THE SARDAR OF WASSEYPUR
Awards and overnight celebrityhood to rejection and despair, Manoj Bajpayee has seen it all. The actor hopes the success of Gangs of Wasseypur translates into more work for him.
Sitting in his four- bedroom suburban Mumbai apartment, 43year- old Manoj Bajpayee is basking in the glow of adulation in the wake of his role as Sardar Khan in Gangs Of Wasseypur, the first Indian film to be shown in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes since Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen in 1994. “If it doesn’t turn into better offers, though, I will say nothing has changed,” he says. He has learnt not to get ecstatic about praise. Success has come his way before— with Satya ( 1998) and Raajneeti ( 2010). “There never were any roles for my kind of acting. That’s the story of my life,” he says without any resentment, as his eyes trail Ava Nayla, his year- and- a- halfold daughter playing in the balcony with wife and former actor Shabana Raza.
It would be
easy to call him a pessimist based on that statement, but after 18 years in the industry and two National awards, Bajpayee is no stranger to success or failure. There was a time he would get angry, when, after his second award in 2003 for his role as Rashid in Pinjar, he was unemployed for 10 months, having refused roles of typical villains. “Awards are of no use. They’re just part of the décor in my house.”
For him, settling for mundane characters was never an option. He would often isolate himself to get into a role by practising his lines, and “would look like a madman to onlookers”. Says Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap, “Manoj had to play a promiscuous person, not something associated with him. We needed to undo the old Manoj, and decided to shave his head.” Bajpayee spent a day with Kashyap’s makeup team. They experimented with his face and he lost 6 kg to look lean and hungry.
Bajpayee was 17 years old when he passed out from Khrist Raja High School in Bettiah. He left his village Belwa, near Narkatiaganj on the BiharNepal border, where his father was a farmer, and shifted to Delhi in the hope of joining the acting course at the National School of Drama ( NSD). He had learnt of it from an interview of actor Naseeruddin Shah in the Hindi magazine Ravivar. In Delhi, he lived on Rs 300 a month— Rs 150 from his father and another Rs 150 from acting in street plays. The paltry sum barely made up for the room he rented with friends, and the Rs 12 monthly bus pass. Beyond that, he would depend on friends for clothes, shoes and the lunch of chhole bhature. He was rejected by NSD for four consecutive years, and started training under Barry John after the second attempt while studying History at Ramjas College, Delhi University. He got so involved in acting in amateur plays in Delhi, that he often skipped visiting home for long stretches. “Once, when I went home after three years, my mother started howling. And I thought: Why is she crying, I’m here now?”
Bajpayee came close to despair after moving to Mumbai in 1993. Miserable and lost in the big city, he also underwent the pain of divorce from his first wife. He had come prepared for a long wait but was close to returning to his village when in 1994, Bandit Queen, and his first film role as Man Singh, happened. The TV series Swabhimaan ( 1995), and films like Mahesh Bhatt’s Dastak ( 1996) sustained him for five years, till he met Ram Gopal Varma for the role of Paresh Rawal’s henchman in Daud ( 1997). Varma recognised him from Bandit Queen, and that led to Satya, which earned him his first national award as best supporting actor for his portrayal of Bhiku Mhatre.
Since then, in between the critical successes of Shool ( 1999) and Pinjar, there have been films that haven’t fared well, but which Bajpayee is proud of— Kaun ( 1999), Aks ( 2001) and 1971 ( 2007). There are other films he did in desperation— films he is too ashamed to even mention now— most likely forgettable projects like Jaago ( 2004), Bewafaa ( 2005) and Money Hai Toh Honey Hai ( 2008). In 2007, during a visit to his village, he injured his shoulder in a jeep ride, and spent the better part of three years visiting doctors. “My shoulder gave way. I couldn’t lift my hand. What was crushing was that I was no longer acting.” There was a new bone growing in his shoulder, and while many doctors counselled surgery, others were against it. “I was fine when I got into the jeep. When I got out, my shoulder was gone. I can’t recall anything that could have set it off.”
During the break, he underwent meditation to control his anger. “When I was young, I used to get really angry, but then I realised I was wasting energy on something beyond my control. I can’t write roles for myself.”
Then Prakash Jha called for his political epic Raajneeti. The two had never worked together, but struck a chord, and Veerendra Pratap, the Duryodhan- like character, brought him back into the limelight. Soon after, he got drunk over red wine with one- time “bum- chum” Kashyap while reading the script of Wasseypur, and was convinced to unlearn everything. “A new actor has emerged in Wasseypur, with a new method and approach. I feel this can be a new beginning for Manoj Bajpayee the actor,” he says.
As part of the new self, he has stopped bringing his characters home with him. Early in their courtship, his wife Shabana, whom he met at a film party in 2000, felt she was dating a different person every month.“Now, I can work the whole day, but come home detached,” he says. Convinced that good roles will come to him at the right time, he’s instead busy researching for a musical, in what will be his return to the stage. “I’m raring to go and desperate to do it,” he says, but is unwilling to reveal anything more about the project.
In his free time, he likes to travel, Scandinavia being a favourite destination, read copiously, watch all kinds of films, and loves playing with his daughter. He would like to be paid more so that he can buy a nest in London, and counts a Maruti Swift among his indulgences, being too afraid to drive the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado he also owns. He is soon planning to take Nayla to his village for her first visit, where friends and family are waiting to see her. “If a good role happens, I’ll be happy. If not, well and good.”