The day I met Manoj Bajpayee, Mumbai was half-submerged underwater, thanks to the rain gods being extra happy. I had to wade my way through thigh-high water, muck, stuck automobiles, never moving traffic and one good souled bike rider who decided to drop me to the interview venue. Manoj who stays at the other end of the city had already reached the venue and was all revved up to talk about a new chapter, his debut into the brand new world of web series, The Family Man. He plays a spy who on one hand is trying to save the country and on the other, he wants to do the best he can for his family. In the last 26 years, Bajpayee has slowly carved a niche for himself with roles like Bhiku Mhatre (Satya), Inspector Samar Pratap Singh (Shool),Veerendra Pratap (Raajneeti), Sardar Khan (Gangs of Wasseypur), Ramchandra Siras (Aligarh), DIG Ajay Shergill (Baaghi 2) and DCP Shivansh Rathod (Satyameva Jayate). Starting off with smaller roles, his longevity proves his talent. In a freewheeling chat, he talks about winning the Padmashri, going to the National School of Drama and how shooting a web show is a tedious task.

 

You recently turned 50 and completed 26 years as an actor. How do you look back at your life?

It has been a roller-coaster ride. When I was shooting for Bandit Queen (1993) I never really had a concrete goal in my mind. I was doing theatre in Delhi back then and was so immersed there that I didn’t want to leave it. Not that theatre was paying me much, but I realized that moving to Mumbai would mean a couple of things. First, it was leaving my base in Delhi. By then, I had crossed my teenage years and a fear had set in. At the age of 18-19, you feel that you can win the world. But I was 27, and I had already spent ten years in Delhi building a base for myself. Also, it was clear that the Mumbai film industry, in those days, didn’t have anything to offer to an actor like me. So, when I finally moved to Mumbai after Bandit Queen, I was very scared. The city wasn’t that welcoming. I went through a bad patch. Back then there was no concept of casting directors and wherever I went to get some work, people were only shooting songs. If they were shooting scenes, you weren’t even allowed near the camera, or for that matter, you weren’t allowed to enter the studio. It was a different time altogether, I could only see myself as the hero’s brother, or if I got lucky, a big villain. Then I got Satya — my first taste of success — and it was phenomenal. But, I was clear that I wouldn’t waste this success by doing anything and everything just to earn money, and rather it would be my stepping stone for something bigger. I waited and went through a complete grind. Irrfan [Khan] came much after me, though he was active on television, then Kay Kay Menon came immediately. Check out the biggest stars of today. They are finding it difficult to do conventional projects. They are also looking for different content. Also, the new directors keep on churning out new ideas with different and unique actors. For me, everything happened for the better after Satya, and loads of credit goes to Ram Gopal Varma.

How does Padma Shri Manoj Bajpayee sound?

We are officially not allowed to use it as a prefix with our names but winning it is such an honour, and that too without lobbying for it or trying. When you think of it, you believe that there is God looking at you, telling you He will take care of you. I don’t think it can get any bigger than winning a Padma Shri.

You will be seen in your first-ever web series, The Family Man, on Amazon Prime Video. What made you take up the project?

I really liked the relatability the show was offering. My character, Srikant Tiwari, is a spy, but he is also a family man who has trouble maintaining a balance between work and personal life with his wife and kids. That apart, I was very aware of what I will not do. There is a certain pattern which every show of this genre is following, be it India or abroad. I didn’t want to be a part of that pattern. I was looking for something that is unique, relatable and very much me. Srikant is me, he is you — he is everyone. So when Raj and DK narrated the concept to me, I was completely sold. They have done some amazing work in the past so I didn’t need to worry about their credentials.

After seeing the show, one of the many things that stood out was your friendship with Sharib Hashmi’s character.

Your colleagues are the people you spend most of your time with, after your family. They understand your tantrums and your mood swings better than your family. My idea was that Sharib’s character should be my alter ego. That is why I have created a back story for our friendship, and this is why you see a certain ease in our interactions. Sharib, being the fantastic actor that he is, he never gave me a chance to relax. He always had me on my toes.

As an actor, you’ve done stage, TV, films and now a web series. Do different mediums require different approaches as an actor?

Not really, acting is the same. I’ve never changed my approach. With web, the thing is, it gives you a lot of time to explore a character in detail. A film is two or two and a half hours long. There a director calls “cut” or editors cut off the scene and important silences are taken out, but web gives you the space to indulge. Also, we have to shoot a lot of scenes in a day for a web series. It is very tedious.

Even after mastering all mediums, do you think you are still fighting for relevance?

The fight for relevance is taken care of if you are constantly trying to evolve. Evolution is very important for every individual, so, if you, as a person, are living in the past, then there is no evolution. From childhood, it has been a personality trait that I never speak about my past and that has saved me. I’m always present. Staying relevant to the younger generation is not important – staying relevant to yourself is more important.

You made a statement some time back saying, ‘I’ve made a career out of flop films’. What made you make that statement?

I still stand by my statement. I’ve done 65- 68 films and only 8 have been hits. But I’m still respected and celebrated.

But that also means that you are beyond hits and flops.

Actually I would like to thank the directors who still decided to make films with me [laughs]. They made sure, in the end, that I also win a Padma Shri. Jokes apart, I always went after the script. I never took a calculated step. I still feel all my films have gotten me this far.

You recently went back to the National School of Drama to teach. How was the experience of teaching at a place which rejected you multiple times?

I couldn’t get into NSD, which is pure bad luck for me, but I still regard it as one of the best institutes in the world. People who get admission there are very lucky. Tomorrow, if my daughter decides to act and wants to be part of NSD, I will really help her in preparing for it. It is a great institute and getting invited to teach there is a matter of privilege.

Do you have any regrets regarding your career?

I wish I came into the industry now…

And who has paved the way for you?

Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal.

So, what’s next for you?

I don’t know, I have not taken up any project as of now. But there are these four projects which I developed and I’m setting up those projects. So, most likely I will start shooting on one of these projects. In the meantime, I have already completed another web series called Mrs. Serial Killer directed by Shirish Kunder with Jacqueline Fernandez.