Manoj Bajpayee: The Renaissance Man
Manoj Bajpayee: The Renaissance Man

If the OTT boom has paved the way for the emergence of Manoj Bajpayee 3.0, he has played a crucial part in making content-driven cinema mainstream as well as in the evolution of the ‘leading man’. Today a Shrikant Tiwari can exist because Bhiku Mhatre happened. This is the story of a misfit, a rank outsider, a stubborn and angry young actor, who conquered and changed Bollywood, one movie at a time

Mumbai ka king kaun? … Bhiku Mhatre!


It has been 25 years since Bhiku Mhatre aka Manoj Bajpayee announced his arrival in the city from a cliff top and made the nation sit up and take notice. It seemed Hindi cinema had got a new ‘king’ in this lanky and rather ordinary-looking young man. It seemed he was here to rule. But later that year Shah Rukh Khan’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai released and the dimpled hero reinforced his reign as the king of Bollywood.



Bajpayee might have lost a few battles on the way but has stubbornly held his ground to eventually win the war. Just like Bhiku Mhatre, he could not have become ‘Mumbai ka king’ overnight. But he kick-started a revolution in Hindi cinema, one that would unfold on 70 MM screens and topple the old guard changing the very idea of the leading man, one movie at a time. Today, if we have actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi helming movies and mainstream Bollywood heroes like Varun Dhawan attempting an October or a Badlapur, it is Bajpayee, the OG, who has paved the way. He has been part of three of the landmark movies — Bandit Queen, Satya, and Gangs of Wasseypur— that were instrumental in shaping the content-driven cinema movement of today that has finally firmly placed the coveted crown on his head.


“I couldn’t have succeeded even a bit if Shekhar Kapur and Ram Gopal Varma and so many younger directors who worshipped these people and brought in their own fresh ideas were not there. A Pinjar, a 1971, a Shool, and a Kaun could be made because of Satya and Bandit Queen. Things started to change after these movies. I was the actor available. We were a bunch of rebels who were all happening at the same time. Bandit Queen had so many talented artistes. If Shekhar Kapur was a maverick filmmaker, he needed those actors and technicians to translate his vision into a film. And all those people needed Kapur to share that vision. Similarly, with Satya, we were a bunch of rebels, but we needed a much greater rebel like Ram Gopal Varma to really use us well. And he didn’t stop with Satya. He gave me Shool, Kaun, Road. But I needed more filmmakers to give me roles that I wanted to do. I needed filmmakers from the industry to offer me something new. I didn’t want to be a star. But it is not that at that point I was offered to play heroes in mainstream cinema either,” says Manoj Bajpayee as we sit down for this interview.



At 54, this Renaissance Man is not only playing the lead but also wowing a new generation of audience with his mastery over the craft. He has followed up the humongous success of two seasons of The Family Man, with Ray, Gulmohar, and Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai, and his performance in each is nothing short of a masterclass in acting.


“My idea of a hero was always a Solanki or a Srikant Tiwari. We came to this city with the idea that the leading men should be characters and not the persona of the stars. Over time, I have realised that both kinds should coexist. In fact, there is place for all kinds of cinema. But these films will inspire people to create and harness more talent than movies where you have a hero dancing and doing action. Nobody can be happier than me to see this becoming the norm today,” says the three-time National Award-winning actor.


Although the roots of his idea of a hero can be traced back to his Delhi theatre days, it is interesting to note that growing up it was the magic of mainstream movies that got him hooked. “I was completely mesmerised by Mr. Amitabh Bachchan’s performance in Zanjeer,” says the trailblazer.


His last outing was as the humble but resilient and knowledgeable High Court lawyer, Poonam Chand Solanki who takes on an influential godman, in Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai. It is a face-off between a religious man fighting for dharma and a bigoted Baba brainwashing people in the name of religion. But Solanki is far removed from the quintessential Bollywood hero. He shits bricks when being chased by goons, gets intimidated by the celebrity lawyers he finds himself pitted against, and becomes nervous while arguing with people he had looked up to while studying law, but his knowledge about his subject and meticulous preparation no doubt makes him a strong opponent. Although Bajpayee imbues Solanki with the poise and charm of a common man, he becomes every bit a ‘hero’ the movie needs.


“He is an ordinary guy who gets nervous, fears for his life, and is concerned for his family. The idea was to make him look like a scared dog on the street. But when Solanki is fighting for justice in the court, he does so with so much zeal that it creates a sharp contrast with that ‘ordinariness’. The aim was to juxtapose his vulnerability outside the court with his fearless attitude inside the court as well. “In Solanki, people see a hero who looks, talks, and feels like them. And that is why the climax scene works so well,” he explains.


While he gets a robust, hard-hitting monologue in the climax to seal the deal, the actor in Bajpayee always stands out in the quieter moments. Be it the heartbreaking scene in Gulmohar where, as Arun Batra, he is looking at the framed picture of his adoptive father and asking his wife if he has finally started to look like his dad, or the climax scene in Bandaa where the minor twitching of the left side of his mouth or the slight shaking of his hand after giving an emotionally charged speech reinforces Solanki’s credentials as a common man who has just had an extraordinary moment of courage.


“These are the things an actor comes up with, but the inspiration is always the script. The small details and nuances flow automatically when your basic preparation is strong. Your character is going to respond on the basis of your preparation. My preparation starts with reading the script multiple times and making notes,” says Bajpayee.


“My strength is that I have a way of slipping into the character. I think if the character is not showing in your eyes, then you are lying or pretending. True acting is when you can captivate the audience through your eyes. But it’s never easy to become a character. Most actors prefer the characters to come to them, whereas I prefer going to the character. It’s very difficult; it’s like completely getting away from your own ego and becoming someone else. It needs emotional and spiritual courage,” he adds. But he has mastered the art of not only getting under the skin of the character but making them iconic. And he is no one-trick pony. Movies like Satya, Kaun, Shool, Aks, Pinjar, Veer-Zaara, 1971, Raajneeti, Gangs of Wasseypur, Aligarh, Gali Guleiyan, Bhonsle are a testimony to his brilliance and versatility.


We catch up with Manoj Bajpayee to talk about the boy from Belwa, a nondescript hamlet in Bihar, who went on to become one of the country’s most celebrated actors of all time giving the Hindi film industry and its heroes a much-needed facelift along the way.





How did the dream of becoming an actor take shape?


Both my parents were film buffs and when they would visit me in the hostel, the treat involved a good meal and a movie or two. Whatever was happening on screen, I never wanted that to end. Nothing else interested me. I was good at studies but I would only study a month prior to the exams. In fact, in my Board exams, I secured a first division, which in those days was rare and quite a thing in my village. I was the first in my extended family to have secured such high scores. But I was not interested in studies. I just wanted to grow up, go to Delhi, join NSD, and then go to Mumbai and have a career in acting.


I used to perform in school but I had not done theatre there. I would take part in elocution competitions which were pretty big. My first recitation on stage was when I was in class five. It was a poem by Harivansh Rai Bachchan. I got the first prize. I think that day sealed my fate. I was destined to be on stage. Poetry was the starting point of my performance. If people have loved my monologues or my diction in movies like Shool, Rajneeti, or Bandaa, it is because of the preparations I made during those elocution competitions. Moreover, my poetry reciting ability and the rigour for it has really helped.


You shifted to Delhi with the dream to get a seat at NSD. How did NSD come into the picture?


While growing up, I was planning on how to make it as an actor in Mumbai. I knew nobody in the film industry and I had to prepare myself for the job. I had to be really good before I land up in the city. And that was not possible in my village or in Patna. I had read in interviews of Naseeruddin Shah and Raj Babbar that they were all National School of Drama [NSD] graduates. So, I enrolled at Delhi University and started preparing for NSD. I started doing theatre extensively. When I was not performing, or rehearsing, I was reading, preparing, and attending workshops. Ironically, I got rejected by NSD for three consecutive years. Nothing I did in front of the jury impressed them; I think it was just my luck. But I never held it against NSD.


How did those rejections impact you?


The first rejection really hit me very hard. I couldn’t process it or deal with it for about a month.  I was sitting in my room the whole day; I would not eat or do anything. I was in an extremely bad state. My friends from DU with whom I was staying took care of me during that phase and they pushed me to Mandi House to find what else I could do.


However, I was very stubborn and I refused to give up on my dream to become an actor. I kept doing theatre outside. In fact, I think I used the NSD library more than their students at that time (laughs). I kept working very hard. The plays I did during this time became landmarks and were even appreciated by the NSD alumni and teachers, many of whom were legends in their field. They were even doing plays with me outside NSD.


Eventually, I found Barry John as my teacher and mentor. He was the best thing that could have happened to me. Raghuveer Yadav took me to him. He needed some actors and went to his workshop hoping to get selected for a role, which I did. There I met Divya Seth, Rituraj, Shah Rukh, and all of them. Barry John shaped and moulded me as an actor and also as a person. More than my father I owe it to him. He had more confidence in me than I had in myself.

I think I should thank NSD for rejecting me, thrice! That got me used to rejection. It taught me to never let rejections define me.  Rejections just mean that you need to work harder and work on the aspects that you are lacking. When I was rejected after giving my first shot in Mumbai, it didn’t impact me.  I changed into my own clothes and left.


You played Maan Singh in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. But it took you four more years to land Satya. How was this period between Bandit Queen and Satya?


When Bandit Queen released, I was already in Mumbai and everyone from the cast was getting offers except me. I was going through hell. I was physically not keeping too well, my first marriage was falling apart, I was not getting any work, I had no money to even feed myself. I was in a shambles. I was getting one or two episodes here and there but that was not enough. I had a roof over my head but no guarantee about the next meal. There were times when I had thought of going back. There were times when it occurred to me that maybe I was not as good an actor I thought I was. Maybe I wasn’t any good as an actor. Maybe I didn’t know that.


That self-doubt that was slowly creeping in was the most dangerous thing, and it could have convinced me to go back. But I kept telling myself, ‘No Manoj, you are good. You have done theatre for so many years and the veterans and legends of the industry have appreciated and loved your work. So, you must be good at the job. Stick on, stay, fight!’.


It was never easy. One thing that has always helped me, no matter how down and out I am, I always fall back on my ability to work hard. When there were no roles coming my way, I would create roles and act them out in my room and show those to my friends and ask for feedback. Then I would work on those feedback. These eventually added to my preparation.


Satya was a game-changer for not only you and the next generations of actors but also for Hindi cinema in general. But post that meteoric rise to stardom with Satya, there was a phase before Raajneeti (2010) where your career saw a slump. Looking back, how do you see that phase?


For me, it was not really a shocker. I was a very wise man. I was not chasing stardom; it happened because of Satya. But I knew that it was not going to last. I kept on telling my wife, who was then my girlfriend, that the audience would be massively disappointed in me. I wanted to choose good roles and good directors but it was impossible for all those movies I chose to translate into a Satya. They will get something else, but not Satya. I could somewhat replicate it by playing a villain in a few superstar-led films but after a point, the audience would get tired and wash their hands of me as I would be repeating myself.


I was very clear about one thing, and there was no adulteration in that, I wanted to do movies that had very solid stories and characters. I didn’t want to be a ‘villain’. Even if it all was to be a negative role, it needed to be a strong character, something that I did inAks, or Road, or Tevar. I wanted that kind of space as an actor. I didn’t want to become just another villain. I wanted to play characters. It was tough. There was no independent cinema movement or OTT to support me. It took me around 9 years after Satya to buy my own house. In fact, I did pick up a few movies to pay for that installment that I didn’t enjoy, my soul used to die every time I would do such roles, but I didn’t mind. I was married and I wanted us to have a house. We are living in that house even now.


How did you cope with failures at that point, especially after getting such huge successes after so much struggle? What did that phase teach you?


After Satya, I was on cloud nine. But while people were celebrating Bhiku Mhatre and Manoj Bajpayee, somewhere I knew that this success is going to fade away. But when it actually did, I was still not prepared for it. I was making certain projects happen but those were not being dealt with properly and those films were failing. The incapability of the people whom I had put my trust in was creating a lot of anger in me. This went on for about a year but then I gathered myself and went with it. I kept seeing my success slide away slowly. When films like Pinjar and 1971, which are today considered classics, didn’t get any recognition or nominations, I stopped reacting. The poetic justice came when I got the Special Jury National Award for Pinjar and later in 1971 got the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. In fact, 1971 became a viral hit on YouTube during the lockdown.


It was like reaching 99 in a game of snakes and ladders, you are almost at the finish line when you step on the snake and drop back to the starting point. I knew that it would happen, but when it happened, the struggle was not to get back to the same spot. Because when I was sliding down, the industry got two more actors in the same category, Kay Kay Menon and Irrfan Khan. They were coming up. I was completely forgotten and written off. I had signed up for some bad films as well and the critics were brutal. But I had to put food on the table for me and my wife while waiting for the right opportunities to come by. And those weren’t in sight. I got some rather insignificant roles and somehow managed to survive. 


But I was not frustrated; I was waiting for an opportunity to get back in the game. I knew that I am good at my job and people appreciated my work. I just needed an opportunity to make a comeback. But that good role was very difficult to come by. I started calling directors every morning for work. But still, I wasn’t getting anything. Then suddenly Mr Prakash Jha called me and offered Raajneeti. I told my wife that if this film worked, I would be back.


But how difficult was it to call up directors for work….


I had two National Awards, and a few Filmfare awards when I did. But asking for work from the directors you love and want to work with is not a bad thing. You have left your home, and your parents, and you are living in a city like Mumbai making all those sacrifices. So why would you let something like your ego stop you from reaching out to directors and asking for work?


The common notion is that to make it in Bollywood, you have to be seen with the right people and be at the right parties. Do you think it would have helped your career if you were more into the Bollywood party scene?


I found it very tiring to be someone else and party with people I don’t know or with people who don’t like me. At these parties, people are usually trying to find that one person who can benefit them and I was not of any use to anyone. If you are of no use, people might talk to you for 2/3 minutes but then they will move on to people who can provide them with things they are looking for. That is the nature of this industry.


But it is not difficult to avoid these. When you keep on excusing yourself, after a point people stop calling you to these parties. And I really want to reiterate to you that networking is not important, your last work is. Nobody really cares about you after you have arrived at these parties, or even if you haven’t.


How has Manoj Bajpayee evolved as a person in the last few years? And where does Manoj Bajpayee as an actor go from here?


You don’t go anywhere! I always wanted to be an actor, and now that I am one, I just want to do my job well. I want to be in a place where I am doing justice to each character I play. I am looking forward to the challenges.


The only thing that has changed is that now I am approaching the characters I play in a much more calm and composed manner. I am more sorted in my head. There is no anger or restlessness of the past. I can see the characters far more clearly now, I am not blinded by anything else.


I have become a better and much calmer version of myself. The process started quite a few years before Aligarh, and in fact, that phase also somewhat helped me in getting the character of Prof Siras right. I was going through a lean period and right after Acid Factory, I decided to quit hard liquor and going to parties. Instead, I started focusing more on myself, my health, and my family. I got into the discipline of reading books, watching movies, and doing meditation; it really started improving me and the things around me. We were blessed to find my spiritual guru who gave us some discipline and that started improving me. Even working on Aligarh changed me quite a lot; I was really impacted by the character.


The journey till Family Man was not easy. The struggle was intense. It was difficult to take all that in your stride and be a wise man. I have survived things that can break anyone because of my sheer resilience and stubbornness. But when I started my spiritual practices about seven years back, things started getting channelised. It calmed me down and turned me into the person I could become. In fact, it took a few years to show the results.


At this age, after having seen enormous failures and humongous successes, when I am getting a new wave of success and recognition, it doesn’t affect me as much. I have always enjoyed my job. But now I enjoy it differently—today I am attached to my job yet detached. I think my spiritual practice has helped me reach this stage. More importantly, it has helped me calm down the demons of my childhood and growing-up years that had made me a rather angry person inside.


Moreover, the characters you play on screen often leave some tell-tale residues behind. They don’t interfere with your daily life, but they stay in your subconscious mind and sometimes they clash leading to mood swings. My spiritual practices over the last few years have helped me navigate these. Today, when I am playing a character like Arun Batra, I don’t take him home with me. It is also because I am more evolved both as an actor and as a person now. I don’t want to get thrown out of my cultivated calmness by a character I am playing on screen.


Also, life happened. I have come to terms with too many things in my life. I can say that today if I am a better actor, a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and a better human being, it is all because of my spiritual practice and also because I have spent quite a substantial amount of time not only in this industry but on this planet to learn the ropes!


Has the success of Family Man also helped you calm down and made you more secure as an actor?


Success doesn’t calm me down. In fact, success can harm you in ways you can’t even imagine. I have seen success with Bhiku Mhatre, but then it faded away. I have seen a different kind of success with Raajneeti, and then it plateaued. I have seen success before Family Man, I was a successful man. But have not seen this kind of love and adulation. The Family Man has given me multifold success and truly empowered me as an actor.


With me, the euphoria of a star is not there. I am a different kind of actor. I don’t sell dreams; I play characters in films that are heavily dependent on good stories. For my kind of actor, getting such passionate love from the audience can actually go to the head. It can make you so arrogant and egoist that it can destroy you as a person. I have always believed that success, the pompousness and the flamboyance of I-me-myself it brings, can destroy people. Right now, I don’t feel even one bit of it. But I have gone through that post Satya. I never thought that I would see that kind of success. I always thought that maybe I would be able to earn my bread and butter by being an actor in the film industry. That is why I left the Delhi theatre circuit and came to Mumbai. I was dying of hunger and poverty there.


And the last question. Do you think that being an outsider or even a misfit has eventually become your strength?


I think I made it into my strength. It is better to work on the fringe so that the expectation is almost zero. I was not interested in what was happening in mainstream cinema. So, being an insider would not have really helped my journey.


When I joined Barry John’s class, I was always the quiet one sitting outside the workshop area smoking bidi and feeling completely incapable of taking part in conversations going on inside. All of the other guys would converse in English and I could not understand anything, not what they were discussing, why they were laughing, nothing. I would sit outside, smoke, and read the script. Yet I would not sit and crib but work towards acquiring those qualities. If I was feeling miserable not being able to converse in English or be part of the discussions, one part of me was working overtime to overcome that inadequacy. You conquer one obstacle and gain that much confidence, and go to the next armed with that.


But I never had the need to fit in even in those Barry John classes. It was important to learn the lesson and work on that instead of just trying to fit in. Trying to fit in has many disadvantages and I have always found the idea very humiliating. When you try to fit in, you are also trying to define yourself through someone else’s lens and looking for their validation…and that’s the worst thing any human being can do to himself/herself.



Mind Over Matter


One movie from your filmography you wish you could redo and why?
All of them except Gali Guleiyan. It was a very difficult performance and I am glad that I pulled it off. I am 80 per cent happy with that one. But otherwise, I am about 30 to 40 per cent satisfied with my performances.


Your top three favourite characters:
They are yet to come. Abhishek Chaubey’s Soup is one. Devashish Makhija’s Joram is already being talked about in international circuits. And then there is Kanu Behl’s Dispatch. All these were hard work!


The most filmy thing you have done in real life:
When we were kids, there used to be a train that would go from our village to the next junction. My friends and I would hang from the bars of the windows and move from one compartment to the other while the train was at full speed. Even the thought of it scares me now. Please never try this ever!

3 most crucial things in an actor’s survival kit in Bollywood:
You should have the ability to stop the celebration of your past success as quickly as possible.
Don’t let rejection or failure define you.
Learn to be with yourself more than in the company of people.

One Indian actor you want to work with:
Naseeruddin Shah

One habit of yours you want to get rid of:
I had quit hard liquor long back but I do indulge in an occasional white wine and champagne when with friends. I want to quit those as well.

One thing you really splurge on:
Shoes! My wife has recently thrown away about two dozen of them.

One hidden talent of yours:
I used to be a good dancer, I was a huge Mithunda fan! But then Hrithik Roshan happened and he made us all feel so inferior (laughs).

One myth about Manoj Bajpayee?
That I am a very serious person

Most profound learning experience you have had while shooting a character?
Prof. Ramchandra Siras in Aligarh actually had quite an impact on me. I think it made me a better person. He took all the miseries and dealt with those without having any kind of ill feelings towards anyone.


If you had a biopic what should the title be?
Ziddi Insaan!





For Stills


Photographer: Rohit Gupta (Https://
Art Director: Tanvi Shah (@tanvi_joel)
Brand Director: Noha Qadri (
Art Assistant: Siddhi Chavan (@randomwonton)
Stylists: Peusha Sethia And Sakshi Prithyani (Https://
Hair By: Sachin Jadhav @sachinjadhav116
Make-up By: Manish Joshi @Manishjoshi0412
Artist Manager: H.N Tripathi 
PR: @studiounees @amsywams @eshannahse
Assistant: @akhileshpaswan103


BTS credits


Art Director: Tanvi Shah (@tanvi_joel)
Brand Director: Noha Qadri (
Art Assistant: Siddhi Chavan (@randomwonton)
Shot and Edited by Dox.exe
Photographer: Rohit Gupta (Https://
Stylists: Peusha Sethia And Sakshi Prithyani (Https://
Hair By: Sachin Jadhav @sachinjadhav116
Make-up By: Manish Joshi @Manishjoshi0412
Artist Manager: H.N Tripathi 
PR: @studiounees @amsywams @eshannahse
Assistant: @akhileshpaswan103

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