'When a film tells a powerful story, we have to agree to take a cut in our salaries': Manoj Bajpayee

When a film tells a powerful story, we have to agree to take a cut in our salaries: Manoj Bajpayee

It's been nearly two decades since Manoj Bajpayee's riveting performance in Satya. Khalid Mohamed meets the gifted actor to find out what has really changed - about the film industry and his choice of films - in all these years

Published: Thu 25 Jan 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 28 Jan 2018, 12:19 PM

Twenty years after his breakthrough, award-winning performance as the mercurial gangster Bhiku Mhatre in Satya, the 48-year-old actor is in an upbeat zone. Straddling the worlds of both unconventional and mainstream cinema, he hasn't lost an iota of that newcomer's zeal to shine a light in roles that vary from the intense to the featherlight. In fact, whenever a new film of his is ready to go, Manoj Bajpayee exudes a sense of wonderment - "Hey, is that me, a boy from a small town of Bihar, up there on the screen?" This guilelessness also sets him apart from a majority of contemporary actors who assent to interviews that are closely monitored by their PR agents.
Which is why when I meet the actor, after years, at a studio, there are no off-the-record statements, no ducking of questions, no predilection for projecting a squeaky-clean image. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Can you honestly claim that at any point of time during the last two decades you have topped your tour de force performance in Satya?
There has never been any intention to top any performance. I've always looked for strong roles and attempted to do justice to them. Some have been of the same calibre, some have been more evolved than that of Bhiku Mhatre. I think Pinjar (2003) was my career best. I'm also extremely proud of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Aligarh (2016). Earlier, there was Raajneeti (2010), which made me understand the craft of speech to accentuate the oratory skills of the character I was enacting. I'm afraid very few actors work on their speech, dialogue pitch and dialect nowadays.
It's tragic. Ever since the 1990s, no one speaks Hindi, no one has knowledge of Hindustani (a blend of Hindi and Urdu). Even assistants on the sets speak in English. Scripts are no longer written in Devanagari. Whenever I ask for a script in Hindi, I get a strange reaction, as if a mad dog has bitten me.
Who reads scripts? The Bollywood custom is that actors have to be given a long-winded narration.
Believe it or not, the actor you're looking at right now reads scripts.
Aren't you sorely disappointed when socially purposeful, small-budget films of yours - like Rukh (2017) and Budhia Singh: Born to Run (2016) - don't get their due?
See Rukh and Budhia were ultra-intense, dramatic and targeted at a niche audience. Today, there are far more avenues ­- satellite and streaming channels, especially - to get back a film's investment and decent profits. Contrary to popular belief, small films don't lose money at all. There has to be a spirit of idealism among the actors and technicians. When a film is made with the aim of telling a powerful story, we have to happily agree to take a cut in our salaries. However, if I'm cast in a big-budget, fun film like Baaghi 2, with Tiger Shroff in the lead, I expect to be paid in accordance with the project's overall budget.
Does every actor not come with a price tag? Corporates bankroll films in accordance to a star's market equity.
True, but what can an artiste do? We're thick-skinned rhinos. Mercifully, being the kind of person and actor I am, there's no greed for money. As long as my family and I can live comfortably, the role matters more than the pay packet. The most expensive thing I've ever bought is the apartment we live in. I don't shop for expensive gifts for my wife (actress Neha). If I were to buy her jewellery or perfume, she'd think I've gone crazy. In any case, she doesn't approve of my taste in such things.
You've acted in approximately 70 films till now. How many of them were, let's say, awful?
At least 20 of them were awful. I wouldn't name the films because these were choices made out of needs and circumstances, to run the kitchen. I've been a responsible father to our six-year-old daughter but not as hands-on as I could have been. I hope to rectify that.
Currently, you're gung ho about the upcoming Aiyaary, directed by Neeraj Pandey.
Neeraj is fastidious about his script and technique. Like me, he isn't the sort who hangs around in social circles to be seen at the right place at the right time. He tells important stories in a way that reaches out to a wider audience.
That sounds like Ram Gopal Varma of yore.
Not at all. There's a difference of 360 degrees between them. Ramu is unpredictable, you can never figure out what's going on in his mind. Neeraj is very organised, precise and in harmony with his actors. There are no last-minute arguments on his sets. If any actor wants a clarification, that's discussed and resolved at the scripting stage.
A phalanx has emerged of game-changing actors led by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi. Is the competition heating up?
How can you say that? We belong to different age-groups. They can't do my roles, neither can I do theirs. I can't imagine myself in Newton or Trapped. While acting with Rajkummar Rao in Aligarh and Chittagong (2012), I could see he is a committed actor. Nawazuddin has his own distinct persona. I'm particularly proud of Pankaj Tripathi. Both of us are from Bihar, where family pressures are such that you cannot even dream of becoming an actor and parents hope that their children will grow up to become bank officers, district magistrates or police officers. Had I not left home, I'd have become a farmer, who is content being at home with his elders, wife and four children.

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