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It Feels Great to Have Plenty of Roles to Choose From- Manoj Bajpayee

To me, success is defined by the choices that I am getting to play different kinds of challenging roles in different kinds of films in
Manoj Bajpayee Interview
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If he passes you by on the street, chances are you will walk on without a second glance. But that exactly is Manoj Bajpeyee, the ‘ordinary’ man who has given the word ‘ordinary’ a new definition. He won the National Award for Best Actor for his outstanding performance in Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle, and as Best Supporting Actor for his work in Satya and a Special Jury Award for Pinjar. He is right now in the news for his brilliant portrayal of the undercover agent in two series of The Family Man, followed by the OTT series Ek Banda Kafi Hai and now, Joram directed by Devashish Makhija; it is doing the festival rounds. If one were to list all the awards he has won over the past 24 years, this interview will never get written. So, let us bypass these and get down to his one-to-one.

 

Shoma: Your roles are always out-of-the-box in films that are also out-of-the-box even if they are mainstream. What kind of homework/research do you put in for your roles?

Manoj: Preparation for any role is a very personal thing for every actor as the director cannot be there all the time. I do my preparation entirely on my own for every role. I read the script, take down notes and keep reading the script again and again. I need to shoot the next day and discuss it with my director till we both come to a conclusion which is completely in sync with the vision of the director. Actually, reading the script is a never-ending process which goes on and on for me. But finally, it all boils down to how you are going to portray it in front of the camera. You cannot be a different character from one to the next scene though the emotions may differ. You need to add and subtract from what you have prepared  and then do the blocking with the help of the director. Physical and mental preparation is a must for each and every role you do in each and every film.

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Shoma: How much research did you need to do to learn about the Tamil Eelam politics for your role in The Family Man?

Manoj: More than documentary and academic research on the politics of Tamil Eelam, a lot of mental preparation was demanded and I prepared my own notes to follow the character’s emotional graph, where he comes from, the conflict he had to face at home and beyond. He had to be like a man holding sand in his fist and seeing the sand slipping away through his fingers while he watched helplessly. He is not particularly happy in his job and has no clue how to get his family together and is an emotionally troubled person when he lands in Chennai. 

Manoj Bajpayee in The Family Man
Manoj Bajpayee in The Family Man

Shoma: But there must have been some expert to help you with the political backdrop in Tamil Nadu during the ethnic conflict?

Manoj: My go-to person was one Suman Kumar who is from Bangalore. He was one of the main writers of the series and he has amazing knowledge about the geopolitics of any place and the others were the director duo Raj and DK who are quite well-read themselves and well-versed with the political happenings right across the country. We would exchange notes about everything that was there in the script. We discussed it from every perspective and everything was done in accordance with their research and their knowledge. I had to consolidate all this and pour them into my performance. I did the same for Sirf Ek Banda Kafi Hai and Bhonsle and so on.

Shoma: How much do you depend on rapport with your co-actors?

Manoj: For me, as an actor, it is very important to be very friendly with my co-actors. I collaborate with them on an equal footing to create something unique. If I am comfortable, it boosts my confidence to act in front of everyone. It is really easy to surprise your directors and your co-actors with the spontaneity of your performance. I need a very cordial atmosphere on the sets to give my best so a very good comfort zone is essential.

Shoma: What difference do you find between acting in a feature film and acting in a web series?

Manoj: The only difference is that for a series you know that it does not end, it does not wrap up and it just goes on and on. This is very challenging because as an actor, you cannot afford to forget what your character was in the first series. When you come back to it, it is also long. Working in nine episodes is like working in three films so the preparation that you do at home is the same as you do for a play or a photo session or a film. But for an OTT series, the difference is that it demands you to explore every dimension of the character you are playing. This gives me a big high as I love inventing and experimenting and exploring the character I am portraying over a given span of time. 

as an actor, it is very important to be very friendly with my co-actors. I collaborate with them on an equal footing to create something unique. If I am comfortable, it boosts my confidence to act in front of everyone. It is really easy to surprise your directors and your co-actors with the spontaneity of your performance. I need a very cordial atmosphere on the sets to give my best

Shoma: What does it feel like, winning the National Award for Best Actor  in Bhonsle? 

Manoj: The thrilling part is that the award comes like a crown on top of all the awards the film has been gathering for the last couple of years. I also won the Critics Award for Best Actor for the same film. And we did it under severely constricting financial circumstances. It was a crowd-funded film which I co-produced along with Piyush Singh, Abyanand Singh, Saurabh Gupta and Sandip Kapoor. I was worried that a talented director like Devashish Makhija was struggling for four years to make this film. I felt it was a film that  got to be made and so it did get made. I am also happy because a film like Bhonsle got to be made in a country like India which also brought me another award for Aligarh. What else can an actor wish for? You decide to celebrate and work harder on your next film. At the same time, let me add that an award does not change your life but it does propel you to do better. It comes after a long wait when the awards ignored me for Gangs of Wasseypur, Aligarh and Budhia Singh at the National Awards but even if it comes late, its worth no less for an actor like me.

Shoma: How detached or internalised are you with the characters you play?

Manoj: Over the years, it has become quite easy for me to keep myself detached from the character of the film I am a part of. This helps me to move on and start getting involved in the next project when the present one is wrapped up. I may also take a break and spend some time at home or do my own thing. These days, it is much easier for me than it was before to really get away from my earlier film and begin preparing for the next.

Manoj bajpayee in Aligarh
Manoj bajpayee in Aligarh

Shoma: How do you define the kind of success you have achieved and the affluence it has brought into your personal life?

Manoj: I really do not think about my profession in terms of success or affluence  or the number of cars or the plush home I acquire or have access to. To me, success is defined by the choices that I am getting to play different kinds of challenging roles in different kinds of films in recent years. It is great to be in a position where you have plenty of roles and films to choose from. This is what success means to me. The rest of the things come as perks  and fringe benefits and I welcome this completely. Money of course is very important but it is equally important to know and experience that life is full of choices for you to accept or reject.

Shoma: Tell us something about your new film Joram.

Manoj: Broadly, the film is a political thriller which deals with the politics of development and displacement in a brutal landscape. Since Devashish Makhija’s films are quintessentially character-driven, ‘Joram’ also takes its title from the name of an Adivasi girl— the infant daughter of Dasru and Vaano. Dasru, the adivasi character I play,  is on the run with the infant Joram right through the film. It is filled with action which underlines the cost of development  using metaphors wherein Joram, the character, stands for  the legacy of this earth, of Nature under threat, raising some very pertinent questions about man destroying Nature by design or circumstantially. 

Shoma: It took you a long journey of struggles and pitfalls and sidelining to arrive where you now have. Can you mention your favourite films you have acted in till now?

Manoj: I would love to remember Satya, Pinjar, Gangs of Wasseypur, Gulguliyan, Rajneeti, Zubeida, Aligarh and Bhonsle. There are more but these are the ones that come to mind immediately.

Images courtesy: Twitter

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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