Pankaj Tripathi On His Meteoric Success, The Future Of OTT, And Mirzapur 2 On Amazon Prime Video
Pick the most acclaimed and talked about films and shows of the last five years, and chances are that Pankaj Tripathi has been in them. He’s become every director’s go-to guy, has carried web shows on his extremely mature and capable shoulders, has established himself as one of the country’s most efficient character actors right now, and is loved by the audience for his natural and effortless performances. With Mirzapur Season 2 releasing this month on Amazon Prime Video, everybody’s favourite Kaleen Bhaiya is coming back to our screens Even after all these years, whenever I have to write about Pankaj Tripathi, I always start with his performance in Newton. Possibly one of the best supporting roles I have seen in Indian cinema in over a decade, Tripathi brought such a variety of shades to his character — vulnerable, helpless, egoistic, frustrated — that it made his character’s journey much more memorable than even Rajkummar Rao’s title role. Since then, Tripathi has delivered one knockout performance after another. He dazzled in Stree and Bareilly Ki Barfi, was excellent in Gurgaon, has been the only reason to watch most of the web shows he has starred in, and even in a series like Mirzapur, which is packed with so many heavyweight characters, Pankaj Tripathi makes Kaleen Bhaiya memorable.
I had read stories about how Tripathi decided to become a professional actor when he was spending a week in jail, during his college days. He is a soft-spoken and very polite man, quite in contrast to the hardened men he often tends to play on celluloid. The first time I met him for an interaction, I had asked him why he wanted to become an actor. “When I used to act in various plays in my village, people used to really enjoy it. They would compliment me a lot. And that was very encouraging. Later, when I was in Patna, a friend took me to watch a play, and that really changed my life. As a member of the audience, I was blown away. For the next two years, I would regularly watch all kinds of performances, from theatre to classical music events, and so on. So, maybe all those performances and experiences collected in my bank account and left an impression on me. So, I thought, maybe I should do it too.”
Tripathi has crafted a niche for himself in the new phenomenon that is “small” commercial cinema, spearheaded by leading men and women like Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao, and Swara Bhasker. Like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s middle-class offerings, this brand of small-town (primarily Hindi heartland) cinema is competing quite successfully with big-budget, star-led commercial potboilers, simply because of good stories, excellent writing, natural performances, and talented ensemble casts. Again, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films, this genre is rooted in family and social issues, often tackling the tradition versus modernity battle with wit, humour, and dialoguebaazi. What is the future of this genre, I had asked Tripathi. Is small town, slice-of-life cinema a passing fad? “No, I don’t think so at all. Content will continue to be the king,” he had firmly told me. “See, it is possible that we will start making urban films instead of small town films in the future, but we will make those films authentic too. We need to maintain the importance of authentic storytelling, natural performances, and strong narratives, whatever the landscape might be. This will benefit Hindi cinema. The story can be based in north or south India, or even in some foreign country, for that matter. And it’s a great thing that the films and the audiences are growing. They are learning to appreciate the authentic. Earlier, actors had to do so much of cheenkhna-chillaana and, say, slapstick comedy to entertain the audience. Today, I just want to be truthful and honest with my performances, and I am glad that the audience can appreciate that.”
In this space, Pankaj Tripathi rules the roost, along with other stalwarts like Sanjay Mishra and Gajraj Rao. They bring their confident craft, nuanced understanding of the small-town middle class space, and individual brands of endearing humour to the Indian audience. While Rao and Mishra’s humour is more anxiety-driven, somewhat frantic and headless-chicken-like, Pankaj Tripathi is more laidback, contemplative and, most effectively, deadpan. After Newton, Tripathi aced his way through a bunch of well-loved films like Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Fukrey Returns, Phamous, and Stree, establishing himself as the guy for this genre. I have always believed that funny men can be the scariest of villains. From Jim Carrey to Paresh Rawal, comedic actors have successfully bred nightmares on screen. Tripathi’s idyllic and deadpan brand of UP humour takes a chilling form in his villainous roles. His Sultan Qureshi in both the Gangs of Wasseypur installments is cerebral, and a think-before-you-do kind of guy in a gun-toting bullet-fest that celebrates machismo. In Masaan, as Richa Chaddha’s colleague, his friendship is not exuberant — it rumbles under the surface, and is laced with threads of unhealthy curiosity and possible sexual desire. In both Nil Battey Sannata and Anaarkali of Aarah, his characters are layered and complex. In Amazon Prime Video’s Mirzapur, Tripathi is silently terrorising. Kaleen Bhaiya is an iceberg — you do not truly see the fire and evil that rages inside until you are at the receiving end of it. It is a deliciously complicated role that Tripathi has aced like a rockstar. He keeps his cards close to his chest, is shrewdly calculative, and evokes respect and fear, aided by his salty baritone.
The “ease” that everyone keeps talking about — what’s the secret behind his effortlessness? “Experience and craft, both.” Tripathi had offered to elaborate, during one of our other meetings. “It is an amalgamation of craft, years of practice and riyaaz, and all the life experiences I have accumulated. I also feel that the effortlessness comes from the fact that I don’t want to achieve anything. I don’t have that ambition inside me to prove something to people. No — I just believe in doing my job quietly. Also, when it comes to honing my craft, I have studied acting under many teachers, and I have tried to arrive at a craft or a process that is the sum total of everything they have taught me. So, that ease is a little bit of craft and is also something spiritual. I am not an impatient man, I take things slowly and easily. When no one knew who I was, I wasn’t agitated by it. Today when people know me, even that doesn’t affect me.” Over to the talent himself.
What is Kaleen Bhaiya up to, in Mirzapur Season 2?
The plotline is very interesting with regards to Kaleen Bhaiya. It’s an extension of Mirzapur Season 1. There’s a lot more layering and depth to the character this time around. There’s also more conflict and entertainment.
How is Kaleen Bhaiya of season 1 different from season 2?
The basic characteristics are the same, but the way he handles the conflicts are different. As I mentioned, there’s a lot more depth in this role in Season 2. The crises this time around is way bigger as compared to Season 1. It’s a lot more entertaining as well. He’s a little bit of everything this time.
What did you like the most about your character, and the new storyline of season 2?
The way that Kaleen Bhaiya’s character has shaped up. He’s a very contemporary villain, according to me. He’s soft-spoken, speaks about progressive issues, never shouts or partakes in violence himself. He seems to be an ordinary businessman. In Hindi, I can call Kaleen Bhaiya, samkaleen. He seems to be a samkaleen Bhaiya to me. From the outside, you’ll never figure out that he’s a Baahubali. He appears to be a progressive father, and this is the beauty of the way the script has been written.
As an actor, what is the most exciting thing about doing a project like this?
On OTT platforms, there’s a vast amount of content being pumped out daily. In that space, when viewers shower so much love on a series despite the fact that it aired a-year-and-a-half ago — it’s an achievement in itself. The fact that people have been waiting for Season 2 for so long is a miracle in itself to me. It’s a really big deal for me. I was literally tired of answering people’s queries about Mirzapur Season 2. I want to thank the audience, Amazon Prime Video, and the makers of Mirzapur 2 for creating such an interesting show.
How challenging was it to maintain the uniformity of your character from the first season, to the second?
When I went to shoot after one and a half years, I was making a few mistakes. So, Guru, our director, caught on to those mistakes. He asked me if I wanted to see a scene from Season 1, and I agreed. Following this, I understood where exactly I was going wrong, and it was smooth sailing from thereon.
Did you enjoy playing Kaleen Bhaiya In Season 1 more than the role you’re playing in Season 2?
The role was refreshing and new in Season 1. When you fall in love with someone for the first time, how do you feel? And when your premika accepts your proposal, how do you feel? So, that is my take on this. Now, this is love, mind you — it is a risky affair, so the stakes are higher in Season 2.
How much of Pankaj Tripathi is in Kaleen Bhaiya? Also, how much of yourself do you add to your characters?
Even if I don’t wish for it to happen, an essence of my personality will always flow into my characters. I can’t reduce my height. The shape of my nose can be changed only a little bit, using make-up. In the same way, some aspect of your personality is bound to be attached to your characters. When it comes to Kaleen Bhaiya, you’ll definitely see Pankaj Tripathi’s life experiences, because I have come across people like him, and I understand the landscape on which the story is based. In real life, I’m a soft-spoken man, and Kaleen Bhaiya is the same. This will always be the case with every artiste.
Amazon has brought so many fresh, path-breaking stories to OTT. Do you think it has become an avenue for new actors as well as a second innings avenue for the existing actors?
Absolutely. OTT has given many talented actors the chance that they were desperately looking for. I have been a part of cinema, TV, and advertisements, and I have also been on OTT platforms. OTT offers actors more scope to explore their characters and flesh them out. If you look at films from 15 to 20 years ago, there was a certain formula to it — a hero, a heroine, a villain, and a few stock characters like doctor, lawyer, etc. Then, an element of comedy was added to this mix, and we got “the comedian”. Now, the format of cinema is also changing. People are focusing on characters who aren’t the main lead. I haven’t been the main lead in a film and yet, people love me and respect me. This is the gift of OTT, and this new brand of cinema. I remember during a screening of Stree, when I made my entry on-screen, and hadn’t even uttered a word, and the audience was already whistling.
Did you ever imagine that Mirzapur would become so popular?
Honestly, I knew it would be a good show, but I didn’t expect this kind of response. The Mirzapur team is good, so I expected it to do well, and Amazon Prime Video also has such a huge reach. Our performances reach around 200 countries in different languages. When I go to Europe or the US, people recognise me as Kaleen Bhaiya .
Do you think feature film releases on OTT platforms during the pandemic is leading to equal opportunity?
Honestly, I am not sure because due to the coronavirus, the film-makers and producers had no option but to turn to OTT platforms. However, I will say this — the OTT audience is very woke. If they like it, great. But if they don’t like it, they’ll definitely let you know. On OTT, you reach people on the strength of your content, and it’s not that important who’s the lead.
How was it reuniting with your cast? How was the experience on the sets?
The team has great tuning. We are like a family. It felt good to be reunited after more than a year. This is the beauty of our industry. We’re always meeting new people, making new stories, visiting new places.
If you could go back in time, what year in your life would you want to go back to, and what would you change?
I would go back to the early ’90s, but I wouldn’t want to change anything. I would like to go back to the time I was a kid in my village, and just wanted to learn how to swim in the river behind my house. That’s it. Everything has been great.
How do you see the industry cope in the post-pandemic world? What are the changes you foresee?
The changes that I have seen in the film industry are in the stories we’re witnessing nowadays. We’ve really evolved when it comes to stories, but when it comes to how the industry will cope in this pandemic world, I really don’t have a clue.
What are your future plans? Five years from now, where do you want to see yourself?
I don’t make plans for the future but five years from now, I would like to see myself acting for sure. There’s an international flight going over my head right now, as we speak. I know we’re talking, but I still paused. You know why? Because when I used to live in my village, trainee pilots from Gorakhpur would fly over our village once in two months or so. And when the children of the village heard the noise, they’d instantly look up at the sky. Today, I’m 40 years old, and live in Mumbai but even now, when I hear the sound of a plane, I always look up and try to figure out what kind of plane it is. For example, the aeroplane going over me right now, is some kind of an international cargo plane. Khair.
(ALL IMAGES BY AMAZON PRIME VIDEO)