The first time I interviewed Manoj Bajpayee, about six years back, I told him that I was his biggest fan. I still remember how empty the words sounded, how the fan whirred above us in complete silence. You know that feeling when you compliment someone, and it just feels unnecessary? “I am your biggest fan”. Millions before you have said the same thing, and millions after will say it as well. He knows that, you know that, and the moment you say those words, they sound hollow and insufficient. Who does not admire Manoj Bajpayee’s films? How do you tell him that you think he is one of the most important acting talents in this country, without gushing for hours? More importantly, it’s not brand-new information for him.

I remember sitting across Bhiku Mhatre in his sprawling Mumbai apartment, and he looks at me, expressionless when I compliment his body of work. I can almost hear him think “Shut the fuck up and get on with it, kid”. The fan whirred and I stared at him, curled up on the couch in front of me. He has intense eyes, which hardly waver from you, looking intently, scanning, measuring you up. I have often wondered about the art of complimenting stalwarts without sounding sycophantic and insincere. Manoj Bajpayee is definitely one of the best actors this country has ever produced. Yawn. He knows that. We know that. Every time one of his films — and now shows — release, we don’t walk out surprised that he has done a fantastic job. We walk in knowing that he is going to be crackling. And the man never fails to deliver. Even in the weakest of films, Bajpayee shines.

Manoj Bajpayee

In fact, with The Family Man, along with flaunting his acting chops, Bajpayee made it very clear that he has a finger on the pulse of the entertainment business. He understands what the future is, he is aware that the world is changing, and definitely knows that it is foolish to not ride the wave. Bajpayee has never shied away from ensemble casts, and has been a worthy captain with every single outing. The first season of The Family Man was a similar success, where Bajpayee led a sterling cast, but ensured that he was memorable too. That is a skill few actors possess — to neither overshadow, nor, worse, be overpowered. Like Irrfan Khan, Bajpayee’s comedic style is a combination of physical comedy, deadpan dialogue delivery, and a chaotic headless-chicken quality that helps in adding humour to an otherwise serious sequence. I vividly remember the scene in season one, where Srikant is meeting his daughter’s principal to hear grievances against her, while his colleague constantly calls him on his cell phone regarding an urgent piece of information. Bajpayee portrays internal struggle versus external stolidity with such comic dexterity, that a mundane scene turns into a relatable and tragic-comic one.

Along with Sharib Hashmi, Bajpayee was solely responsible for setting the comedic tone for the show, and the both of them, like a desi Sherlock-Watson, infused the show’s heavy intensity with some much-needed frothy lightness. Bajpayee’s ability to infuse comedic amplification to day-to-day frustration and exhaustion adds to his relatability, and endears him to his audience. He is one of them, showing them exactly how funny their lives sometimes are. This relatability is one of Bajpayee’s biggest assets. He looks like the common audience, he behaves like the common audience, and across most of his roles, he is affected by this world, like the common audience. He is The Family Man, yes, but that was believable because he has been The Common Man all along too.

You rose to fame with a hard-hitting film like Satya, that’s still talked about. How do you think storytelling has evolved over the years?

Satya happened so long ago, and it was a kind of a miracle for an actor like me who was hoping for nothing. 22 years, and now I feel like Satya and all those initial films at the time have somehow become the torchbearers for all the good things that happened later to so many film-makers, actors, and so on. I feel good to be a part of films that have changed the stream of the game. I feel great that I was a part of films like Bandit Queen, Satya, Shool, which people talk about in context of starting the change in content and storytelling. The industry has come a long way in these two decades.

From a generation that knew you on the biggest of screens to one that’s getting to know you on OTT, how have you seen yourself change over the years?

One part of your audience is always getting to know you. You’re increasing your audience base all the time. With OTT, what has happened is that my daughter’s generation now recognises me, and has started feeling excited to see me on screen. When I’m walking on the street, or into a building, they want to take pictures with me, or take autographs. This was the kind of audience that was never exposed to my work. For actors, with every project, you are touching a new set of people’s lives, and that’s so exciting.

Manoj Bajpayee

What’s your process to prep as an actor? Has your process changed with experience?

I never had one approach to do a role, and I don’t believe in having one approach to tackle different roles. You can’t get into Satyameva Jayate with the same approach that you do Aligarh with. Each and every director, role, and genre demands a different process. The character tells me how to reach it, and how to be it. When I was doing theatre, and also over the years, I’ve had the privilege of learning how to innovate from so many filmmakers and actors. I’m doing a new film with Kanu Behl, and he has a different approach to conducting a workshop that I wasn’t aware of. So, I was learning through those new workshops. An actor’s job is to be open and perceptive to the direction that the character or the film is giving him, and take that direction.

What’s the one thing you will never compromise on when saying yes to a script?

The elements of the script that I have said yes to, should not be compromised at all, be it the story or the elements of it, or the main cast. At times, after saying yes to a script, the script was changed to something I wasn’t very agreeable with, and it took away what I had said yes to, and what I felt joy by. So I left the film. If something you’ve agreed to changes completely, there’s no point sticking to it.

You’re often called a method actor, one that’s known for his unconventional roles. Have you ever wanted to do more mainstream hero roles, the kinds that have you romancing the heroine in a garden?

I don’t think I was ever enticed by the mainstream hero’s dance and romance. In reality, I was always attracted to leaving an impression on my audience’s mind. This is how I wanted to play the roles I’ve gotten over the years — that’s how I defined my lead roles. I enjoyed conventional films — action and romance both — but when I was doing theatre, I had my own definition of what a lead actor is, and those are the kind of the roles I’ve looked for.

What’s your take on failure? You’ve had your share of struggles in an industry that’s otherwise illustrious. How have you handled the tough times?

Nobody can ever claim that they weren’t rattled or shaken up by their failures. Your belief system feels dented, you are left behind, you feel ignored, demoralised, insulted. But that being said, it’s never about the feeling, and it’s about how you come back on your feet. I think I’ve been lucky that I am the child of parents who never bowed down to failures. I’ve learnt it from them to learn from failure, and use it to prepare for a bigger opportunity. Start from the basics and climb back up. That’s why I’ve always been thick-skinned, and stubborn. I’ve never taken failure or success as a comment on myself.

You received a (well deserved) Padma Shri in 2019. What’s your take on awards, and merit?

The Padma Shri is an honour, you’re honoured for your behaviour and conduct as a citizen. And of course, it means a lot for me. I was happy that my parents got to see their son being felicitated by the President of India in front of them, and that’s the biggest achievement for me. I am glad I could give them that.

Do you ever want to write a film? If not an actor, what else would you want to be?

Never say no to anything. I am always bubbling with ideas and if they become very overpowering, I discuss it with a writer friend, and work on it. It’s happened in the past. I might just decide to write some day. What you want to be, is something you can’t control. I believe in destiny. I feel being an actor is my material purpose. And I’m still seeking my spiritual purpose (smiles). I’m looking for an answer.

Season 1 of The Family Man is being watched and re-watched. What made you take up the project?

I took up this project because the story talks about a very ordinary person, who is doing an extraordinary job. This is a man doing the job of an intelligence spy, and he typically has the problems of a common man. These were the elements that were very fascinating. His job is very dangerous, and it requires quite an extraordinary ability to accomplish. It was challenging for me to showcase this common person who is as ordinary as anybody who is travelling in a local train, but at the same time, when he is in his office or on the field, he’s James Bond. It’s the same person moving from one scene to another, but with ease. He’s a father, a husband, a friend, and a spy. So, to transition between his layers and make it look very casual, and not changing the character, was a challenge. I call Shrikant Tiwari, Raj and DK’s common man, he is as good as R.K.Laxman’s common man, who everyone relates to.

How was 2020 for you? How did you cope with the gloom that was in the world?

I know everyone wants to cancel 2020, but I don’t believe in that. It’s always about learning and understanding that human beings are so adaptable. The first few months, everyone panicked and realised how difficult it was to live without the malls, cinema, etc., but we all found a way to communicate and adapt. In four or five months, everyone started working in full form. It gave us the space to understand that family is everything. It also showed us that if we take the planet and nature for granted, nature will come back at you too. The gloom factor was seeing the sad state of affairs, seeing sad stories unfold. We are privileged, but the crowd of labourers going home, that’s what broke my heart. I felt so helpless, and bad about myself that I am in such a privileged position while so many people lost their lives, even from the film fraternity. I felt the pain of people going away. But, soon we started communicating more, and found ways of sharing our pain, our ideas, our happiness, our daily routines, with people on social media too. It was a mixed bag of feelings.

Interview By Samreen Tungekar

Photographed By Meetesh Taneja

Styled By Krish Khatri