One of the finest ac­tors in the coun­try, he may have just played his most nu­anced role ever, as a dig­ni­fied ho­mo­sex­ual pro­fes­sor. Manoj Ba­j­payee on how he keeps rein­vent­ing him­self and his craft

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - by Poonam Saxena

THERE COMES a mo­ment in T ev­ery tal­ented ac­tor’s ca­reer when he shakes the world with his per­for­mance in a film that de­serves our at­ten­tion. Manoj Ba­j­payee is that ac­tor right now and Ali­garh is the film.

This is not the first time that Ba­j­payee, 46, has stormed cinema the­atres with his per­for­mances. But some­how, we have al­ways taken his tal­ent for granted. Maybe that’s be­cause he’s been around for al­most 20 years. Maybe it’s be­cause he’s quiet and keeps to him­self.

With Ali­garh, how­ever, there is no way we can’t sit up and take no­tice of him – afresh. Not only has Ba­j­payee dared to take on the role of a gay pro­fes­sor in a main­stream film about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, the film also comes at a time when the de­bate around the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of Sec­tion 377 is at its most fu­ri­ous. On Fe­bru­ary 2 this year, the Supreme Court re­ferred the mat­ter to a five-judge Con­sti­tu­tion Bench for an in-depth hear­ing.

Ali­garh is based on the true story of a 64-year-old gay pro­fes­sor of Marathi in Ali­garh Mus­lim Univer­sity (AMU), Dr Shrini­vas Ram­chan­dra Si­ras. In Fe­bru­ary 2010, two men pushed their way into his home and filmed him hav­ing sex with a rick­shaw-wal­lah. Si­ras was sus­pended from AMU but took the mat­ter up to the Al­la­habad High Court. He won the case but was found dead soon af­ter in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances.

Di­rec­tor Hansal Me­hta has taken this story and wo­ven it into a ten­der, heart­break­ing tale. And Ba­j­payee, who plays Si­ras, has im­bued his role with such mov­ing dig­nity that you feel tears prick­ing your eyes as you watch the movie. His dif­fi­dent body lan­guage as he sits hunched on a chair, hands hold­ing – or al­most clutch­ing – the bag in his lap. The al­most shy plea­sure in his eyes when he poses for a selfie with Deepu Se­bas­tian (Ra­jku­mar Rao), the jour­nal­ist who brings his story to the world.

“Si­ras is a poet,” says Ba­j­payee. “He is a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture. He finds beauty and colour even in a dark room. He’s happy within his four walls, lis­ten­ing to Lata Mangeshkar, hav­ing his two pegs of whisky [more about that scene later]. But even that is dis­al­lowed to him.” Si­ras was hounded out of his univer­sity ac­com­mo­da­tion and then again when he took pri­vate lodg­ings. In the film, there are scenes of him sit­ting in his cramped room, hemmed in by piles of un­packed boxes, af­ter al­ter­ca­tions with prej­u­diced land­lords.

We are sit­ting in Ba­j­payee’s ho­tel room in Delhi. As he leans back on the white sofa sip­ping tea, he ex­udes a gen­tle, un­der­stated charm. (He is also that rar­ity in Bol­ly­wood – an in­tel­li­gent, think­ing ac­tor, a dra­matic change from most Bol­ly­wood stars with their mean­ing­less prat­tle about “my role is very chal­leng­ing, it has many shades.”) Ini­tially I strug­gle to as­so­ciate this soft-spo­ken man with the pow­er­ful roles he has done on screen whether it is the grim cop of Shool or the men­ac­ing Sar­dar Khan of Gangs of Was

sey­pur. Cast­ing di­rec­tor Mukesh Ch­habra, who rec­om­mended Ba­j­payee to Hansal Me­hta for the role of Si­ras, says, “Manoj’s most unique qual­ity is that he can­not be type­cast. You never know how he will per­form. You can mimic any ac­tor in the film in­dus­try. But you can never mimic Manoj.”

The cheru­bic-look­ing Me­hta, di­rec­tor of crit­i­cally ac­claimed re­al­is­tic films such as Shahid (2012) and Ci­tyLights (2014), says he was hes­i­tant to call Ba­j­payee him­self for the role of Si­ras. “I didn’t want Manoj to feel any pres­sure to ac­cept the role,” he says. “He’s an old friend of mine, I’ve known him for 22 years [the two worked to­gether as di­rec­tor-ac­tor in a 2000 film, Dil

Pe Mat Le Yaar!!]. But 10 min­utes af­ter Mukesh called him, Manoj phoned me and be­gan abus­ing me. ‘How did you as­sume I wouldn’t want to do this film?’ he said.”

On his part, Ba­j­payee says he was ready for a role that would give him “a new lease of life.” And he knew that Me­hta would do full jus­tice to Ali­garh.

It never oc­curred to Ba­j­payee to worry about how au­di­ences would re­act to him play­ing a ho­mo­sex­ual. He says he’s never looked for ap­proval in his life. “And as a cre­ative, demo­cratic, lib­eral per­son I be­lieve in equal­ity, in an in­di­vid­ual’s right to pri­vacy, right to life,” he de­clares.

I ask Ba­j­payee how dif­fi­cult it was to play the phys­i­cally in­ti­mate scenes be­tween him and the rick­shaw-wal­lah. Ba­j­payee pauses only for a few sec­onds be­fore re­ply­ing: “I am 100 per cent het­ero­sex­ual. So ini­tially do­ing those touchy-feely scenes did make me very un­com­fort­able. My cam­era­man no­ticed. He then said some­thing to me which took away all my dis­com­fort. He said peo­ple spend their whole life liv­ing a lie when they can’t come out in so­ci­ety. Imag­ine how un­com­fort­able it must be for them. For you it’s just a mat­ter of an hour.”

Ali­garh is spe­cial also be­cause it does not stereo­type ho­mo­sex­u­als. Nei­ther is it an ‘ac­tivist’ film. Nor is it art­house. It com­mu­ni­cates its mes­sage – of the need for ho­mo­sex­u­als to have the right to pri­vacy and free­dom – through the emo­tional story of a vul­ner­a­ble older man. As the ebul­lient Ali

garh writer Apurva As­rani says, “The char­ac­ter is not in con­flict with the sys­tem. Even when the ac­tivists come to him, the man is a lit­tle un­com­fort­able.”

As­rani has known Ba­j­payee since his Satya days (As­rani edited the film) and says that he saw his father re­flected in Si­ras: “Manoj made him pa­ter­nal, dig­ni­fied, with that lone­li­ness.” He re­mem­bers a par­tic­u­lar scene in the film where Si­ras is sit­ting in his room drink­ing and lis­ten­ing to Lata Mangeshkar singing Aap ki nazaron ne

samjha. Si­ras is lost in the song, and his hands move del­i­cately, al­most to a rhythm. It was a twoline de­scrip­tion in the script, says As­rani, but Ba­j­payee trans­formed it into what di­rec­tor Hansal Me­hta calls “one of the top cin­e­matic mo­ments of my film ca­reer.”

Me­hta, once he be­gan shoot­ing the scene, found he couldn’t stop. No one on the set could move. Be­cause Ba­j­payee had cre­ated such a mes­meris­ing aura. The se­quence is al­most three-and-a-half min­utes long. “You couldn’t leave a beat out,” says As­rani. Me­hta says his cam­era­man Satya Rai Nag­paul who is a trans­gen­der, also added to the scene by shoot­ing it in a deeply at­mo­spheric way.

This magic is part of a tal­ent that Ba­j­payee has nur­tured and honed over the years. He was ob­sessed with act­ing from when he was a child, grow­ing up in a large fam­ily in a vil­lage in Cham­paran, Bi­har. At 17, he left home for Delhi to join the Na­tional School of Drama (NSD). He told his father, a farmer, that he was go­ing to get ad­mis­sion in Delhi Univer­sity and si­mul­ta­ne­ously study for the UPSC exam. “I didn’t want to tell my fam­ily about my dream be­cause I feared a back­lash from my par­ents and so­ci­ety. Ac­tors were con­sid­ered bhaands.”

He got off the train in Delhi and in­stantly felt at home. There was no sense of dis­lo­ca­tion – an oft-cited emo­tion of boys com­ing to Delhi from small towns in Bi­har. “Delhi has a fan­tas­tic char­ac­ter,” says Ba­j­payee. “It is a big city but it also has the char­ac­ter of ru­ral In­dia be­cause it’s sur­rounded by vil­lages. That’s why I love this city.” This was the late ’80s and Delhi was less crowded; it still had a cer­tain lan­guid charm. The only thing that fazed him was see­ing girls in saris and sal­war kameezes run­ning af­ter DTC buses and push­ing peo­ple to clam­ber in. But Delhi’s big city vibe did not rat­tle him one bit – “I think I was born a lib­eral, mod­ern, pro­gres­sive per­son.”

He joined Satyawati Col­lege and met Sham­sul Is­lam, then a pro­fes­sor of political sci­ence there, who in­tro­duced the green­horn Ba­j­payee to street theatre and the art of read­ing. Is­lam re­mem­bers Ba­j­payee com­ing to the of­fice of his theatre group, Nis­hant Natya Manch, in Model Town, armed with a bag and a de­sire to act. “He was wel­comed and told about Nis­hant’s work, that we do theatre not for theatre’s sake but also to raise pro-peo­ple is­sues. It was manda­tory for mem­bers of Nis­hant to study In­dian/world lit­er­a­ture and

Manoj re­alised soon that to be­come a good ac­tor one has to know so­ci­ety in depth.” Is­lam re­calls Ba­j­payee read­ing vo­ra­ciously, from Muk­ti­bodh and Prem­c­hand to Gorky and Chekhov.

Ba­j­payee moved to Ram­jas Col­lege but con­tin­ued with theatre. He also con­cen­trated on learn­ing English (“I al­ways thought it was the weapon to go ahead”), cor­rect­ing his “warped” Hindi and Urdu (“I didn’t know ei­ther prop­erly since my mother tongue was Bho­jpuri”). In­deed, the next eight years in Delhi were in­tense and deeply for­ma­tive.

Un­for­tu­nately, he never man­aged to get into NSD, and that was a source of bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment to him. But per­haps it was a bless­ing in dis­guise, be­cause in­stead, he met the doyen of theatre in Delhi at the time, Barry John, who ran the vi­brant and in­flu­en­tial Theatre Ac­tion Group (TAG). Ba­j­payee be­gan do­ing theatre with him, even­tu­ally mov­ing into a teach­ing role in John’s Theatre in Education (TIE) ven­ture. “Barry changed me,” says Ba­j­payee. “There is Manoj be­fore Barry and Manoj af­ter Barry. He was my se­cond father in the city.” When Ba­j­payee showed Ali

garh to his theatre men­tor, John was in tears watch­ing his per­for­mance and wrote him a long email. “That mail was like my Padma Shri,” says an emo­tional Ba­j­payee.

In Delhi, his days were packed. From 7 in the morn­ing till 3 in the af­ter­noon, he worked with TIE (for which he got a proper salary; for the first time he was earn­ing money). Af­ter that he would go to Mandi House, Delhi’s theatre hub, and work with his own theatre group, Act One. The roll call of plays with which Ba­j­payee was as­so­ci­ated in those years is im­pres­sive: Ne­tua, Jab She­har Ha­mara Sota Hai, Bagh­dad ka Ghu­lam, Suno Re Kissa, Uljhan etc. “I was so fo­cused, I was branded stub­born and bor­ing,” laughs Ba­j­payee. “I was the kind of per­son who would get drunk, not to en­joy him­self, but to sleep.”

But the Delhi chap­ter of his life ended abruptly when he got a break to play the role of daku Man Singh in Shekhar Ka­pur’s Ban­dit

Queen (1994). Ka­pur gave Ba­j­payee and some of his other theatre friends a se­vere talk­ing-to. “He told us that we were liv­ing a dan­ger­ous life,” re­calls Ba­j­payee. “We were do­ing theatre but not earn­ing money. What would be­come of us? He en­cour­aged us to move to Mum­bai and look for work in films.”

Ba­j­payee took Ka­pur’s ad­vice and shifted to Mum­bai. He, along with ac­tor Sau­rabh Shukla, rented a room in a chawl in DN Na­gar in And­heri. But iron­i­cally, though he had made the move to Mum­bai for a bet­ter life, the next three years were the most mis­er­able years of his ex­is­tence. There was no work, no money. On one par­tic­u­lar day, he re­mem­bers, he was re­jected thrice – for a TV se­ries, a cor­po­rate film, and a short film.

He de­cided to get out of the cy­cle of re­jec­tion and frus­tra­tion by plan­ning his day. “I would plan what I would do ev­ery day,” he says. “Say, in the morn­ing I would call di­rec­tors for work. In the af­ter­noon, I would go to Film City. And so on. It made me feel good about my­self. I also de­cided that if noth­ing hap­pened, I would re­turn to Delhi.”

At the end of 1995, he got a role in TV show Swab­hi­maan. A lit­tle money be­gan com­ing in reg­u­larly. And then he landed a role in a film that not only changed his for­tunes, but also in­tro­duced a com­pelling new di­rec­to­rial tal­ent and al­tered the course of the Hindi film in­dus­try. The role was that of Mum­bai gang­ster Bhiku Mha­tre in Ram­gopal Verma’s path-break­ing

Satya. Verma had never for­got­ten the char­ac­ter of Man Singh in Ban­dit Queen: he par­tic­u­larly re­mem­bered the look in Ba­j­payee’s eyes.

Satya came out in 1998. It was a time of Govinda and David Dhawan come­dies like Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, and pot­boil­ers such as Salaakhen and Gharwali Ba

har­wali. Satya brought in a new gram­mar of cinema – no­body had seen the kind of gritty re­al­ism in a gang­ster film be­fore. And Ba­j­payee stole the film from un­der ev­ery­one’s nose with his por­trayal of the flam­boy­ant Bhiku Mha­tre, who went on to be­come a cult char­ac­ter. Ba­j­payee had de­cided to give his char­ac­ter a Kol­ha­puri ac­cent, for which his bai be­came his guide. “Even to­day when I go to the in­te­ri­ors of Maharashtra, peo­ple talk to me in Marathi be­cause they re­mem­ber me as Bhiku Mha­tre,” he says.

But per­haps Satya was ahead of its time. And per­haps an ac­tor of Ba­j­payee’s cal­i­bre was also ahead of his time. He was sand­wiched be­tween the glory days of par­al­lel cinema of the 1970s which made mi­nor gods out of fine ac­tors like Naseerud­din Shah, and the in­die wave of the last few years which has re­volved around cel­e­brated per­form­ers such as Ir­rfan Khan and Nawazud­din Sid­diqui. In­deed, Ba­j­payee could be said to have paved the way for the ac­cep­tance and suc­cess of ac­tors like Khan and Sid­diqui.

But af­ter the stu­pen­dous suc­cess of Satya (Ba­j­payee won a Na­tional Award for it), all that the Hindi film in­dus­try could of­fer him was the role of the vil­lain. He didn’t want that. He wanted to make it as an 'ac­tor.'

But he will al­ways re­main grate­ful to Ram­gopal Verma. “I con­sider my­self his pro­tégé,” he says. “In that hardcore com­mer­cial era, he took a guy like me in a film like Satya. It was his be­lief, his con­vic­tion in me.”

Over the last 18 years, Ba­j­payee has some­times al­most faded away from view­ers’ con­scious­ness, and some­times burst into that very same con­scious­ness with sear-

ing per­for­mances. There was the for­mi­da­ble, prin­ci­pled-to-a-fault Pin­jar in­spec­tor Sa­mar Pratap Singh in

Shool (1999), set in Moti­hari in Bi­har. Sa­mar Pratap was, as Ba­j­payee points out, In­spec­tor Vi­jay of Zan­jeer (1973) gone hor­ri­bly wrong. He lit­er­ally goes mad in the end – be­cause he loses ev­ery­thing. “Shool trou­bled me. I didn’t smile through­out the film, not even for a bit,” says Ba­j­payee. “It bruised me men­tally.”

He changed the ap­proach to his work with Pin­jar (2003), an im­pres­sive Par­ti­tion-themed film set in Pak­istan, di­rected by Chan­draprakash Dwivedi, where he played a Mus­lim man, Rashid, who abducts a Hindu woman and falls in love with her. Ba­j­payee aban­doned his habit of im­mers­ing him­self in his roles so deeply that he of­ten felt close to break­ing point. With

Pin­jar, he de­cided he would not get “into” char­ac­ters. He would do his roles with com­mit­ment, but me­thod­i­cally, al­most sur­gi­cally.

Pin­jar was close to him also be­cause it was based on a novel by Am­rita Pri­tam that Ba­j­payee thinks is one of the 10 great­est nov­els in In­dian lit­er­a­ture. He won his se­cond Na­tional Award (Spe­cial Jury award) for this role.

In be­tween Satya and Pin­jar there were other star­tling turns, such as the evil killer of Aks or the el­e­gant ma­haraja of Zubei

daa (both 2001). Later, there were strong per­for­mances in Prakash Jha’s hard-hit­ting films Ra­jneeti (2010, where he played a mod­ern­day Dury­o­d­han) and Aarak­shan (2011, where he was a cun­ning political ma­nip­u­la­tor).

But the big beep on the radar came with Ba­j­payee’s mas­ter­ful per­for­mance as Sar­dar Khan in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Was

sey­pur I (2012). Ba­j­payee’s take on Sar­dar Khan is in­ter­est­ing: “I saw him first as a wom­an­iser and then as a venge­ful gang­ster. He keeps say­ing Keh ke loonga but he never takes his re­venge. He keeps get­ting dis­tracted by women. This is what makes Anurag such a fas­ci­nat­ing and un­pre­dictable di­rec­tor. You can never guess the se­cond scene or the se­cond shot in an Anurag film.”

Though Ba­j­payee has known Kashyap for years (Kashyap cowrote the script of Satya with Sau­rabh Shukla), there was a pe­riod of cool­ness be­tween them. “Some­how, Anurag felt that I had not sup­ported him enough when he was mak­ing his first film Paanch,” says Ba­j­payee. “It wasn’t true. But he chose to be hurt by me. I knew he was an­gry with me.”

Then one day Ba­j­payee got a call from Kashyap at 10 at night about a role. “I told him I was com­ing over there and then,” says Ba­j­payee. “I went over to his of­fice and he read the script of Gangs of Was

sey­pur I to me. When he fin­ished, he looked at me en­quir­ingly. I said, ‘give me a glass of wine.’ And that was it. I love Anurag, I treat him like a younger brother.”

And now it is Ali­garh where Ba­j­payee’s per­for­mance has got ev­ery­one talk­ing. He says he feels grate­ful to Hansal Me­hta for giv­ing him the role in this sig­nif­i­cant film. On his part, Me­hta is ef­fu­sive in his praise of Ba­j­payee: “You re­alise he is one of the coun­try’s best ac­tors, not just of the last few years or of his time, but of all eras put to­gether. He’s up there with all the great ac­tors of the coun­try. He de­serves much more.” Even as the buzz around Ali

garh gets stronger (the trailer has clocked over three mil­lion hits), an un­usual new 11-minute film, Tan

dav, has sur­faced on­line, where Ba­j­payee plays a stressed-out po­lice­man, head con­sta­ble Tambe, who sud­denly has a melt­down and breaks into crazy, im­promptu danc­ing.

With Ba­j­payee, the sur­prises never cease. But as the worn-out cliché goes: his best is prob­a­bly yet to come. In Mukesh Ch­habra’s words: “He will break his own record!”

When Ba­j­payee showed Ali­garh to Barry John, his theatre men­tor, John was in tears watch­ing his per­for­mance and wrote him a long email. “That mail was like my Padma Shri,” says an emo­tional Ba­j­payee

Satya brought in a new gram­mar of cinema – no­body had seen the kind of gritty re­al­ism in a gang­ster film be­fore. And Ba­j­payee stole the film from un­der ev­ery­one’s nose with his por­trayal of Bhiku Mha­tre, who went on to be­come a cult char­ac­ter

Says Ba­j­payee about Sar­dar Khan in Gangs of Wassey­pur: “I saw him first as a wom­an­iser and then as a venge­ful gang­ster. He keeps say­ing Keh ke loonga but never takes his re­venge. He keeps get­ting dis­tracted by women"

Sa­mar Pratap of Shool was In­spec­tor Vi­jay of Zan­jeer gone hor­ri­bly wrong. “Shool trou­bled me. I didn’t smile through­out the film,” says Ba­j­payee. “It bruised me"

was based on a novel by Am­rita Pri­tam that Ba­j­payee thinks is one of the 10 great­est nov­els in In­dian lit­er­a­ture. “I haven’t seen a love story like that, where one per­son is con­stantly hat­ing the other while the other is al­ways look­ing for re­demp­tion...

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