ETimes caught up with the actor for an exclusive interview where he got candid about all his ups and downs in showbiz, mentors who guided him through this, his films and all the accolades and love he has received so far. Excerpts from the interview…
Two National Awards, a Padma Shri, and many other accolades in your 26-year-old career, what do these recognitions mean to you?
Thank you very much. But all this only means that I have been doing work in the right direction. It only reassures me that I have chosen the right path. I just have to keep moving on in the same direction. I don’t take awards very seriously. If it comes my way, I accept it humbly. However, looking at it all the time is not really in my nature at all. For me, tomorrow will be a new day, new work, and a new character. And challenges will always be there to do justice to the demands of the character and the vision of the director.
Do you remember the exact age while growing up when the acting bug bit you? How old were you?
I think I was in fourth or fifth standard when the acting bug bit me. Movies have always fascinated me. When the first time I went on the stage to recite a poem, written by Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan ji, I was blown over by the applause my teachers and audience gave me after my recitation. That is when I realised that I was meant for this. Obviously then I didn’t know about the challenges and difficulties one has to face but from that moment on, I have never looked back in terms of my ambition. The excitement of being on stage, more than being an actor, I always carried on with me after that.
You have received praise for your versatility. You have played everything from the main lead to supporting roles to the bad guy. How would you describe your journey with these characters?
Even if it has been, I have never been aware of it. When you are looking at your goal, you have to remove all the roadblocks. And the only way to be able to do that is to be skilled enough. You should know your craft so well that when you get your first opportunity, you do it so well that people start looking at you.
With all this insider-outsider and nepotism debate going around, I always felt that if I start thinking about it too much, it will pull me down. The sheer thought of it will bring me down. I kept on moving towards what I wanted to do. I had to put in extra work to learn the skill, attend workshops, and do theatres.
Also, the path that I chose was complete off-mainstream. It is the area where you don’t have these kinds of problems because there is no nepotism, no insider-outsider talks. It is the area where if you are good at your job, people will appreciate you and your work. I was very lucky to have got the opportunity to work with Shekhar Kapur, Ram Gopal Varma, and others. All these directors who had the vision of getting new actors, making new kinds of films, touching new subjects and these are the people who revolutionized mainstream cinema. They got the content. They were not dependent on anybody. Rather, they were dependent on their talents. Whether the talents were coming from inside or outside, they never cared. All they were looking for was people who could deliver. I was the lucky one to work with them. Their films have given my career a push.
Does acting come easy to you now? Or do you still have a process that you follow?
Acting as a skill or a craft doesn’t come easy, especially to me. I can’t say that it comes easy to me. I definitely enjoy the process of building the character, putting blood into the flesh and bones. I simply love the fact that I am creating a character that is on the paper and I am giving it a shape of a human. The entire process of giving shape to a written character is a complete high for me. The process itself is very tedious. It takes a toll sometimes and I love that. I love the difficulties I face, mentally, emotionally, and physically while building a character.
How difficult is it to play versatile characters and not repeat your performance?
Doing different types of characters has been a singular goal for me. I never wanted to be stereotyped, especially at a time when experimenting with roles and films meant sure failure. Earlier, it was necessary to get stereotyped to get roles all the time. However, I decided not to succumb to it. I followed my dream of doing versatile roles. Luckily, for me, it paid off. I am proud of all the difficulties I have faced and the way I have overcome them.
How did you deal with failure when films didn’t work?
Films working or not working are not really my way of looking at my work. I have been very clear about it right from the start. Box-office numbers never mattered to me. There are so many films of mine that didn’t do well. But those are the films that created credibility for Manoj Bajpayee, more than the successful films. The film that was very successful might not really be my favourite. There are so many films of mine that faced so many difficulties before it hit the screens, forget about getting the audience to the theatres. 80 percent of my films never got an audience. But those are the films people remember me for. They got me accolades and so much honour. So I look at films from the lens of quality and how much I am proud of my performance or the film I am associated with.
Did you deal with anxiety or any mental health issue, how did you battle those?
Very rarely I felt anxiety on a professional level, other than when I didn’t get selected for the National School of Drama for the first time. That was the time when for over a month I felt a lot of mental pressure or anxiety. After that, professionally, I never felt any kind of compulsion or anxiety. I have been very stubborn about it. Somewhere I was very clear that the only key to everything is hard work and to be highly skilled. My films like ‘Pinjar’ and ‘1971’ didn’t do well at the box office but they got so much acclaim and honour. When I was not getting roles, I was not doing better physically and professionally. My one arm was not moving because of some bone issues. There were so many other problems. You can ask my family, I still never felt down. I rather try to find a solution for it very calmly. That is how I am made and I can’t say that I have to work very hard to be that way. That is how I am – very stubborn and quite resolved all the time.
Take us to the beginning of your journey in Bollywood. How was it when you entered the film industry? What were your thoughts and struggles?
After ‘Bandit Queen’, most of us shifted to Mumbai. Life here was very difficult. At least in Delhi, we were doing theatre. Though we were not getting any money, friends were there to help and feed each other. We were busy with theatres and workshops. We used to be occupied for 15-16 hours a day, forgetting about our financial situations. In Mumbai, however, we didn’t have work. We had no money to eat. We didn’t know where the next food would come from. The initial 4-5 years were not that great. The first three years were very bad, both personally and professionally. There were so many things going on on my personal front, my father was not well, and my family was in need of financial support. I was their eldest son and I had no job here in Mumbai. My sister was about to get married. I used to visit sets of films, offices of directors, and producers. During those days, there were no casting directors. Finding a film was very difficult. I was there doing one or two episodes in some series. I was trying to find a hold to survive in this city. Those were the days I would say were most difficult of my life away from home.
You are an inspiration to many budding and aspiring actors – who do you consider as your idol?
My idols keep changing. When I was growing up, Mr Amitabh Bachchan was the only one who inspired us. Our entire generation was inspired by Mr Bachchan and his films. Then, when I started doing theatres, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Raghubir Yadav inspired me who were very active in theatres. Even Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi ji inspired me. These people were inspiring the way they were approaching their roles and their career. Then Barry John became my ultimate idol. His discipline, focus, and his approach still inspire me. I can proudly say that I am what I am because of Barry John. Directly or indirectly, he inspired me to do good at what I do.
While growing up what were the kinds of films that influenced or shaped your mind?
I watched growing up mostly Amitabh Bachchan’s films. I come from a small village so the district town used to mostly run the re-run of old films. I have seen films of Guru Dutt sahab, Vijay Anand Sahab, Dilip Kumar sahab, Sanjeev Kumar sahab and Bimal Roy. All these people left an impact on my young mind that I wanted to leave that place and go on the path of my dreams.
Unlike other actors, you have carved a different niche for yourself in the industry – you attract a unique set of audience. What do you think connects and attracts your fans to your performance?
I really don’t know what connects people but if put all compliments and feedbacks of people together, I think they like the fact that it is real. Once I was travelling to Delhi and I was at the airport. One elderly gentleman came to me and he said, ‘I like you because I can even smell the sweat of the character you play.’ I felt he was so right. One tries to be a character and this is what goes to the audience. They see themselves in those characters. Somehow, people feel Manoj Bajpayee belongs to their family. They feel I am one of them. I think that maybe the case as to why people give me so much love and admiration.
You have worked with Sushant Singh Rajput in ‘Sonchiriya’. What is your stand on the various conversations it has started in the industry?
At this point in time, I shave stopped talking about Sushant Singh Rajput. Initially, I spoke about him after his tragic demise because I was really shaken up about what happened. Shekhar Kapur ji and I have tried to give proper shraddhanjali in the manner that it should be given and remember Sushant for all the things that he was. I remember all the great things about him. But after that, I feel the whole thing got messed up and vested interest started walking on and I pulled away from all the cacophony and madness. I didn’t want to be part of it.
I wanted to remember Sushant as a very intelligent and hardworking person. He was a brilliant actor. Somebody who has come from a small town, made a big name for himself in a very short span of his career. He was a great guy to work with. I have done ‘Sonchiriya’ with him and I will always cherish that memory of Sushant.
Name one of your films that has a special place in your heart and why?
It is very difficult to name one film. There are too many films. I will always cherish the memory of being a part of ‘Bandit Queen’. It is such a great film that Shekhar Kapur has made. I feel blessed to be directed by him. I have learnt so much from him. He is the only actor’s director that I have worked with. He is an institution. You don’t need to go to any acting class, you just need to sit with him and you get so much to learn from. I even love Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Satya’. Each and every moment of making that film is still alive. ‘Shool’ is another such film or ‘Kaun’ for that matter, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, and ‘Pinjar’. I can never forget how we shot for ‘1971’. All these films will always be very special to me.
We made ‘Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar’ which was Hansal Mehta’s second film. We went through so much to put the film together on the set. There have been so many projects I have been part of and I will always cherish the memory of making those films and getting directed by these great directors.
With content gaining more importance in films and with the growing emergence of OTT platforms – do you think it is the end of star power in Bollywood?
The great thing is as an alternative to the cinema now there is OTT platform but to say that community viewing will go away, I don’t think so. Cinema halls will open, and people will go back to the theatres. You cannot substitute it with any other medium. OTT has its own plus and minuses.
As far as the star system is concerned, it has done more damage than good to the quality and content. Now the young stars are focusing again on the content. When the exhibitors and distributors start concentrating on stars what happens is the quality films and small films start getting step-motherly treatment. My films have faced this. Cinema halls will come back once the COVID days are over.
Whether it is cinema viewing or OTT or TV, people will find their stars. They find their favourites and they become their star. How big those stars will be? Will they be big like the ones we have since COVID-19 came in? I don’t know. I just hope that the star system doesn’t become an obstruction to the new upcoming talents. If people who are in a powerful position start focusing on content and helping the talent then this industry will become healthy and democratic.
There can never be another Manoj Bajpayee. However, is there any actor in Bollywood who has come close to your ideologies and way of acting?
Apart from my seniors, my contemporaries have inspired me a lot. Kay Kay Menon, Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao and others. There are so many new talents like, Jaideep Ahlawat, Abhishek Banerjee, Vikrant Massey, Radhika Apte, Richa Chadha and Prateik Gandhi. I keep learning and getting inspiring from these actors. I look at their performances very closely and try to learn few things from them. Instead of criticizing you have to look at their strength and learn from them.
People who have come close to my ideologies are I would say Kay Kay Menon and Irrfan Khan. We started around the same time. We started when the going was very tough. It used to take months and years for us to do a film of or choice. To used to stick to our convictions and wait for that film to happen. And also, I can even relate to how we managed our lives. Even though we never met, we felt very close to each other even from a distance.
Very little is known about your personal life. How is Manoj as a husband and as a father – as a ‘family man’?
I am as ordinary a family person as I can be. I try to do justice to being a husband and being a father. However, I get scolding from my daughter and my wife for being completely focused on my work. My daughter and my wife are my bosses at home. I humbly listen to them. I try to follow the rules of the house as much as possible. They dictate my life completely. I love them and they are my lifelines.
‘Satya’ completed 22 years earlier this year. You bagged your first national film award for it.
I never anticipate any award. Award for ‘Satya’ did come as a surprise to me. What I feel bad about the awards is that they have lost their credibility and that really saddens me. It is always favouritism at awards. It has completely damaged the morale of creative people. It should not have been the case but it is. I just hope the award shows start working on their credibilities. It is a celebration of entire year’s work for people. Anybody getting it is not the point. The point is, people should feel good about being present there and somehow we have lost it.
Are there people from Bollywood with whom you share a great bond and relationship in your personal life?
I share a great bond with Hansal Mehta, Anubhav Sinha, Apurva Asrani, KK Menon, and many others. I am also close to Makrand Deshpande. He is someone who I always turn to when I have any doubts. Ashish Vidhyarthi is also close to me. Neeraj Pandey is also someone I go to when I have any questions.
Given your simple nature and humble demeanor, did you ever find it difficult to fit into the ‘celebrity’ image?
I never cared about the ‘celebrity’ image and I don’t do so even now. I want the freedom of moving around. I need the freedom of wearing anything that I like to wear. If there is anything that makes things difficult for me, I don’t look at it. Getting respect for being a celebrity is not acceptable to me. I want respect for the work I do and the person that I am.
Any filmmaker you wish to work with?
I have always wanted to work with Neeraj Pandey and Abhishek Choubey and I got the opportunity. They are such brilliant minds. Apart from them, I am fascinated by the new generation directors. They have grown up watching work cinema and heir idea of filmmaking is very different. I would like to work with Vasan Bala, Vetrimaran, and many others. I have a big list of people I want to work with.
If you had to go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice what would it be?
The one piece of advice that I would like to give my younger self is not to lose cool. Till a few years back, I was a very angry person. I think I have grown up very hard on my anger. I am 80 percent calm now. The anger is still there but it has been channelised. Now, I know when I am angry and how to control it. Anger is about world not being fair in so many aspects. I see so many ridiculous things going on when I am on Twitter. I feel angry. I accept that feel so much anger. Now I know how to move away from unnecessary venting out. I put myself to good use and work on things in the right direction.
Tell us something about your upcoming film, ‘Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari’. What is that attracted you to this movie?
‘Suraj pe Mangal Bhari’ is going to be a film you have never seen me doing. My character shows an aspect of Manoj Bajpayee that people have never seen. It was a great experience working under the direction of Amit Sharma. Working alongside Diljit Dosanjh, Annu Kapoor, Fatima Sana Shaikh. It is not a slapstick comedy. People will love it. Families will love watching this film together.
This is the type of comedy film I always wanted to be part of. I just hope that people like it. The report that is filtering in is quite inspiring from the makers.
How was your experience working with Diljit Dosanjh and Fatima Sana Shaikh?
Diljit Dosanjh is a super star in Punjabi industry. He is approached to do roles that are very different from any other actor that I have seen. He improvises a lot. His mind is always ticking. He is always on his toes. He turned a scene upside down and I was quite impressed by it. It is great to be working with actors who are able to give new meaning to a scene.
Fatima is very hard working. She has worked on the body language, the accent and the language. She completely surrendered to the role. It was great to work with both of them.