This year, Tripathi has appeared in Anaarkali of Aarah, Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Newton, and the upcoming Fukrey Returns. More than two decades after he started thespianing, the character actor is finally getting his due.
Pankaj Tripathi first started thinking about becoming an actor while he was a political prisoner. In 1993, in Madhubani (of the painting fame), in Bihar, two students were shot at by the police. The accompanying protests triggered a truce among all the students’ unions: “Left wing, right wing, SFI, DSU, AISA, not Congress, [because] Congress was supporting Laluji [Prasad Yadav] then.” Tripathi was a member of a right-wing group (according to Wikipedia, ABVP), and “about 12-13 of us had entered the Vidhan Sabha, after breaking the police barrier, from where we were arrested.” They spent a week in jail, which began to resemble a commune. “I used to see them (leftists) read books on poetry. I didn’t know all these writers — Muktibodh, Nagarjun, Das Kapital. So, I slowly started getting attracted towards books. After we came out, I started attending their theatre. [And,] I fell in love with theatre.”
While recounting his story, Tripathi is sitting on his bed, in quasi-padmasan, his spine unbent. He speaks in beautiful, pure Hindi, the kind you get to hear only from a cabbie in Mumbai. His face is atmospheric, alive to the world, its pain and its happiness. Outside his bedroom, I can hear his wife, daughter, dog, maid and maid’s son (whom I mistook for their son) talking and laughing. His house is in disarray, because you clean up for guests, not for friends, and every person who enters their home becomes their friend.
In 1991, Tripathi had moved from his village Belsand to Patna to do his “plus-2.” Up until his time in jail, his passion had been the right; after coming out, it became stage left. “My evenings used to be spent watching theatre. After a year, all my afternoons [were also spent] in theatre. I used to sit for rehearsals, serve tea to the crew, clean the space with a broom. I used to be an unpaid assistant. During this time, my family started pressuring me to do something that would earn money. So I enrolled in Food Crafts Institute and trained for two years. I became an apprentice in a five-star hotel called Maurya.” By this time, Tripathi had also become a paid actor and done about 35 plays in his free time. “I started thinking that since I enjoy acting, if I could run my household with it, that would be the best. Which has happened today.”
In 2001, Tripathi got into the National School of Drama at his third attempt. Three years later, finally a trained craftsman, he got married and moved to Mumbai. “I was not thinking of Mumbai or cinema [for acting]. I wanted to do only theatre. But, there’s no money in Hindi theatre. If I had stayed in Patna, I would have died of hunger.” Tripathi fared slightly better in Mumbai — at least they never slept hungry. “My wife was teaching in Billabong School in Motilal Nagar. We were able to cover our expenses.”
Then came the reality of finding work in Mumbai. “It took me six months just to find the offices of people. I didn’t have the experience to understand who was a genuine film-maker and who wasn’t. I used to take hard copies of my photograph to every office. From 2004- 2010, I found all the offices. C-grade, D-grade producers also I know. Outside Dadar station, there used to be a Ranjeet Studio. I saw some posters of soft pornography there, and I realised I had walked into the wrong place. I kept auditioning for ads, TV. Now I think, how come I didn’t get disappointed? My support system was there because of my wife. Plus, I had faith in my craft. I knew if I ever got the opportunity I would do something.” And, then, he says something that I can’t do justice to in English. “Suvidhayein nahi thi mere background mein. Jab suvidhayein nahi thi to aap mein taakat aa jati hai (There were no facilities in my background. When that happens, you gain strength).”
Because Tripathi is the kind of person who can take a sincere beating from life, and still show up for work every damn day, he bided his time. In 2010, several destinies were being rewritten in the Hindi film industry. Anurag Kashyap was launching Gangs of Wasseypur, and he needed 300 actors who could think, talk and act Bihar. Tripathi ended up playing Sultan, the butcher. “In the script, the role wasn’t what was in the film. [But,] Anurag Kashyap is a very good writer, a very organic director. He’s looking for logic in every character. By giving logic to Sultan, that role became bigger and bigger. We didn’t expect it would become a cult film. At least ten people tell me every day that Wasseypur is a bible for them.” Since Wasseypur, Tripathi has been in the family picture of a few lovely films — Masaan, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Newton and the two Fukreys. The most appropriate way of describing his acting is that he enlivens the scenes he’s in — he reminds you of the colourful people you know in real life.
Because Tripathi isn’t a small actor, there are no small roles for him. “I have now realised that if you’re an honest and truthful actor, you will be noticed even with four other people in the frame. It takes time, but it happens. I’m at that stage where I want to do good roles. It has taken me 20 years to earn the trust of the people (the audience). So, I want to be careful [with my choices].”
We end our conversation with masala chai, in which time his charismatic wife, Mridula, joins us, and tells me their love story. They’d met at a cousin’s wedding in 1993; he was in the 11th standard, she was in the ninth standard; he was living in Patna, while she was from Kolkata. This was a time before cell phones, and yet he courted her for 11 years, before locking it down in 2004. She says, “[Over the 11 years], I had placed several obstacles in his path. But he had decided [on me].” There’s a beat, and then she says, “He’s received everything in life after some struggle. But, once he gets them, they don’t leave him.”
TRIPATHI’S ICONIC ROLES
l Sultan in Gangs of Wasseypur
l Sadhyaji in Masaan
l Narottam Mishra in Bareilly Ki Barfi
l Aatma Singh in Newton