt it would help deepen the character’s sexual aura.
If Bheeku Mhatre is the ego, Sardar Khan is the id: a repository of barely suppressed urges, both sexual and violent. Considering he’s such a reprobate, it’s also a strangely beautiful performance, with Bajpayee prowling the screen like a panther, speaking in a musical Bihari drawl, getting leered at like some six-pack-sporting hero while sporting a langot in the O Womaniya song sequence. The film was the big critical success of 2012. Just like that, everyone was talking about Bajpayee again. Later that year, he appeared in Chittagong as the schoolteacher and revolutionary Surya Sen. One of his students in the film was Siddiqui, who had appeared onscreen with him for all of 90 seconds in Shool more than a decade ago. Another was Rajkummar Rao, who told me that one of his main reasons for doing the film was that he’d get to work with Bajpayee.
I ask Bajpayee if he feels he paved the way for actors like these. “I don’t know about that,” he says, “but I would say I’ve taken the brunt. I’ve accepted loads of criticism and sacrificed so much money to do what I wanted to do—which, in a very small way, contributed to making things easy for my kind of actors.” He’s bullish about the kind of work that’s being done on the edges of the mainstream today, even if the new indie directors seem to think of Siddiqui or Khan more readily than they do of him. After the two Wasseypur films, one might have expected the quality of offers to improve appreciably, but there haven’t been any overwhelming indications of this. His one notable release since Gangs Of Wasseypur (unless one counts Satyagraha or Tevar) was Neeraj Pandey’s smart crime comedy Special 26. In the same time, Siddiqui has been in Monsoon Shootout, Badlapur, Liar’s Dice and Haraamkhor; Khan in The Lunchbox, Life of Pi, Piku and Talvar; Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi and Masaan. “I’ve been saying no to roles for the past six months,” Bajpayee admits, “which is not a very good sign.”
Aligarh’s theatrical release in February will serve as yet another reminder to audiences and film-makers of Bajpayee’s range and commitment. He has four other projects in various stages of completion—Soumendra Padhi’s Duronto, Neeraj Pandey’s Saat Uchakkey, Mukul Abhyankar’s Missing and Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic—and is hoping at least a couple release this year. Though Bajpayee says the thought of hiring an agent in Los Angeles somehow makes him feel tired, Chhabra says that a Hollywood project is on the cards. He’d like to return to the stage someday, but for now he seems content to do what he’s always done: remain picky, keep calm and wait on a good part.