There comes a moment in every talented actor’s career when he shakes the world with his performance in a film that deserves our attention. Manoj Bajpayee is that actor right now and Aligarh is the film.
This is not the first time that Bajpayee, 46, has stormed cinema theatres with his performances. But somehow, we have always taken his talent for granted. Maybe that’s because he’s been around for almost 20 years. Maybe it’s because he’s quiet and keeps to himself.
With Aligarh, however, there is no way we can’t sit up and take notice of him – afresh. Not only has Bajpayee dared to take on the role of a gay professor in a mainstream film about homosexuality, the film also comes at a time when the debate around the decriminalisation of Section 377 is at its most furious. On February 2 this year, the Supreme Court referred the matter to a five-judge Constitution Bench for an in-depth hearing.
Aligarh is based on the true story of a 64-year-old gay professor of Marathi in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. In February 2010, two men pushed their way into his home and filmed him having sex with a rickshaw-wallah. Siras was suspended from AMU but took the matter up to the Allahabad High Court. He won the case but was found dead soon after in mysterious circumstances.
Director Hansal Mehta has taken this story and woven it into a tender, heartbreaking tale. And Bajpayee, who plays Siras, has imbued his role with such moving dignity that you feel tears pricking your eyes as you watch the movie. His diffident body language as he sits hunched on a chair, hands holding – or almost clutching – the bag in his lap. The almost shy pleasure in his eyes when he poses for a selfie with Deepu Sebastian (Rajkumar Rao), the journalist who brings his story to the world.
“Siras is a poet,” says Bajpayee. “He is a professor of literature. He finds beauty and colour even in a dark room. He’s happy within his four walls, listening to Lata Mangeshkar, having his two pegs of whisky [more about that scene later]. But even that is disallowed to him.” Siras was hounded out of his university accommodation and then again when he took private lodgings. In the film, there are scenes of him sitting in his cramped room, hemmed in by piles of unpacked boxes, after altercations with prejudiced landlords.
We are sitting in Bajpayee’s hotel room in Delhi. As he leans back on the white sofa sipping tea, he exudes a gentle, understated charm. (He is also that rarity in Bollywood – an intelligent, thinking actor, a dramatic change from most Bollywood stars with their meaningless prattle about “my role is very challenging, it has many shades.”)
Initially I struggle to associate this soft-spoken man with the powerful roles he has done on screen whether it is the grim cop of Shool or the menacing Sardar Khan of Gangs of Wasseypur. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra, who recommended Bajpayee to Hansal Mehta for the role of Siras, says, “Manoj’s most unique quality is that he cannot be typecast. You never know how he will perform. You can mimic any actor in the film industry. But you can never mimic Manoj.”
The cherubic-looking Mehta, director of critically acclaimed realistic films such as Shahid (2012) and CityLights (2014), says he was hesitant to call Bajpayee himself for the role of Siras. “I didn’t want Manoj to feel any pressure to accept the role,” he says. “He’s an old friend of mine, I’ve known him for 22 years [the two worked together as director-actor in a 2000 film, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!]. But 10 minutes after Mukesh called him, Manoj phoned me and began abusing me. ‘How did you assume I wouldn’t want to do this film?’ he said.”
On his part, Bajpayee says he was ready for a role that would give him “a new lease of life.” And he knew that Mehta would do full justice to Aligarh.
It never occurred to Bajpayee to worry about how audiences would react to him playing a homosexual. He says he’s never looked for approval in his life. “And as a creative, democratic, liberal person I believe in equality, in an individual’s right to privacy, right to life,” he declares.
I ask Bajpayee how difficult it was to play the physically intimate scenes between him and the rickshaw-wallah. Bajpayee pauses only for a few seconds before replying: “I am 100 per cent heterosexual. So initially doing those touchy-feely scenes did make me very uncomfortable. My cameraman noticed. He then said something to me which took away all my discomfort. He said people spend their whole life living a lie when they can’t come out in society. Imagine how uncomfortable it must be for them. For you it’s just a matter of an hour.”
Aligarh is special also because it does not stereotype homosexuals. Neither is it an ‘activist’ film. Nor is it arthouse. It communicates its message – of the need for homosexuals to have the right to privacy and freedom – through the emotional story of a vulnerable older man. As the ebullient Aligarh writer Apurva Asrani says, “The character is not in conflict with the system. Even when the activists come to him, the man is a little uncomfortable.”
Asrani has known Bajpayee since his Satya days (Asrani edited the film) and says that he saw his father reflected in Siras: “Manoj made him paternal, dignified, with that loneliness.” He remembers a particular scene in the film where Siras is sitting in his room drinking and listening to Lata Mangeshkar singing Aap ki nazaron ne samjha. Siras is lost in the song, and his hands move delicately, almost to a rhythm. It was a two-line description in the script, says Asrani, but Bajpayee transformed it into what director Hansal Mehta calls “one of the top cinematic moments of my film career.”
Mehta, once he began shooting the scene, found he couldn’t stop. No one on the set could move. Because Bajpayee had created such a mesmerising aura. The sequence is almost three-and-a-half minutes long. “You couldn’t leave a beat out,” says Asrani. Mehta says his cameraman Satya Rai Nagpaul who is a transgender, also added to the scene by shooting it in a deeply atmospheric way.
This magic is part of a talent that Bajpayee has nurtured and honed over the years. He was obsessed with acting from when he was a child, growing up in a large family in a village in Champaran, Bihar. At 17, he left home for Delhi to join the National School of Drama (NSD). He told his father, a farmer, that he was going to get admission in Delhi University and simultaneously study for the UPSC exam. “I didn’t want to tell my family about my dream because I feared a backlash from my parents and society. Actors were considered bhaands.”
He got off the train in Delhi and instantly felt at home. There was no sense of dislocation – an oft-cited emotion of boys coming to Delhi from small towns in Bihar. “Delhi has a fantastic character,” says Bajpayee. “It is a big city but it also has the character of rural India because it’s surrounded by villages. That’s why I love this city.” This was the late ’80s and Delhi was less crowded; it still had a certain languid charm. The only thing that fazed him was seeing girls in saris and salwar kameezes running after DTC buses and pushing people to clamber in. But Delhi’s big city vibe did not rattle him one bit – “I think I was born a liberal, modern, progressive person.”
He joined Satyawati College and met Shamsul Islam, then a professor of political science there, who introduced the greenhorn Bajpayee to street theatre and the art of reading. Islam remembers Bajpayee coming to the office of his theatre group, Nishant Natya Manch, in Model Town, armed with a bag and a desire to act. “He was welcomed and told about Nishant’s work, that we do theatre not for theatre’s sake but also to raise pro-people issues. It was mandatory for members of Nishant to study Indian/world literature and Manoj realised soon that to become a good actor one has to know society in depth.” Islam recalls Bajpayee reading voraciously, from Muktibodh and Premchand to Gorky and Chekhov.
Bajpayee moved to Ramjas College but continued with theatre. He also concentrated on learning English (“I always thought it was the weapon to go ahead”), correcting his “warped” Hindi and Urdu (“I didn’t know either properly since my mother tongue was Bhojpuri”). Indeed, the next eight years in Delhi were intense and deeply formative.
Unfortunately, he never managed to get into NSD, and that was a source of bitter disappointment to him. But perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, because instead, he met the doyen of theatre in Delhi at the time, Barry John, who ran the vibrant and influential Theatre Action Group (TAG). Bajpayee began doing theatre with him, eventually moving into a teaching role in John’s Theatre in Education (TIE) venture. “Barry changed me,” says Bajpayee. “There is Manoj before Barry and Manoj after Barry. He was my second father in the city.”
When Bajpayee showed Aligarh to his theatre mentor, John was in tears watching his performance and wrote him a long email. “That mail was like my Padma Shri,” says an emotional Bajpayee.
In Delhi, his days were packed. From 7 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon, he worked with TIE (for which he got a proper salary; for the first time he was earning money). After that he would go to Mandi House, Delhi’s theatre hub, and work with his own theatre group, Act One. The roll call of plays with which Bajpayee was associated in those years is impressive: Netua, Jab Shehar Hamara Sota Hai, Baghdad ka Ghulam, Suno Re Kissa, Uljhan etc.
“I was so focused, I was branded stubborn and boring,” laughs Bajpayee. “I was the kind of person who would get drunk, not to enjoy himself, but to sleep.”
But the Delhi chapter of his life ended abruptly when he got a break to play the role of daku Man Singh in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994). Kapur gave Bajpayee and some of his other theatre friends a severe talking-to. “He told us that we were living a dangerous life,” recalls Bajpayee. “We were doing theatre but not earning money. What would become of us? He encouraged us to move to Mumbai and look for work in films.”
Bajpayee took Kapur’s advice and shifted to Mumbai. He, along with actor Saurabh Shukla, rented a room in a chawl in DN Nagar in Andheri. But ironically, though he had made the move to Mumbai for a better life, the next three years were the most miserable years of his existence. There was no work, no money. On one particular day, he remembers, he was rejected thrice – for a TV series, a corporate film, and a short film.
He decided to get out of the cycle of rejection and frustration by planning his day. “I would plan what I would do every day,” he says. “Say, in the morning I would call directors for work. In the afternoon, I would go to Film City. And so on. It made me feel good about myself. I also decided that if nothing happened, I would return to Delhi.”
At the end of 1995, he got a role in TV show Swabhimaan. A little money began coming in regularly. And then he landed a role in a film that not only changed his fortunes, but also introduced a compelling new directorial talent and altered the course of the Hindi film industry. The role was that of Mumbai gangster Bhiku Mhatre in Ramgopal Verma’s path-breaking Satya. Verma had never forgotten the character of Man Singh in Bandit Queen: he particularly remembered the look in Bajpayee’s eyes.
Satya came out in 1998. It was a time of Govinda and David Dhawan comedies like Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, and potboilers such as Salaakhen and Gharwali Baharwali. Satya brought in a new grammar of cinema – nobody had seen the kind of gritty realism in a gangster film before. And Bajpayee stole the film from under everyone’s nose with his portrayal of the flamboyant Bhiku Mhatre, who went on to become a cult character. Bajpayee had decided to give his character a Kolhapuri accent, for which his bai became his guide. “Even today when I go to the interiors of Maharashtra, people talk to me in Marathi because they remember me as Bhiku Mhatre,” he says.
But perhaps Satya was ahead of its time. And perhaps an actor of Bajpayee’s calibre was also ahead of his time. He was sandwiched between the glory days of parallel cinema of the 1970s which made minor gods out of fine actors like Naseeruddin Shah, and the indie wave of the last few years which has revolved around celebrated performers such as Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Indeed, Bajpayee could be said to have paved the way for the acceptance and success of actors like Khan and Siddiqui.
But after the stupendous success of Satya (Bajpayee won a National Award for it), all that the Hindi film industry could offer him was the role of the villain. He didn’t want that. He wanted to make it as an ‘actor.’
But he will always remain grateful to Ramgopal Verma. “I consider myself his protégé,” he says. “In that hardcore commercial era, he took a guy like me in a film like Satya. It was his belief, his conviction in me.”
Over the last 18 years, Bajpayee has sometimes almost faded away from viewers’ consciousness, and sometimes burst into that very same consciousness with searing performances. There was the formidable, principled-to-a-fault inspector Samar Pratap Singh in Shool (1999), set in Motihari in Bihar. Samar Pratap was, as Bajpayee points out, Inspector Vijay of Zanjeer (1973) gone horribly wrong. He literally goes mad in the end – because he loses everything. “Shool troubled me. I didn’t smile throughout the film, not even for a bit,” says Bajpayee. “It bruised me mentally.”
He changed the approach to his work with Pinjar (2003), an impressive Partition-themed film set in Pakistan, directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi, where he played a Muslim man, Rashid, who abducts a Hindu woman and falls in love with her. Bajpayee abandoned his habit of immersing himself in his roles so deeply that he often felt close to breaking point. With Pinjar, he decided he would not get “into” characters. He would do his roles with commitment, but methodically, almost surgically.
Pinjar was close to him also because it was based on a novel by Amrita Pritam that Bajpayee thinks is one of the 10 greatest novels in Indian literature. He won his second National Award (Special Jury award) for this role.
In between Satya and Pinjar there were other startling turns, such as the evil killer of Aks or the elegant maharaja of Zubeidaa (both 2001). Later, there were strong performances in Prakash Jha’s hard-hitting films Rajneeti (2010, where he played a modern-day Duryodhan) and Aarakshan (2011, where he was a cunning political manipulator).
But the big beep on the radar came with Bajpayee’s masterful performance as Sardar Khan in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur I (2012). Bajpayee’s take on Sardar Khan is interesting: “I saw him first as a womaniser and then as a vengeful gangster. He keeps saying Keh ke loonga but he never takes his revenge. He keeps getting distracted by women. This is what makes Anurag such a fascinating and unpredictable director. You can never guess the second scene or the second shot in an Anurag film.”
Though Bajpayee has known Kashyap for years (Kashyap co-wrote the script of Satya with Saurabh Shukla), there was a period of coolness between them. “Somehow, Anurag felt that I had not supported him enough when he was making his first film Paanch,” says Bajpayee. “It wasn’t true. But he chose to be hurt by me. I knew he was angry with me.”
Then one day Bajpayee got a call from Kashyap at 10 at night about a role. “I told him I was coming over there and then,” says Bajpayee. “I went over to his office and he read the script of Gangs of Wasseypur I to me. When he finished, he looked at me enquiringly. I said, ‘give me a glass of wine.’ And that was it. I love Anurag, I treat him like a younger brother.”
And now it is Aligarh where Bajpayee’s performance has got everyone talking. He says he feels grateful to Hansal Mehta for giving him the role in this significant film. On his part, Mehta is effusive in his praise of Bajpayee: “You realise he is one of the country’s best actors, not just of the last few years or of his time, but of all eras put together. He’s up there with all the great actors of the country. He deserves much more.”
Even as the buzz around Aligarh gets stronger (the trailer has clocked over three million hits), an unusual new 11-minute film, Tandav, has surfaced online, where Bajpayee plays a stressed-out policeman, head constable Tambe, who suddenly has a meltdown and breaks into crazy, impromptu dancing.
With Bajpayee, the surprises never cease. But as the worn-out cliché goes: his best is probably yet to come. In Mukesh Chhabra’s words: “He will break his own record!”
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From HT Brunch, February 21, 2016
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