How Sanjay Mishra Balances Mainstream and Arthouse Cinema
Sanjay Mishra leads two lives. In the one we know of, he prances about gingerly in the living room of his first-floor apartment in Versova, in Mumbai, a Filmfare Awards’ gag script in hand. The room is ornately designed, filled with handpicked vintage chairs, old desks and a shelf bearing vinyl records. Cupping a mug of chai, Mishra is in a drab sweater, spurting dialogues as his assistants await instructions. Three floors above this sitting room is his home, his other life. This sea-facing apartment lacks all the warm artistry of the one below, and is strewn with his son Lamha’s and daughter Pal’s toys. The only giveaways of Mishra’s profession are stacks of DVDs tucked in lofts and a poster featuring Apple Singh, the character he became famous for in 1999. He spends most of his time here; he goes downstairs only for script readings and meetings.
Setting aside his script, Mishra shakes his head, “Kal raat se jo meri haalat hui hai [I’ve been miserable since last night].” He is slated to share the stage with Shah Rukh Khan, with whom he worked recently in Dilwale, but that isn’t only why he’s a bundle of nerves. “Poori industry hogi, yaar. Amitabhjee baithe honge, haala ki maine unke saath kaam kiya hai. Par yeh jo third-bell ki nervousness hai na [The whole film industry will be there, with Amitabh Bachchan in the front. Although I’ve worked with him, I have the third-bell nervousness].”
After over a quarter of a century in the film industry, Mishra is still driven by butterflies in his stomach before performances. The Filmfare Awards is particularly an emotional subject, as he was only a fresh alumnus of the National School of Drama (NSD) when he’d watch his father watch it on TV. “There I was, largely a failed student but a drama graduate, not having done much to even come close to winning a Filmfare. I couldn’t meet his eyes,” he recalls.
It wasn’t as if he wanted to do anything else but perform. Growing up in Benaras at a time when the historical town’s Kabir Chaura was an adda for music lovers, Mishra was mesmerised by classical musicians. “Ravi Shankar is playing the sitar, and a group of locals and foreigners are lost in his magic,” he says. “One person’s rasa is finding its way to the hearts of many others. Maybe that’s what made me decide to do something like this.” But, classical music’s rigours were too much for Mishra, who dislikes strict schedules.
The NSD years, despite their discipline, left an impact on him. “I got more and more curious about acting by being around students such as Ashish Vidyarthi, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Nirmal Pandey. I was fascinated when I saw Irrfan Khan in his Lower Depths character offstage. He’d just keep being that character all day,” he says. A natural progression meant that Mishra come to Mumbai to begin a career, which he did in 1990.
In between his Men Fridays enquiring about his evening plan and costume for his Filmfare act, Mishra narrated his nine-year struggle through four or five crisp, amusing anecdotes. “There wasn’t much work, so I began shooting actors’ portfolios with their film cameras. Saadheteenso rupya leta tha, aur roll dhulwane ka kharcha unka [I’d charge Rs 350 plus the cost of developing the film].” This would be a steal for many, who’d otherwise pay around Rs 5000, and it would be a win-win for Mishra, who became better at understanding lights and textures. He would also run into fellow broke friends. “Ek baar Manoj Pahwa ke pass utne bhi nahin the, toh usne kaha tu mera fridge le ja [Once, actor Manoj Pahwa didn’t even have that much, so he asked me to keep his refrigerator],” he laughs, reminiscing that he’d then passed on the fridge to Saurabh Shukla.
Mishra’s trajectory was like any other struggler’s, but his resilience was a cut above. “After Tishu [Tigmanshu Dhulia] asked me to try art direction for his TV series Hum Bambai Nahin Jayenge, I got into doing jugaad for sets.” That also explains how he was able to design his sitting room. Incredibly, not only did Mishra not work hard to land Apple Singh, he even ignored the opportunity. “Before the ’99 World Cup, someone high up at ESPN Star had a brainwave — a passionate villager who is a cricket fan. I ignored it for a few days until they bribed me with alcohol, and Vijay Krishna Acharya [director of Dhoom:3] coaxed me into it.”
Apple Singh was a runaway hit, and it led to a slew of comic roles in the coming decade, the most memorable of which remains the paan -spitting Shuklaji from the TV series Office Office. “All my Benarasi pun flourished then, from the andaaz to the paan. Benaras runs in my blood — my childhood was dotted with Bismillah Khan’s music, Lacchu Maharaj’s paagalpan and the hyperactive gullies.”
Two of his finest films, both last year’s releases, Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Masaan, are set in Haridwar, his mother’s native place, and Benaras respectively. While shooting the latter, Mishra stayed away from the unit in Mir Ghat, in a tiny room by the Ganga, just for the mahaul. It was yet another instance of him being an actor who trusted the vibe more than the method. “Main aksar poochta hoon, aapko meri dates chahiye ya dil? [I often ask film-makers, do you want my dates or do you want my heart?] ”
When he offers both, films such as Aankhon Dekhi happen. His layered portrayal of an ageing father with internal conflicts got him fame and gratification, broke his comic-actor image and bagged him his first Filmfare (best actor, critics’ choice) — all of which was unexpected. “I was watching a trial show with a friend and I said, ‘Yaar, yeh Rajat Kapoor kaisi filmein banata hai? [What kind of films does Rajat Kapoor make?]’ I just didn’t get its essence. Then, halfway through, a lady sitting in front came and touched my feet. Later, I heard someone had locked himself up in a bathroom and was crying. I had to go and hug him. I rewatched the film and realised what an incredible character bauji was, and what a phenomenal film we had made.” He says he never read the script of Aankhon Dekhi — he just went by Kapoor’s narration.
With a dozen releases last year, the most he’s had in any year, the grey-bearded Mishra is working 28 days a month, sharing the rasa he had dreamed of. For a man who came to town without looking at a mirror, as he puts it, it is time he places one in both his apartments.